Career Talk: Louise Farrow-Brookes, Senior Area Manager, Fledgelings Day Nurseries
How did you get into nursery work?
I started when I was 17, and I’m 45 this April – so many moons ago! I fell into it after failing to get a scholarship to drama and dance school. I’ve always been elaborate and out there, and I struggled at school because I had dyslexia – but I got an A* in my drama GCSE and went for a scholarship at Westminster College.
I didn’t get the scholarship, so I told my parents I’d get my qualifications, get a job at Butlins, become a redcoat, and become famous. I saw myself on the screen, in movies.
But I started my NNEB [National Nursery Examination Board] qualification, got a job at a nursery in Walthamstow, and never looked back.
How did you get into management?
I was a manager by the age of 24 for a company called Nursery Works – which was taken over by Bright Horizons – and that was very early. When I look back, I wasn’t always the best manager – I was still learning. I remember thinking everyone should be like me, and that was completely the wrong way to manage teams. Leading a team is very unique; it’s a major puzzle because everyone is so different.
You lived in Norway for a while – how did that experience affect your nursery practice?
Their kindergartens are very different – they go out in all weathers and they have the clothes for it! The motto was, ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing’. Health and safety in the UK has become too red-taped, and I saw a completely relaxed environment in Norway – children could make more decisions about what they were doing.
When I came back to the UK and picked up my relationship with Bright Horizons, I tried to build that in. Children had notice boards where they could signal when they wanted to go outside. I brought a more relaxed, child-initiated Louise back from Norway.
You’ve also had experience in tricky situations, for example turning nurseries around after ‘requires improvement’ ratings – tell us about that.
I worked for Kidsunlimited for four to five years as a contract manager, where my job was to go and fix nurseries and bring their standard up. It could be that they were Ofsted RI, or maybe the nursery wasn’t being advertised well, or there were staff morale issues.
Then I wanted another challenge, and I wanted to find a home where I could stay for a while. In 2011, I got a job at a nursery in Essex managed by Casterbridge – and it had had a hard time because there had been a fatality at the nursery in 2007.
It needed a hard hitter to come in and bring it round, and they asked me to stay no shorter than four years. And when my son was born in 2012, I took him to the nursery because I had no qualms about the care and quality.
What would you say your management style is?
I’m a hands-on manager; I wear a uniform, I sit in the rooms and will get lost in the playdoh. I’m a shop floor manager! You only really know what’s going on in your nursery if you are inside it.
How did you come to work for Fledgelings?
Salma [Khodabaksh], the proprietor of Fledgelings, found me and approached me for the Hornchurch nursery. I didn’t feel another management role was for me; I wanted more – so I told Salma that if she was to ever open a nursery, I might be interested. And then she got in touch about our setting in South Hornchurch.
How was that experience of setting up a nursery from scratch?
I pretty much was there when the builders were there every day; I mapped out the garden myself! Salma gave me that confidence and I always want to challenge myself. Opening a brand new nursery from scratch is really hard work with all these new families and staff settling – but we’re now settled and can look at new avenues and projects.
What did you learn from the experience?
One thing I’ve learned in hindsight is maybe to create some gaps between bringing in each new family. Maybe bring one family in then have a two-week gap then bring another. The child is the most important person, and every child has unique needs. And while they’re settling, if you bring another and another new child, when do they get the chance to settle and be aware of their environment?
What would you say to nursery managers who aspire to be an area manager one day?
Area manager is the next step to challenge anyone who wants to spread their knowledge of all the years of management they’ve had. But it does cover new areas like the financial growth of the business, the ins and outs of the running, profit and loss, marketing – the whole reputation of the company that you work for.
But if you’re a hands-on manager, which I love, it allows you to cascade your experience, skills, and passion to a wider staff team, and help bring the team together for the ‘wow factor’. You need a passion to drive success for this role, so if that’s what you have, push yourself to go for it!
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