Harcourt Pre-School Co-operative: Veronique Blanc

Veronique is the manager of Harcourt Pre-School in Bristol, which reopened as a co-operative in September 2016 with help from a specialist programme for co-ops called The Hive. Responsibilities are shared between five directors, depending on their specialisms. Co-operatives UK estimates that there are 88 employee-owned carer businesses in the UK as of 2016, with a collective turnover of nearly £100 million.

What do you do?
I am Veronique Blanc and I am the manager of Harcourt Pre-School. We have around 40 children school age up to five and 10 part time members of staff. The Pre-School exists in this form since 1989 be we reopened it as a co-op in September 2016. We next door to a local primary school and very often our children go straight there, but we are independent. We rent our building from a church but we are not religious in any way. 

When did you decide to do this?
Last year the manager decided to step aside and asked each member of staff if they were interested in taking on the nursery as a sole trader. When we asked what the role and responsibilities are she gave us an A1 poster and it was huge. None of us wanted to take it on so we suggested we could form a co-operative, so she gave us the number of Hilary from Co-op Bristol and we had a meeting.

We started the co-op with absolutely no money because we are a non-profit for tax purposes. At the end of the year we have no money left in the pot, we spend it all on paints and resources! Like many pre schools and nurseries, July is a meagre month where we count the pennies.

What’s the point of the co-operative?
Reopening as a co-op was a way of sharing the workload and the responsibilities and not being on your own when Ofsted, the taxman, or anything else comes.

We are all equal. We all decided who was going to do what and whether we were more capable of doing it. My deputy is in charge of the planning and teaching of children, our Senco has years of experience of special needs, our secretary was good at writing and I had more time, so I was able to give more time to the administration and the accounts and to go on training.

We are all equal.

We have five directors. It works well as a workers co-op because we have meetings where we decide what we want to do, how we’re going to raise money and hire members of staff. 

How do you fit it in?
We are paid to be key persons, to be managers, but we decided that the pay would remain the same as last year. Really, do you do not work in early years if you want to make money.

We do it because we love our work and our team and working with children every day brings happiness. We believe we serve the community because when our children go to reception they are prepared for school life.

What’s been your proudest moment?
When Ofsted came to the reregistration to make sure that we were good people and had everything in place. We had worked hard all summer to make sure everything was in place. We had a new logo that a dad from pre-school had created. To have that on the front door was a very proud moment.

What’s the hardest?
We are very worried about the impact of 30-hours funding. 

Under new rules parents who work more than 16 hours a week will be allowed to send their children to pre-school for 30 hours and the Government and local authority will pay the pre-schools a going rate. In Bristol it is higher than in other neighboring local authorities, however if we take these children, we lose 60p per child per hour. That’s because we charge £5.50 an hour, but the Government gives us £4.89 per hour.

Parents can register an interest in April. We don’t have to do it but if we don’t, parents might say they will try to find another nursery who will take their child for 15 hours or more. If parents say they don’t want to pay extra, we will lose money. 

We know our parents and we know they like us, however some parents have no choice. They may say they are sorry, but they can’t pay the extra money so they will change. I have heard of some nurseries threatening to close. Other nurseries have been looking for other ways to fund it, by charging for nappies or lunch. We struggling to stay open anyway because of rent increases.

What keeps you going?
We don’t want to let our families down. We have children who were put on a waiting list at two or three months old and their parents aren’t looking anywhere else. There is a shortage in the area for good pre-schools, we can’t just let them down and close.

We now have some mothers who came here for pre-school. We can’t just close, so we try year after year. The children make you laugh and we make each other laugh. It is always a pleasure to go to work.

What’s next?
We received a grant to have some work done at the back of the church. We rent the room from the church and we use the garden and this leads to the back, and we would like to redecorate this area. That will hopefully be done at the end of this academic year.

How did you vote in the EU referendum and why?
*Laughs* I am French and have been living in Britain for 26 years, I’m married to a Bristolian. What do you think?

I voted remain, but there was some question about whether I could be the manager of the pre-school or open a bank account. We have a Spanish member of staff, we have lots of families from around here that are from European countries. That is another worry. Some of our families have been with us for years and we don’t know if they will have to leave. We had a Polish family last year and they were in tears when it happened, they were university lecturers. 

What impact will the decision have on what you do?
The government is focussed on Brexit so they may not they have the time to think about other priorities like education and health. In the meantime, a lot of nurseries rely on the European workforce because they can’t find any other employees willing to work for £7.50 or £8 an hour. As I said earlier, this work is really badly paid.

What would you say to other people looking at setting up a co-operative?
I woild say go for it. It’s the relief of not having all the responsibilities and the stress on your shoulders.

Of course you need a strong leader when you are leading a nursery because you have to make sure the children are well looked after, but as along as you trust your team, as I do, I think it’s such a wonderful atmosphere of trust and confidence and you know that the job will be done. Everyone here works extra to make sure that at the end of the week families and children have been well looked after. It’s really a lot of dedication. We share our knowledge and our problems.

What does community mean to you?
Community is all of us working for goodness, for improvement, looking after each and working towards the same positive things.


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