Monkey Puzzle Day Nurseries

It is no secret that the early years sector is in the midst of a recruitment crisis. 95% of English councils say that early years providers in their area are finding it difficult to recruit staff with the right skills and experience to do the job1. In a bid to rectify this, the government recently announced that it will be committing funds to make recruiting for providers less daunting with initiatives such as trialling a £1k sign-on bonus2. This will go a long way to remedying the crisis, but is it tackling a bigger issue?

A survey from the NCFE, an awarding organisation and registered educational charity, highlights that recruiting is not the only issue – retaining staff is also proving problematic. Janet King, the Sector Manager for Education and Childcare at NCFE, states, “put bluntly, staff joining are not staying. The sector must take action to ensure it continues to appeal as an exciting and rewarding career.”3 So, how can an early years provider directly address this ongoing recruitment and retention crisis?

Monkey Puzzle Day Nurseries, the market-leading nursery franchise, is pioneering a solution that empowers their staff to progress and shifts the dynamic of a career in early years to one of attraction, retention and development. Here, Chloe Barnes, Karen Tate and Sam Howarth, who led the workforce development team at Monkey Puzzle, explore the training techniques and tools required of an early years employer.

Reframing the perception


Traditionally, working in early years has been viewed as a career with limited progression and little room for personal development. Sadly, it can be perceived negatively when compared to other workplaces. With that in mind, we wanted to change the narrative. Empowering people the minute they walk through the door is central to doing so.

Being at the forefront of innovation in the sector, we decided to invest in a leadership and development programme to confront the perception that progression and development in early years is minimal, but also, we had the motivation to tackle a gender imbalance occurring nationally within early years education.

Gender re-balance

It goes without saying that the childcare industry is female dominated. The latest survey from the Department of Education reveals that only 2% of staff in early years are male4. Despite this, men are overrepresented in leadership roles. In the UK, women only take up 30% of those leadership roles5.

What we saw at Monkey Puzzle was that the majority of our staff were female, but all too frequently, they didn’t have the required qualifications to progress into leadership roles. Creating career pathways to allow our female staff to have the opportunities to progress in our network, where they may not have had the chance before, was one of our driving forces.

So, what are we doing to achieve this? With our goal to produce more female leaders, but also to counteract the ongoing recruitment crisis, we put forward three main initiatives to promote progression and personal development at Monkey Puzzle:

1.     Pathway programme – we offer staff the chance to attend leadership development modules to allow them to gain the skills needed to grow in their careers.

2.     Apprenticeships – making apprenticeships available means members of our team can develop within Monkey Puzzle.

3.     Experience days – we plan face-to-face training events to keep all our team informed. These range from training for children with additional needs to nutrition, and diversity and inclusion.

Through initiatives like these, we can continue to encourage our staff to grow, fostering a pool of leaders ready to step up across the network. From this, our apprenticeships and pathways deliver a familiarity with our brand to drive best practice and improvement across all levels of Monkey Puzzle.

The goal is to establish an environment that deals with the recruitment crisis head on. We want a career at Monkey Puzzle to be attractive, providing a platform for our staff to realise their ambitions and have the space to be upwardly mobile in their professional endeavours.

Hearing from the team

We’d like to think we’re beginning to see the fruits of our labour. It’s great to have grand plans for a more inclusive future, but to witness the internal development of our people is the proof in the pudding.

Candice Lewis-Grier joined us in May 2022. From being a nursery manager at our East Sheen setting, Candice has now been promoted to an Operations Manager, responsible for six locations across London, Surrey and Essex.

“When the position came up, I was encouraged to apply. I felt I was well prepared as my previous role had lots of targets and review meetings which meant I always felt I was developing,” said Candice.

“[Monkey Puzzle Day Nurseries] recognise your passion and reward you for hard work. It sounds so simple, but it really makes a difference. If you’re stuck, there is such a warm and supportive atmosphere; you know you can pick up the phone and everyone will be willing to help. It is one of the best companies I’ve ever worked for – there is a natural bond between Monkey Puzzle employees, it really does feel like a massive family.”

A network-wide buy-in

As a franchisor, there is potential for our staff to become franchisees too. Cayden Herbert, our franchisee for Stoke Newington, rose up the ranks from nursery practitioner to franchisee in a little over 18 months. “Going from employee to employer is a big change and something that takes time to get used to,” explained Cayden. “All the staff here are fantastic, and I’ve been given everything I need from Monkey Puzzle.”

In Cayden’s case, we have seen other colleagues adopt what we’re trying to do with our leadership and development team by creating a fantastic culture for their staff. The Kent family own and operate five of our nurseries and have always been big believers in internal development.

“We know there are a lot of people that don’t see early years as an opportunity for career progression,” explains Mike Kent. “Since opening our first site in 2013, we have endeavoured to stick with our vision to focus on staff development.

“Claudia, who joined us initially as a nursery assistant, has now become an area manager. It has gone full circle too. We really encouraged Claudia to develop her skills and now she is a beacon of developmental knowledge, with so many of our team across our nurseries being trained by her.”

Cayden, who also worked in one of the Kents’ locations, has benefited from their culture of development. “The Kents, who owned both Highbury and Melody Lane, have also been so supportive of me. I know if I need any advice, I could turn to them and they’d be more than willing to help.”

So, what’s the solution?

It really is as simple as creating an inclusive and encouraging culture. You need to make people feel valued and respected, and develop them from day one, no matter the position they join you in. To do this, here are our top tips to put in place a framework to change the dynamic and make early years an attractive career, where people feel they can develop their skills and progress to leadership positions:

1.     Training and support – create an environment where people feel supported to develop their skills. By offering training, you are giving people the platform to progress. Adding strings to the bow fosters confidence and keeps staff on track to be qualified for leadership roles.

2.     Pathways for career development – we encourage the scheduling of regular reviews and target setting across all levels of the brand. Letting people visualise their career goals is a great tool for promoting internal progression, making for a more attractive career.

3.     Get everyone to buy in – to really make it work you need everyone singing from the same hymn sheet. Establishing a development culture in every nursery setting creates a workplace where people feel valued and less likely to look elsewhere for job opportunities.

By emphasising the development of our staff, both professionally and personally, we have created an atmosphere where people feel motivated to grow. Throwing away the belief that working in early years isn’t an attractive prospect, we believe our approach remedies the issues raised by the ongoing recruitment crisis and is a sustainable solution ready to inspire future educators for generations to come.

Chloe Barnes, Karen Tate and Sam Howarth lead the workforce and development team at Monkey Puzzle Day Nurseries. They work with all levels of the Monkey Puzzle team from nursery staff to head office.

1 Coram Family and Childcare, Childcare Survey, March 2023

2 Gov UK, Plans to recruit more early years workers, February 2024

3 NCFE, Early Years and Childcare Sector Spotlight, October 2023

4 Department for Education, Childcare and early years provider survey, Dec 2023

5 Powerful Women, PfW’s ‘State of the Nation’ report, 2023