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Can parent-partnership and parent-led nurseries help families who want more affordable fees and more involvement in their child’s care?
At Scallywags nursery in east London, you won’t just see parents for a few moments at drop-off and pick-up, as they rush to and from work. You’ll also see them cooking lunch or helping to take children to the park.
Scallywags is one of a small number of nurseries in the UK where parents help out with specific tasks, giving families lower fees and a greater involvement in their child’s care. These nurseries include parent-partnership, parent-led, and cooperative structures.
“It keeps fees down a lot…and [it also] supports the staff to do more things with the children,” Debbie Bull, Scallywag’s manager, says of their parent-partnership structure.
The UK’s patchy and expensive childcare system has been in the spotlight over the past year, with families, campaigners, employers and MPs calling for reform. In response, the government has announced an expansion of its free childcare schemes, to be introduced in stages from next spring – but there are major concerns over how this will work in practice.
For now, families continue to hunt for affordable and high-quality childcare. This is where innovative types of childcare can help, although they cannot replace the need for more government investment in the sector overall.
At Scallywags, every parent does at least two half-day shifts per month and helps out with day-to-day tasks. Food shifts involve cooking meals, while play shifts involve supporting staff with an activity. Parents and staff also share cleaning duties.
Scallywags can thus operate successfully without hiring a chef or a cleaning service, helping to lower costs. The nursery charges £300 per month for five half-days per week, with an additional £10 daily fee for children who stay until 3pm.
There is no government data on the number of parent-led or parent-partnership nurseries per se, but they are usually registered as charities and fall within the “Voluntary” category in official childcare statistics. There are 6500 voluntary settings in England, according to the latest figures from 2022, accounting for almost 11% of all early-years settings.
Staff and parents at these nurseries emphasise that this isn’t merely about money – these set-ups can provide a higher quality of care for children.
“I think it’s more about the fact that we, as a group of parents, can decide what we want to prioritise. For instance we have always worked well above the statutory [staff-to-child] ratios,” says Sue Cowley, who chairs the trustee committee at Stanton Drew and Pensford Pre-school, a parent-led setting in a village near Bristol.
Parent-led nurseries have a slightly different approach to parent-partnerships, with parents often taking on some of the trustee roles that charities require. Trustees are involved in hiring decisions and have overall responsibility for the nursery being financially sustainable.
They do not make day-to-day decisions about children’s activities, meals, and so on, although they can express opinions on such topics. These choices are left to the early-years professionals whom they have hired to run the nursery.
Bull similarly says that Scallywags’ staff can offer children more interesting activities, such as park outings and gardening, because parents doing play shifts provide extra support. Parents also tell her the shifts have boosted their confidence in looking after their kids, while staff learn from working alongside people from different backgrounds and cultures.
“We enjoy the diversity of the group. We remain fresh in our approaches, because we have to, and that’s great,” she says. “We don’t stagnate in our practice.”
However, with nursery closures on the rise overall, it can be hard to sustain this set-up and find parents with time to give. For parent-led nurseries in particular, there can be a vacuum if an engaged set of families leave once their children go to school.
Cowley first got involved with the pre-school 15 years ago, when her children went there, and she still gives her time alongside her career as a teacher-trainer and author. She spends around five hours a week on her committee chair role, although the other trustees mainly just have to attend a committee meeting once a term.
“You can’t pass it on to somebody unless that person is willing to take on [those] levels of responsibility,” she says of her role. “You’re dealing with charity law, you’re dealing with HMRC, and it’s quite a big thing to do if you don’t have the expertise.”
At Scallywags, Bull has found that two half-day shifts a month is doable for many parents, especially for those in jobs that offer flexible hours. But parent-partnership nurseries still need to put time and effort into training parents.
Scallywags provides an induction, shadowing shifts, and folders of concise factsheets, as well as ensuring that all the DBS checks needed have been carried out.
“You have to have the mindset that you want parent involvement because, as joyful as it is, you have to [stay on top of it] all the time, thinking about how you keep it going,” Bull says.
“You’ve got to really want [it] to happen.”