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Margaret Mason - founder of Children 1st day nurseries

PUBLISHED: 11:22 20 October 2014 | UPDATED: 11:22 20 October 2014

Margaret Mason and her granddaughter Darcey Grundy in the garden of Children 1st @ Derby Road

Margaret Mason and her granddaughter Darcey Grundy in the garden of Children 1st @ Derby Road

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Pat Ashworth meets Margaret Mason at the Long Eaton headquarters of her nursery company

Children 1stChildren 1st

I feel like Gulliver in Margaret Mason’s nursery world. It’s because the pretty little picket fences and gates get smaller and smaller as you descend the age range, so that by the time you’re in the very smallest babies’ section, they come just about half way up your shin. It’s a miniature world, full of colour and life, where the children are happily munching lunch, the dolls are picnicking and the Three Little Pigs are ready to perform in the micro-theatre.

This has been Margaret’s milieu since 1988, when she opened her first Children 1st nursery, and long before that. Now her company has 18 nurseries – five of them in Derbyshire – and a reputation for quality that has earned it the accolade of Nursery Group of the Year and put Margaret in receipt of an Inspirational Person Award. She also received a Lifetime Achievement Award, all from Nursery Management Today.

At the company’s Long Eaton headquarters, Mayfield House – imaginatively converted from a Victorian residence that later became home to the town council – she looks back on the early days with some bemusement. Born in Crewe and brought up in Stoke-on-Trent, she had no idea what she wanted to do when she left secondary school. She toyed with being a hairdresser, but it was a long apprenticeship and her father was more supportive when she said she’d like to train as a nursery nurse at the technical college – ‘Because you got paid, he let me do it,’ she remembers with a smile.

She cheerfully owns that she doesn’t have an O level to her name. Nor has she needed one. Training in those early days criss-crossed the boundaries between the public health and education sectors and she gained her experience in the nurseries of the Five Towns, reflecting, ‘When I was in nursery, I just found it a very nice place to be. It’s stayed like that all my life. People who like children are generally very nice and kind people, so it’s a good environment to be in.’

Children 1stChildren 1st

She trained in a system and at a time when where was a strong emphasis on understanding child development, ‘a much stronger advocacy for good behaviour and respect and all those values I still hold today,’ she reflects. ‘We did a week in nursery and a week in college, theory and practice, for two years. We learned what made a child tick.’ Students learn that now at the company’s own training academy at Mayfield House, where the colourful world of the nursery is replicated and best practice taught.

‘We got into training because the colleges we worked with in the early days produced girls we had to train again because they didn’t have the knowledge,’ she says. ‘We have our own benchmark and we don’t compromise on it.’

She could not have envisaged ending up with her own company. ‘I never set out to have what we’ve got. I was a nanny for a while but had nobody to share the burden with, which made me understand about how parents on their own feel with no support around them.’ In Scotland, where she and her husband moved to, she worked with voluntary playgroups and again saw the overriding need for communication with parents – ‘If you were going to change things from a child’s point of view, they needed to understand how children developed.’

In Strathclyde in the 1970s, Margaret worked with the PLA playgroups association and was the first pre-school community advisor in Strathclyde, supporting both playgroups and private daycare, a position which bridged both the social services and education sectors. ‘There were very few private nurseries,’ she remembers. ‘It was a frowned-on word, you did not make money at it. For a long time, I was indoctrinated with that kind of thinking but it gave me a very good grounding on local authorities and how they ticked.’

Margaret Mason, Cathy Griffin and Julia MasonMargaret Mason, Cathy Griffin and Julia Mason

She was variously invited to train as a social worker and as a teacher, but says firmly that she never wanted that kind of identification – ‘I’ve been lucky always to be able to flip both ways.’ Family circumstances prompted a move down from Scotland and a spell working with her husband, successfully running a residential inn together for three years but she hankered after working with children again and went to work as an advisor for Lincolnshire Social Services. Never really comfortable in a local authority environment, she kept thinking, ‘I can do it so much better...’

‘There was this little nursery in Breedon Street, Long Eaton, on the cusp and up for sale. You couldn’t get registrations very easily then for a private nursery – this was one of two in the whole of Derbyshire. It was a really hard train to follow. Local authorities didn’t really like you and were very suspicious – this one had been run by a children’s nurse, which was how she’d been able to do it.’

It had been a 20-place nursery. The registration process was deliberately hard: Margaret could only have 16 children and none under 12 months, as she had not run her own nursery before. ‘That was when I realised, this is not right, I know I can do better,’ she says. ‘What I bought wasn’t good. Colleges wouldn’t place their students there. There was a very big divide.’

So she started to challenge local authorities, something she was to continue doing for many years. ‘We kept our 20, in fact went up to 24, and from there, I decided, why not babies? We worked through that bit. I had earned my stripes and I knew what I was doing. We broke through that barrier.’ She took a fundamental role in setting up the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA), a charity representing children’s day nurseries across the UK, fighting for those working with children to have a childcare background. ‘How can you set a benchmark if you don’t know what you are doing?’ she asks.

‘Somebody had to start working alongside the local authorities if we wanted to change the private sector. We had to have some goals and standards and things that people could work towards which were respected. I joined them, became chair the following year and worked all over the country with this gallant group of people developing the ideas of NDNA. It was literally on subscription; people liked the idea but nobody had any money because the private sector was so small. I realised alongside others that we would have to break through this.’

When the Children Act came in, in 1989, it became increasingly obvious as she sat as chair on several inter-departmental groups that the playing field was not level. ‘We cared about children and took it as a whole, not as a commodity of health and education. All local authorities’ registration was about how high are your windows and how high are your door handles...educating children and learning were subsidiary. It was about whether this was a safe place to be.’

But they set up a NDNA branch in Derbyshire and started to work with the local authorities. ‘Many a councillor got up and walked out of a meeting and wouldn’t sit at the same table as me because they didn’t like the ethos. There was such a lot of resistance in the early days but we broke through that and Derbyshire now is very, very supportive of the sector,’ she says warmly.

‘It’s all been about breaking barriers down to get a real communication between each other. That was the wonderful part of it. It had the essence of the learning I got from the Playgroups Association: the more people you got together, the quicker the word spread.’

I ask her, where does the fighting spirit come from that has made her challenge the status quo for most of her working life and be at the forefront of making sure that whatever the government brought out happened in the private sector. ‘I think I was always, always idealistic; always wanted to be the best,’ she reflects. ‘I still have that mantra. To do that, you have to have a good team around you and develop and grow people. I’ve got a group of people who work to the same ethos, who care as much as I care. They do it now. They spread the word. I’ve just been to London with 20 of our people, managers, some for 20 years. When I sat and looked, I thought, we ain’t done bad!’

It’s a family business and even the grandchildren love to help out. Several of the girls now working at the nurseries were themselves there as young children, coming back to train at Children 1st. But the climate has changed again, OFSTED’s rules and boundaries keep changing and the sector is in many ways becoming harder to manage as well as more bureaucratic, she suggests. The requirement that all nursery nurses – now called ‘early years educators’ – must have GCSE maths and English before they start to train is also having an impact.

‘I look for girls with passion and enthusiasm, able to connect with children, and wanting to do better. Having to have English and maths GCSE is so wrong. So many people I have trained as managers have not been degree-led, but driven by wanting to do things better,’ she says with passion. ‘Children want to feel warm, cosy, secure, to attach themselves to someone and know that person is going to be there for them. That’s more important to me than whether that person has the capacity for maths. More people want to train with us than we can take but the playing field has changed again.’

The best part of the job? ‘Seeing people grow, young people thrive. I have a real sense of pride when I go to a nursery and see children playing without pressure, without being formalised but knowing it’s all happening and the learning is going on. A lot go from here reading ably. You see children sitting at a table ready to have a meal: they come in not knowing how to do any of it.’

Relaxing is easy, she says, especially when you have a good team around you. ‘I’m relaxed now. I’m relaxed when I’m around children, when I’m in the environment. The only things that get me screwed up are bureaucracy. We have had 13 Outstandings from OFSTED but the goalposts are changing again... and if I don’t make the noise, who else has got the background to do it? I think OFSTED have listened but I’m not sure much will happen.

‘If I could only get them to have a broad understanding that people working in the day care centres want the best for parents and children, and if they don’t, they won’t survive. And that if it has been a fair and honest inspection, they will put it right. For me or any of my girls, it’s a knife wound if we haven’t got it right.’

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