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Celebrating Invisible MK Women – January

Zoe Raven – Acorn Early Years Foundation

Born and brought up in Wellingborough, I became actively involved in environmental issues and the local Friends of the Earth, before going to Royal Holloway, University of London for my first degree, in English Literature.  In 1983 I married Chris, a fellow student, and we moved to Milton Keynes.  I then did a Master’s degree at Queen Mary (also Uni of London) and a Post Graduate Certificate in Education at the Institute of Education – also in London, but with my placements being in Milton Keynes, at Springfield Middle School and Radcliffe School.  My first ‘proper’ job (after a paper round while at school, working in the Castle Ashby gift shop in the summer of 1980, and Saturday job in a delicatessen in Virginia Water, where the regular customers included local celebrities like Frank Muir) was at Ousedale School in Newport Pagnell, teaching English.

My first daughter, Sophie, was born in 1987, and two years later, after spending several months bemoaning the lack of good nurseries locally, and following my dad’s suggestion “well why don’t you open your own then?” Chris and I sold our house and took out an enormous mortgage on a converted Wesleyan chapel in the village of Castlethorpe.  The plan was to run a nursery downstairs and live upstairs, for about ten years, while we had a young family (I was by then pregnant with Imogen and had always been determined to have four children – long story).  We hadn’t anticipated the dramatic rise in interest rates, which nearly finished us off, but the nursery itself was a great success – not much financially, but in practical terms. I trained as a breastfeeding counsellor with the NCT, and it was an encounter with a mum needing help with latching on that led to the opening of the second nursery, in Shenley Church End, and the taking on of business angels and co-shareholders. A third nursery followed soon after, like Shenley in an old village school, but this time in Northants, at Brafield-on-the-Green.

By this time, I had the bit between my teeth in terms of wanting to run a successful organisation, with a passion for developing the staff teams, and trying to balance the need to be professional without losing the personal touch.  The next nursery, on a school site, also sent us into a different direction, giving us a taste of making a difference to children’s lives in areas of social disadvantage.  We also began (before it became trendy) running forest schools, as well as, by then, out-of-school clubs, training, and creches for a charity for children with genetic disorders. I completed an MBA with the Open University, which I absolutely loved, gaining an insight into ‘best practice’ in a wide range of areas.  A few years later I also did the Business Growth Programme with Cranfield University, but by this point I had also come to the realisation that my business model made no sense whatsoever, and confirmed what I had begun to suspect from taking part in the Common Purpose programme, that I was in the wrong sector.

From very early on, the profitable nurseries in affluent areas were subsidising nurseries serving parents on lower incomes, where fees needed to be lower to be affordable, but which then didn’t cover all the costs, particularly when I was insistent on maintaining highly qualified and well-trained teams, and having high quality resources and meals made freshly on site with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.  I was also determined that there would never be any ‘optional extras’ that might not be affordable for some families, so forest schools became an integral part of every nursery offering.  I realised that “squeezing the lemon” (to use a Cranfield phrase) to maximise profit just wasn’t what it was all about for me, so I began looking into ways in which I could change the business model to be more about social impact than private profit.  Fortunately, my fellow shareholders were happy to let me work out a way of transferring the going concerns of the nurseries into a new, charitable organisation, and Acorn Childcare Ltd began its transition into Acorn Early Years Foundation.

This meant giving up my sole control of the business, of course, and becoming simply an employee with a board of trustees who could sack me, but I felt I needed to have the courage of my convictions, and it has been a journey with far more positives than negatives.  Doors have opened to us as a not-for-profit social enterprise, and I strongly believe that it has helped us to recruit and retain the very best in early years practitioners, who are also keen to focus more on what is best for the children rather than what is best for shareholders.

Along the way, I have never stopped training and developing myself.  I became an NVQ assessor very early on, and also worked as an assessor for the Early Years Professional Status, for the Open University and the University of Northampton.  I also spent several years working as an Associate Lecturer for the OU on their early year’s foundation degree courses – once a teacher, always a teacher, and I particularly enjoyed working with very skilful and knowledgeable early years practitioners who often had years of experience, but very little confidence academically. I had a few awards along the way too, including being a national finalist for a Business Link award, and regional finalist for Director of the Year.  As I got involved in sector networks too, I also ended up writing regular articles for Nursery Management Today, and in 2016 gave evidence to the Public Accounts Select Committee, about the extension of funding for 30 hours. Also, in 2016 I won MK Women Leaders award in 2016 – Female Entrepreneur.

As well as being involved in the NCT when my children were small, I was also a school governor (Vice Chair at Castlethorpe First School) and have been a trustee at the Parks Trust for several years, and have recently been made Chair.  The most time-consuming aspect of my non-Acorn life now, though, is undoubtedly my doctoral studies.  This was triggered by the experience of presenting to the Select Committee and being underwhelmed by the quality of the research that the government was using to justify its policies.  I have been studying part-time, back at Royal Holloway, funnily enough, since 2017 and am hoping to complete within the next two years.  My research is using an Ethics of Care perspective, with Practice Theory, to explore the influences on ethical practice in early years provision – what makes a difference and what that means within the nurseries. I am particularly interested in the role of organisational purpose and how that affects practice at the micro level, and have thoroughly enjoyed interviewing a wide range of leaders, managers, practitioners and parents, and endless amounts of academic reading.

What next?  To survive the Covid-induced crisis at Acorn, and then to lead the organisation forward for a few more years, before branching out into other directions.  My four wonderful children (yes, I got my wish, two girls and two boys) are all grown up, but yet to provide me with any grandchildren to dote on, and knowing myself quite well by now, I will always be looking for the next project to focus on, which will include writing a book, as soon as the PhD is finished!