At the time of writing this, it’s the start of Trustee Week, and we’re currently preparing our reports for the next meeting of the Acorn board of trustees.  I feel very fortunate to be able to work with a very engaged and highly skilled board, and very grateful for the time and energy freely given by our trustees, who work as volunteers, with no financial gain. It’s one of the privileges of our charitable status, to have the benefit of their collective insight and support while facing the current challenges. Our current chair, Professor Eva Lloyd OBE, understands the early years sector more than most, having undertaken extensive research on the way early years policy is implemented, and her colleagues on the board bring a wide range of expertise. They include an accountant, a real estate lawyer, a primary school teacher, project manager, an expert in strategy, HR manager, and others with extensive local authority and governance experience.  

More importantly, several of our trustees are parents at our nurseries, and all of them share a passion for supporting our efforts to increase our social impact. Our aim is to provide the very best early years care and education, in as inclusive a way as possible. Trustees are effectively company directors, but with absolutely no financial stake in the organisation. Our trustees take their responsibilities very seriously, and as well as the full board meetings, we have committees that take a deep dive into our finances, risk management, governance and HR, and childcare, learning and development. We also have safeguarding trustees, who are kept informed of any safeguarding incidents or issues. One of our trustees recently undertook a ‘world tour’ of all of our nurseries, and all trustees visit nurseries as part of their induction. During the Covid pandemic, their support was invaluable, and at the next meeting, the main item for discussion will be the budget for 2023, which has been more difficult than ever to achieve financial sustainability and to balance that with affordability and inclusion.

This is where the social enterprise model comes in. A traditional charity relies on donations or grants, but our cross-subsidy model enables us to support nurseries in areas of social deprivation with the profits generated by nurseries in more affluent areas. With our ongoing expansion, we are beginning to see some benefits from economies of scale, which dilutes the impact of our central costs, but we are determined to ensure that all children attending an Acorn nursery have equal access to the ‘extras’ of forest schools, and of high quality, freshly prepared meals and snacks, and that is proving to be more and more difficult in the current economic climate. One area that I’m not sorry to see increase, although it is having the biggest impact on our finances, is the ongoing rise in salaries for our practitioners. The early years workforce has been underpaid and undervalued for years, and we are doing our best to ensure that we reward and retain the very best practitioners, as they are the single most important ingredient for ensuring high quality in the nurseries and clubs. As a charitable social enterprise we have no dividends to pay, which is very fortunate, as 70% of our fee income is needed to cover salaries, and we are experiencing rapidly rising utility and food prices, not to mention the cost of maintaining and improving our premises, and the training provision that we know is essential if we want to continue to improve, and to retain and develop our teams.

We can’t predict exactly how the next twelve months will turn out, but we know it’s going to be tough, both for us and for the families we are trying to support. I also know that being a charitable social enterprise gives us a hidden strength. We often attract staff who are keen to work with an organisation where children’s needs genuinely come first, and where nurseries who are struggling to be financially sustainable don’t need to worry that they’ll be closed down. We can make decisions that would be harder to make in profit-driven organisations, as for us, a profit is a means of investing in our staff and our nurseries, never an end in itself, and we are determined not to cut corners in providing the best for the children and families we serve.

Zoe Raven