Meet the CEO: Emma Rooney

Briony Richter speaks to Emma Rooney, chief executive of Childbase Partnership about her early years career, the principles that guide the group, and her take on the sector’s future

Tell us about your career in the early years sector and how you came to your current role

I have a degree in early childhood studies, the Early Years Professional Status (EYPS) qualification and over 25 years’ experience in the sector. I developed my operational and business skills in a variety of leadership roles before joining Childbase Partnership in 2012 as a regional director and found a natural home there.

The ‘in it together’ employee ownership business model where colleagues are not only empowered but actively encouraged in decision-making fits in perfectly with my approach to managing people.

After two years as a regional director, during which my dedicated teams exceeded all expectations, I was offered and accepted the role of operations director. I have been chief executive for five years now.

What’s the most challenging aspect of being a chief executive and how have you adapted your leadership style to get the best results?

Maintaining a connection with colleagues as individuals is much harder when there are over 2,300 employee owners in 44 Childbase nurseries from Nottingham to Reading.

Operating in an extremely competitive marketplace, a challenging recruitment sector and being subject to high levels of regulation and government inspection mean the ‘quick fixes’ in improving workplace happiness aren’t always possible.

I want people to enjoy their jobs and ultimately be happy, but I also have to ensure that the business is sustainable and continues to recognise and benefit everyone as owners. That’s a challenge. Visibility and relevant, regular communication have always been a priority for me. Operating throughout the pandemic crystallised my belief that continually honing and developing opportunities for colleagues to engage with me confidently is absolutely vital.

What’s been the most rewarding part of your job?

Seeing the excellent results achieved right across the business by engaged and committed colleagues and how much the achievements mean to everyone personally. We all take enormous pride in excellent parent reviews and Ofsted Outstanding inspection reports.

Equally rewarding is seeing a colleague exceed their own expectations like Kayleigh Phelan who recently gained a distinction in her level 3 qualification. A talented practitioner, but less confident with early years theory, Kayleigh’s potential was recognised, and she was encouraged to study with the Childbase Academy of Excellence. Given the right support, her incredible achievement has given her the confidence to look at further opportunities.

Employee wellbeing initiatives continue to evolve to meet the diverse needs of staff. What programmes at Childbase Partnership are you most proud of?

I’m incredibly proud of both the £8.5 million financial support plan last year which was to combat the cost-of-living crisis and the partnership reward days initiative this year which is based on hours worked in the previous three months, with full-timers getting up to five days extra paid leave in each quarter and pro-rata allocations for others. They both provide a degree of flexibility and choice which is still so lacking across the sector.

In addition to the profit-sharing cash, free meals, feminine hygiene products available in nurseries, and access to discounted shopping introduced last year, colleagues have exclusive access to the NHS-validated app and a team of clinical therapists providing targeted support for everything from how to recognise and effectively manage stress to empowering colleagues to sleep better.

This year we added the Health Assured Employee Programme and its ‘My Healthy Advantage App’, extending the support to colleagues’ immediate family members.

Fundamentally, this recognises that my colleagues’ needs are individual and subject to change, so there isn’t the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to supporting wellbeing.

How do you support and encourage continuing professional development for employees?

At Childbase Partnership we are ambitious for each other, both professionally and personally, and committed to creating environments that enable everyone to thrive.

The Childbase Academy of Excellence, with a brilliant and experienced team of trainers, offers a wide range of qualification courses which are easily accessed and promoted to encourage engagement. The success rates are excellent, and way above the national average.

We also have reward payments on completion of any relevant qualification, and support colleagues with funding to complete qualifications not provided by the Academy. Upskilling colleagues is always high on my agenda.

Two examples would be a training session on the Scandinavian approach – ‘Hygee in Early Years’ – requested by two practitioners of the ‘Brilliant Babies’ training session provided by an external specialist. The response to the latter training, which was only offered to colleagues in four nurseries as a trial, was so positive that the sessions are now offered company-wide and interest in the range of courses available has increased.

The relationship between Ofsted and providers has had its strained moments. What improvements would you like to see in inspections?

Inspections are just one day every four-to-six years, when our colleagues have the opportunity to showcase the amazing work they do on each of the remaining workdays in the year. I believe all early years providers are looking for sensitivity, fairness and consistency in the inspection process.

The emphasis of the inspection should be about creating a climate where the team can perform at its best before assessing the quality of their provision. I believe providers would have more confidence in the complaints procedure if Ofsted wasn’t ‘marking its own homework’. There seems to be an emphasis on simply reviewing the process and not a focused consideration of the substance of the provider’s complaint.

How do you ensure that the business stays on top of compliance with the latest regulations and accreditation standards in the sector?

In 2017, while maintaining extended opening hours and 52 weeks-a-year operation, Childbase Partnership introduced two, annual ‘Inset Days’, when nurseries close for dedicated ‘whole team’ training.

The benefits of this programme are considerable and underpin a commitment to keep our front line colleagues up to date with the latest early years research and practice methods. The aim is to also do this without overburdening evening and weekend study schedules.

The dedicated sessions, delivered to nursery teams in the place where they apply it to supporting children’s learning and development, achieves a more cohesive response to implementing new policy and practice methods.

What are your priorities for 2024?

Ensuring that the partnership reward days plan delivers meaningful improvements in work-life balance for my colleagues is an absolute priority.

Like all providers I will continue my focus on recruitment and retention strategies. This will not only improve the work experience for my colleagues, but also delivers the best outcomes for the children and families in our care.

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