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Mike Abbott’s passion for the childcare sector led him to accept the role of group manager at the Co-operative Childcare when the organisation was searching for someone to oversee its expansion.
He comes from a family of teachers and has children of his own and says going to work is a “busman’s holiday” for him, which he “loves” because he has an “opportunity to build something special for children”.
Under Mr Abbott’s watchful eye, the Co-operative Childcare, which is part of the Midcounties Co-operative, has grown from having just six nurseries in 2004, to managing 49 across the country.
The organisation’s goal is to break down barriers of traditional childcare provision and offer an educational experience for all youngsters to enjoy. Last year it underwent an extensive refurbishment programme, which saw the introduction of sensory gardens and stimulating age specific resources, to help it achieve its aim.
Mr Abbott believes the future is key for the Co-operative Childcare, which aims to strive from one success to another while shifting perceptions.
He said: “We’ve stated publicly that we wish to be in the top three providers for both quality and size in the next five years. We’ve gone from six to 50 acquisitions in two and a half years so we’re going to take a year out from acquisitions. We’re going to invest in staff training and even more refurbishment before we expand again. We’re committed to the long term.
“We are also going to be investing some serious time into recruiting more men into our nurseries as well to recreate a real family environment, at present we match the national average with two per cent but we want 10 per cent of our nursery practitioners to be men. We are going to do some hard work to shift perceptions.”
Something that could have had a huge impact on the future of the sector was the Government’s controversial plans to change childcare ratios. Education and childcare minister Elizabeth Truss announced the reforms in January, which would have seen the limit on the number of children practitioners can look after rise from four to six, and for the limit on caring for babies aged one and under increase from three to four. The Department for Education claimed the changes would reduce the cost of childcare for families but Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg recently announced he will be blocking the plans because he believes parents would end up paying more.
When the Government first announced its plans, the Childcare Co-operative released an official statement where Mr Abbott said the changes “will not adequately tackle the issue of rising childcare costs” and could see “poorer families opting for substandard nurseries in order to cut costs”.
He has been vocal in sharing his concerns of the reforms – even speaking to Ms Truss about them – and has welcomed Mr Clegg’s decision to block the plans. Mr Abbott said: “The Co-operative Childcare is pleased that the Government has listened to the almost unanimous feedback from across the early years sector, professionals and parents alike, that the proposed changes would have been detrimental to quality. They were not going to be the answer to reducing fees for parents, but could also have led to a two-tier nursery system, split between those parents who were able to use nurseries where old ratios were maintained, and those where some providers were tempted into reducing wage costs simply to survive.
“The challenge for the sector now is to work with the Government to improve the qualification levels and knowledge of all practitioners, to raise the status of the profession to attract the best candidates to deliver the critical role of developing and educating our children, and to identify how this great quality care can be made more universally available and affordable to all parents.”
Despite his views of the proposals to change childcare ratios, Mr Abbott largely agrees with Ms Truss’ plans for the future of the sector and thinks “she’s got off on the wrong foot”. He said: “I actually agree with her in a lot of things she says about improving childcare in the UK. We support the raising of the status of childcare, the raising of qualification levels, salary levels – a lot of what she says.
“I don’t think she’s necessarily wrong, I think she’s got off on the wrong foot with the sector with the ratios and I think she’s quite controversial with some of the comments she makes.”
In general, Mr Abbott believes it is an exciting time to work within the childcare sector. He said: “I think we have a once in a generation opportunity to get things right with the discussions that are going on now, especially with the 2015 elections coming up. I think it’s a big opportunity for the sector to position ourselves at the heart of policy making. We need to get the country to get thinking about the early years part of education. If we can get it funded properly by the Government, I would say it’s an exciting sector for young graduates to get involved in.”
First job – Working on a farm building haystacks
Favourite Book – To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Favourite Film – Moulin Rouge
Favourite Song – What A Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong
Best Present – A trumpet when I was 11
Last Holiday – A cottage in the south of France with all of my family, my sister’s family and my mum