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At the age of 14, Margaret Mason was given an award for her skill in changing nappies, having left school with no qualifications. Now aged 76, she runs 23 nurseries, with 14 of them rated ‘outstanding’.
This year, as founder of Children 1st Day Nurseries and National Day Nurseries Association, she was awarded an OBE for her services to early years education.
Ms Mason opened her first nursery in 1988 in Long Eaton, Nottingham, after helping out at playgroups, running a pub and a fast food restaurant. She then decided to run a nursery after seeing one for sale and realising she could do it much better.
“It was this little place. It was immaculate. There was a children’s nurse that was there that had obviously learned her trade the old way, and she had shiny polished floors and she left the children on chairs. I saw things I didn’t like.
“All childcare that I had been involved with up to at the point had also been institutionalised in this way, apart from playgroups. The local authority side of it was very institutionalised and I thought I can do this better.”
“In the 1970s, the words ‘private nursery’ were dirty words within the sector”
Opening up her own first private nursery was a huge challenge for Ms Mason as local authorities didn’t want to send children to a private nursery, and there was also no blueprint at that time for an education-led system where the needs and development of the child were put first.
“In the 1970s, the words ‘private nursery’ were dirty words in the early years sector. Making profit out of children was not deemed to be good so I never ventured where I wanted to go, and in fact what we decided to do then, was choose to do something for ourselves, as a family.
“With the first nursery I decided to put children first, hence the name, and that is the mantra we all live by. Our staff always know when they come to work for us that I put children before them, and if they don’t have that ethos, don’t come and work for us," she says.
Ms Mason has always leaned towards childcare, even from very young.
“I was always the girl who was taking babies out for walks in pushchairs, and the girl that did the baby minding, as there were six children in our family. So, it was a natural progression to work in a nursery. There was then college, to take my NNEB qualification, which was a two-year course and I liked it because I could do a week in nursery and a week in college. That really suited me; it was a good way of training.”
She then went on to work as a volunteer for a long time in playgroups in Scotland, where she was very active at the SPPA (Scottish Pre-school Playgroup Association). Her employer was the Strathclyde local authority and her role as a pre-school community organiser was supported and shared by both social services and the education department.
“The SPPA were very important in those days as they taught you a lot about childcare. They cared about mothers. They cared about including families and children, and I liked the ethos of involving parents. I think that stayed with me and a lot of my training came from there.”
As well as her work with Children 1st, Ms Mason was instrumental in setting up National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) and was chair of the original board that helped the organisation to attain charitable status in 1999.
She also devoted considerable time to developing NDNA's flagship childcare quality accreditation scheme, Quality Counts, a demanding scheme that goes well above regulatory requirements.
Nurturing and mentoring staff is vital
Children 1st follows a philosophy of learning from mistakes, and Ms Mason tries not to reprimand staff for making them.
“Somebody said to me the other day I make life too easy for people; there’s no consequences, well I think there are consequences, their own self esteem gets knocked. I believe that nurturing, teaching, coaching and mentoring creates inspiring staff and that why we also have the yearly conference, where everyone from the company is welcome.”
In addition to the conference where the company celebrates recent achievements, there is a training academy that has about a hundred people going through it at any time.
Ms Mason believes in hiring people with a certain attitude. She says: “I think you can train people who have passion, but you can’t train people who just have a theory.
“We try to develop leaders, not managers. We’re always trying to find a pathway for people to come through. We are always looking for ambitious people, but ones who are ambitious for children, not only for themselves. We look after our staff educationally, the way we look after our children.”
30 hours has caused nursery settings to ‘become divisive’
The Government launched its 30 hours ‘free’ childcare for all three and four-year-olds at the beginning of September.
Ms Mason calls “the 30 hours scheme a brilliant idea” but says: “If it had been thought through a bit better it would have been very good, but you can’t sell something that’s not yours, and that’s what they’ve tried to do. The scheme isn’t sustainable in a lot of settings.
“It’s caused more discontent and discord within our settings than anything else has ever caused, because it has become divisive for nurseries and parents.
“Parents have this expectation that they entitled to 30 hours ‘free’, and if I give you an example, let’s say one of my mornings is worth £28, I bring the child in for the same amount of time, and I’ll get £20, so if I do that morning, night and afternoon, I’m losing 16 pounds a day. You can’t be sustainable on that.”
Despite her reservations about the new 30 hours scheme, Ms Mason remains characteristically optimistic about the early years sector, and is still striving for excellence. She is always trying to improve herself. On receiving her OBE, she now feels the need to try even harder, saying: “I’m extremely humbled by it, never expected it, and it has inspired me to be better if anything. I believe I have to make myself worth it now!”