Workingmums.co.uk speaks to childcare expert Angela Spencer who set up her first nursery in 1993 and has now written a parenting book imparting some of her knowledge about child development.
Angela Spencer has owned and operated children’s nurseries for over 20 years, opening her first in 1993 at the age of 21. She has also just released a new book, Babyopathy, designed to help parents find less stressful, natural ways to raise their child. After neither of her children slept through the night for their first three years, Angela decided to research deeper into child development and everything that can nurture or have an adverse effect on it. This led her to develop a programme on sensory stimulation called Natural Care which she introduced in 2000. She has continued her work on child development and is doing a degree course in early years education and when it is finished, she intends to write her own childcare qualification course as a new standard in professionals caring for the next generation. She spoke to Workingmums.co.uk.
WM: You were very young when you started your first nursery. What prompted you to do that and did you face particular challenges being so young?
Angela: I was working in the personnel department of a large pharmaceutical company and part of my job was visiting our maternity leavers after their babies were born about their return to work (most people returned at 12 weeks if they returned). However, a lot of them didn't return, citing no childcare or family in the area to help them. As my father had always had his own business and I had grown up around that it was just a natural thought to go into business myself. So I did and unfortunately I did find it extremely hard to be taken seriously in the business world because I was young. My local bank manager said to me: 'Go away, you silly girl'. It was tough and I made mistakes, but I was determined to prove him wrong.
WM: What were the main difficulties you faced in starting and growing the business?
Angela: I had great support from my family and the Under 8's Officer (prior to Ofsted), but as far as the local bank and business world – none! The local business world was not open to women and certainly not a 21 year old.
WM: What have been the main changes you have seen in the sector since you started?
Angela: I have seen many changes in the childcare sector over the years. Ofsted was introduced and with it our local support (Under 8's Officer) was abolished. We no longer had quarterly drop-in visits or annual inspections; we now have an inspection every two to three years. We no longer have someone who knows us and our nursery to support us; we have a helpline number. Most of all, I have seen numerous new developmental fads come and go and, in my opinion, get increasingly worse for the children and their development.
WM: You’re doing a degree in early years education. Is there more emphasis on qualifications now and how important is this for the profession?
Angela: No, again there has been too much meddling in the qualifications department. It wasn't broken so why try and fix it? The original NNEB demanded set criteria from the student to be eligible to take the course. Now it's almost a case of 'if you can't do anything else do childcare'. The childcare qualification sector needs a complete overhaul to put the expertise back into the profession. After all, we are responsible for the most important years in a child's life!
WM: How has your business fared through the recession?
Angela: Well, I refuse to compromise on the important things and that keeps our reputation and the word of mouth recommendations. We have had to make some creative savings and we did have to increase our fees once in the last three years, but we are still going strong!
WM: A report out last week talked about a crisis in the system due to the fact that subsidies for three and four year olds don't match the actual cost of care. Is this a concern?
Angela: Yes and this has been the case for a number of years. It was debated at a conference I attended nearly two years ago without successful outcome. The overall system, including the childcare voucher system, is contributing to a struggling sector. If the Government also increase the minimum wage significantly as is also discussed many facilities will close as we do not get any other help or subsidies like we used to. One great help to childcare directly would be to claim back the VAT we have to pay without having to charge it. As it currently stands with three and four year old funding, it does not cover the cost of the place and soon nurseries will be forced to refuse to offer it at all.
WM: How many children do you have and what are their ages?
Angela: I have two children of my own, an 18-year-old daughter and a 15-year-old son.
WM: What prompted you to write Babyopathy, your book on parenting?
Angela: I first researched and wrote the programmes for my nurseries as I was so disillusioned with the Early Years Foundation Stage and all the other Government programmes that we have endured. That was back in 2000 and since then have seen so many parents struggling through bad professional advice and have been asked for advice so many times I decided it was time to put my thoughts out there.
WM: What are the main issues you think parents struggle with?
Angela: Conflicting and sometimes scaremongering information! I have heard some atrocious stories from parents, from being told if they do not breastfeed their baby will have heart disease to advise that children shouldn't have boundaries! Parents need back up and support like the old-fashioned community midwives, someone to say 'you're doing great' and offer some good practical advice.
WM: Is technology becoming an increasing concern?
Angela: Don't get me started on this one! It is of great concern – from physical development issues because babies are in car seats for too long because technology has developed a one seat fits all car/pram/supermarket trolley to sensory overstimulation in babies due to targeted TV/DVD programmes or using iPads to entertain! We are facing developmental regression and I'm shocked I am the only one shouting about it.
WM: How have you managed to build your business alongside bringing up your children? Did they attend one of your nurseries?
Angela: Yes, both my children attended my nurseries and I guess I am very lucky that childcare was my business as I do understand the pressures faced by new parents not only financially but emotionally too. It does have an effect on your working day. The best bit of advice I know is to make the most of the time you do have with your children. Quality is a greater influence than quantity. Like any working mum I have had guilt trips along the way, but I have two beautiful, polite, happy and well adjusted children and that is what counts!
WM: What is a normal working day for you?
Angela: There's no such thing as normal! There is the school run and cooking dinner. In between it is anything goes – research/meetings/staff training/constant business development/phone calls and anything else the business decides to throw at me! In truth with your own business you never stop working and technology makes this even worse! Answering parent emails at 10pm is not unheard of now. In an ideal world I would throw away my iPhone and only work 9 – 5, but then I've always been a fan of fairytales!
*Babyopathy is published by Panoma Press, price £12.99.