3 April 1998

Setting up a nursery isnt childs play

If youre good at working with builders and local authority red

tape doesnt scare you, a farm-based nursery school could be

a good diversification. A Yorkshire farming couple who took

the plunge explained why they did it to David Cousins

UNLESS youre involved in it, education can seem a puzzling business. All those children, all that regulation from the local authority, the endless tests, the National Curriculum, the school inspections. So why on earth would a nice farming couple like Neil and Christine Martinson want to get involved in it?

The answer, as is often the case, is to do with farm size. Neil was farming 60ha (150 acres) of arable as well as running a general farm contracting business. It was 1993 and farm prices were good, but he was worried about the longer-term future for small arable units.

"We knew that with land prices high there was little hope of expanding," he says. "We could have borrowed the money to buy 200 acres, in fact we looked at two farms. But with land at £3000/acre the amount of money we would have to borrow all began to look a bit ridiculous."

While all this was going on, a quite different idea was germinating. The couple had three small children and Christines job as a primary school teacher meant schooling was never far from their minds. Partly from comments from other parents and partly from their own experience they began to notice that there was a distinct shortage of nursery (ie for under fives) education in their area.

&#42 Taking the plunge

In 1995 they took the plunge, selling the farm and buying a smaller 16ha (40-acre) unit with house and buildings nearby. The idea was that Neil would switch to mainly livestock production and the buildings would be converted into a farm-based nursery school. The farm was right on the side of the main Beverley to Driffield road, which was a big plus point.

So a 60-head breeding ewe flock was established, as well as a 300-pig contract rearing unit and the 16ha put down to arable (seed peas this year). Contract work continued but was gradually scaled down as other calls on Neils time increased.

Meanwhile an architect was taken on to draw up plans for the nursery itself. The idea was to convert the late 18th century two-storey granary and stable into the nursery building and to keep as much of the character as possible.

But before the builders could move in, there was some serious paperwork to do. The Martinsons had applied for a redundant building grant from the Rural Development Commission. This pays 25% of eligible costs, provided that jobs are being created (which they were). It took a month to get approval for the grant and the Martinsons received a cheque for £8932 in the end.

"We were lucky, though," says Christine Martinson. "The grant scheme only covers certain parishes in this area. If wed been a few hundred yards nearer Beverley we wouldnt have got anything."

&#42 Building work begins

The Martinsons had three quotes from builders and plumped for the lowest one at £40,000 (the middle quote was £59,000). Inevitably, the project went a bit over budget, largely because of the need for specialist items undreamt of by most householders but essential in a school. More than £10,000 was spent on plumbing and electrics.

The local Social Services department told them they needed low surface-temperature radiators (£200 each) and anti-scald taps to stop young children burning themselves. The environmental health people, meanwhile, said they would need a high-temperature boiler for hygienic washing up.

Doors had to have window sections in them (so that you can see if theres a small child on the other side before you open it). The fire department insisted on self-closers on all doors, despite the fact that childrens fingers can get caught in them. The planners said a special toilet would have to be installed in case disabled staff were employed, but were overruled by the Social Services who decided that there was no such requirement in a nursery school.

Steps up or down at doorways (of which most old farm buildings have several) are also a no-no as far as local authorities are concerned. Removing the steps wasnt feasible, so some of the floors had to be raised to give an even run through the door. That meant raising the doorways too.

&#42 Getting known about

Despite these (and many other) complications, Fountain Farm Childrens Nursery opened for business on Feb 24, 1997. It was a slightly nerve-wracking time, recall the Martinsons.

"We didnt do any market research into numbers of potential pupils beforehand as its a difficult area to research in practice," admits Christine. "All our friends said there was a need for a different type of nursery school from others in the area and other parents agreed."

"In the months and weeks prior to opening there were some word-of-mouth bookings, but it was pretty quiet some days when we first opened. But by three or four months after opening the numbers started to take off," adds Neil. "Parents know that they wont have any parking or road safety problems here and they wont have to negotiate a one-way system as they do in Beverley or Driffield."

They spent £1000 on advertising in local papers and radio but didnt get much response that way. In fact most children have come by word of mouth or because drivers speeding along the A164 have spotted the sign outside the farm and had the presence of mind to jot down the nurserys phone number.

&#42 Costs and revenues

In all, the Martinsons spent £44,637 (including fire extinguishers etc) on converting and fitting out the nursery, £9000 of which was paid for by the RDC grant. "About the same as buying 10 acres of land," comments Neil. Fortunately, the sale of the 147 acres covered this so there was no need to borrow from the bank. And once the set-up costs are paid off, a nursery should – in theory – be moderately profitable.

"Our main costs are staff," he points out. "There are three full-time employed staff and five part-timers, as well as a secretary who comes in for one day a week. In our first year this alone accounted for nearly 50% of the total £40,000 turnover, but we reckon it should settle down at nearer 33%."

Working on projected calculations, if the nursery is full with full-time children all year round, turnover could be over £100,000, reckon the Martinsons.

Just over a year after the nursery opened there are 39 children at Fountain Farm Nursery. Drawn from a 12-mile radius from the farm, some are the children of local professional people, others come from the nearby Army School of Transport.

Fountain Farm Nursery takes children from six weeks to five years in age. The six-week lower age limit is unusual (most nurseries wont take children until theyre 18 months old) but gives the Martinsons an advantage over other schools.

Financially its a mixed blessing though. Babies require an adult:child ratio of 1:3, whereas older children need just 1:8, so the babies dont make much money. But their presence does ensure a steady supply of children who will hopefully stay at Fountain Farm for several years. In fact the Martinsons next project is to convert another barn to take the under-twos, for whom there is currently a waiting list.

The year has been so busy that theyve had little chance to capitalise on one of Fountain Farm Nurserys biggest assets – the farm. However that should all change in 1998, with viewing platforms to allow children to view stock better and in more safety, plus potential for making a duck pond and woods part of the school routine.

Though the nursery is a lot more profitable than farming at the moment, Neil Martinson is determined that Fountain Farm will not become what he calls a hobby farm. So far he has successfully managed to juggle the requirements of both farm and nursery (he reckons he changes from work to indoor clothes and back again five times a day). And if the nursery makes enough money hed like to buy some more land. Maybe.

Above: Neil Martinson with some of the pigs he rears on contract.

Left: Neil and Christine with children Edward, Melissa and Charlotte.

Above and right: Before and after. The main room of the nursery is housed in a two-storey 18th century granary.