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Songbird Limited: Our year as a first-time day nursery owner

In this blog, Vicky Marsland caught up with Shane and Katy Stevenson, owners of Songbird Limited.

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Vicky Marsland

Vicky Marsland

Associate Director - Childcare & Education

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Pictured: before and after images of Hedon

In August 2022, first-time buyers, Shane and Katy Stevenson, acquired Songbird Limited, which comprises Songbirds Hedon and Songbirds Preston Day Nursery and Kids Club which are located less than a mile apart in the semi-rural villages of Hedon and Preston in East Riding, Yorkshire. Together, they have the capacity to care for up to 170 children aged 0 to 11 years.

Since their move into day nursery ownership, the couple has worked tirelessly on the nurseries to create high-quality educational settings that benefit both children and parents.

Associate Director – Childcare & Education, Vicky Marsland, spoke with Shane and Katy about how they’re getting on…

Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you got into the sector?

Katy: I’ve been in early years for 19 years. I started working in a nursery and then moved to a children’s centre around nine years ago. I then moved to work in a local school and completed my early years degree and continued to work as an early years leader in a local primary school in East Riding.

What made you make the move into nursery ownership, and how did your background in education support you in this decision?

Katy: During my time working in a school as an early years leader, I saw the difference in the curriculum that was offered, and I just felt that there was a better way to do it. As the school was effectively governed by the Local Authority, the day-to-day was more about hitting targets and quotas, and I felt the children were seen as ‘data’ and not as individual children. Having children of my own, too, I understood that each one learns in a different way and, unfortunately, I didn’t have the freedom to really do what I believed was best for the children.

Since taking over Songbirds, we’ve created our own curriculum where we can draw more on the benefits of being in a more rural location, and from the local community. We have the flexibility to arrange trips and outings which are beneficial for the children, and this is a huge part of the service we offer to parents and children. Here at Songbirds, we believe the Cultural Capital of the next generation is our priority.

It’s been almost a year since your acquisition. How have you found the last year?

Shane: We officially took over on the 12 of August 2022, so our one-year anniversary is looming. It’s been a rollercoaster, and a lot harder than we ever expected, especially taking on two settings at once.

I feel we’ve been fortunate and, although we’ve had some major challenges at both settings, they happened at different times, so we were able to handle it together. After investing everything we had into this, we had no other option but to get on with it and make it work.

We experienced some turbulence with some of the staff during the handover, which was to be expected, but the staff who have stayed with us are incredible and have really dived head-first into our ethos and the changes we’ve made. We even had an unannounced Ofsted inspection around seven months in at our Preston setting, in which we achieved a ‘Good’ rating, which we were very happy with. It just showed how good our staff are.

Katy: There was an opportunity for the Deputy Manager at Preston to step up to the position of Manager, and we’ve worked closely with her to effectively rebuild the processes and practices in place across both nurseries.

All in all, there have been more ups than downs. I’ve managed nursery settings before, over 12 years ago, and so there were still some things I needed to brush up on. The funding, for example - back in my day, it was all done over the phone, whereas now we use online systems.


Before and after images: Hedon (left) and Preston (right)

What are the key changes you have implemented so far?

Katy: Along with the staff, we’ve worked on implementing a whole new early years curriculum. We now have an employee and planning mentor who spends one-to-one time with all new members of staff for their six-week induction process. We’ve also updated the office technology and introduced a HR system and EAP for the staff.

Shane: Aesthetically, we’ve completely renovated both settings which has been a huge project that has taken up most of our evenings, weekends, and holidays. We wanted to brighten things up, and incorporate natural woods, creating a woodland feel and bringing the outdoors in at both settings. We also landscaped the gardens at both Hedon and Preston with appropriate play areas for the children, and we even have two beautiful rabbits at Hedon which the children love.

Shane: Lastly, we’ve streamlined the nurseries’ social media platforms and are much more active through these channels. Increasing our general marketing has really improved our occupancy levels.

Can you tell us more about Forest School ethos?

Katy: Having a Forest School is just about having an outside space; it’s an ethos. It brings the children closer to nature which is something many children don’t have a lot of experience with in their early years.

Our parents choose to split their funded hours between the nursery and the Forest School, so their children can grow and learn in the traditional areas - such as phonics and numeracy skills - preparing them for their transition to primary school, but it’s also about the children having fun and learning core skills they can build on and take with them to adulthood. It’s not just about being in a room with pens and pencils, but learning from experiences out in the open.

What are you most looking forward to in the coming years? And do you have any other plans for the settings?

Katy: We’re looking forward to seeing the nurseries grow and are striving to achieve ‘Outstanding’ at both settings.

Shane: At Hedon, we’re hoping to extend the building to increase the capacity of the baby room to keep up with demand. At Preston, we have an option to increase the Kids Club, and will continue to develop the Forest School. It’s all part of the process.

Katy: We’re lucky Shane made the decision to leave his previous job and join the nursery full-time so that we could focus on all the renovations.

Shane: We really want to keep it as a place to celebrate all the children’s individualities and to get the balance right, but to mainly make Songbirds a place where the children want to come.

Do you have any tips for those looking to buy their first day nursery?

Shane: There isn’t a standard guidebook for this sort of thing and even knowing what we know now, I’d say it would be very hard to fully prepare for it. Especially when going through the due diligence process, and dealing with the solicitors and the bank. The timescales can change, so it’s so hard to fully plan and be prepared for the actual handover. It’s quite like buying a house in the sense that you never feel that it’s actually going to happen - it was almost surreal when it all went through and we’d completed.

Katy: Our main advice to anyone else doing this as first-time buyers is just to enjoy the journey. This was an experience for our whole family, especially with our daughter now working in the Preston setting, and we wanted to instil this into our ethos too.

Shane: We’d also recommend you do your research on the business side of a nursery; how the funding works, how children’s attendance and occupancy varies across the year, and the funding terms. We took over at the nurseries in August, at the beginning of a new term, where they’d lost all of the preschool children to school. This is standard, however, having a better understanding of this financially, and how the income and expenditure fluctuate through the year, is a must.

After initially expecting to only be able to purchase one setting, you spoke to the team at Christie Finance and they were able to assist you with funding options, allowing you to purchase the second setting. Do you have any advice for someone wanting to do the same?

Katy: Our main tip is to create a good business plan. In doing this, we were offered, a better Loan-To-Value (LTV) than we thought we’d initially get. It’s important to be open-minded on the process moving forward and source the right support.

Shane: Working with Emma at Christie Finance took away from the stress of working with the bank directly. Her initial advice meant that they were able to look at re-mortgaging some of our assets to fund the purchase instead of selling these off.

Do you have any advice on working with the sellers?

Shane: It would be almost impossible to have done this without a good rapport with the seller, and with Vicky at Christie & Co who acted as a great buffer between us when it was needed. We also were able to build a great relationship with the seller and we still see her at the nurseries sometimes. 

For a confidential chat about your childcare business in Yorkshire and the North East, contact Vicky Marsland: / 07526 175 857

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