Move over Jamie Oliver: the Sixpenny Nurseries’ diet is locally sourced and freshly cooked

Written by Tony Millett.

Locally sourced, freshly cooked – that’s not quite what ‘nursery food’ conjured up in the minds of generations past. But it’s the way the local Sixpenny Childcare Nurseries and Pre-Schools do it.

The nurseries – owned and run by Kate Easter – have their own purpose-built kitchen in Minal, three chefs and two delivery vehicles taking hot food to Sixpennies in Aldbourne, Minal and Devizes – and to also to the Stepping Stones centre in Froxfield.

Kate Easter employs seventy staff who care for up to four hundred nought-to-five year-olds a day – with staff-to-child ratios varying with the age groups. The nurseries are open from seven-forty-five in the morning until six in the evening and mostly cater for the children of working parents.

As Kate told Marlborough News Online: “That age range is so wonderful – they’re little sponges absorbing everything and you can see their characters coming through.”

Minal Manager Toni Holness receives the hot lunchMinal Manager Toni Holness receives the hot lunchFeeding the four hundred is quite a task: there’s breakfast, a mid-morning snack, a two course freshly prepared hot lunch, afternoon snack and, for those still around, a tea of soup and sandwiches or wraps and fresh vegetable sticks – all with plenty of fresh fruit.

All the meat comes from Marlborough’s Sumbler Brothers – and they know precisely which farms have supplied every helping of meat. Fruit and fresh vegetables come from the ‘5adaybox’ specialists at Coate, near Devizes.

The day MNO was on hand to see the hot lunch arrive at the Minal nursery they were having roast pork, roast potatoes, fresh veg and gravy, followed by fresh melon.  As the chef lifted a lid to check the temperature inside, the aroma was very appetising indeed.

Next day’s menu included jacket potato, cheddar cheese and baked beans with fresh bananas and hot custard. The following days’ main courses were savoury mince and fish fingers - ‘100 per cent cod’.

The Minal nursery is in a converted barn and has sheltered fresh-air areas and warm inside areas divided up to accommodate the various age groups – and there’s all manner of things to do and to play with.  And plenty of hands-on staff.

Kate likes to recruit her staff locally.  And she takes on a number of young trainees who do an NVQ equivalent course in conjunction with Swindon College with trainers and assessors coming to the students in their nurseries so they can earn a full week’s wage.

“To be able to offer a really good training in a village they’ve grown up in and know well – that is really important.  And it’s important they’re coming out with a properly recognised qualification at the end of it.”

The nurseries also have a good relationship with St John’s Academy for work experience so students can see whether they went to start on a career in childcare.

The economics of childcare have been in the news recently as the coalition government tries to make childcare cheaper and so make it easier for people with small children to go back to work: “There are more and more people needing to go back to work – if a husband’s job is not so secure, wives need to go out to work.”

But the economics do not make it straightforward for those running nurseries: “Anyone who goes into childcare to make money is mad – we don’t do it for that, you have to have a passion for what you are doing.”

The main costs are rents, staff and food.  But on top Kate has to pay business rates and they keep rising.  Also rising are heating costs: “You can’t just turn the heating down and put another sweater on the children.”

There has to be constant reinvestment – toys and walls get a fearful battering from young ones trying out their skills and strengths.

The government plans to make childcare cheaper by relaxing the specified ratios of staff to children. “We don’t think,” Kate says, “it’s a good idea.  We don’t think it will achieve their objective of cheaper childcare.  Especially when safety of children is absolutely paramount – the more staff the better.”

“I don’t know anyone in the industry who thinks it will be best for the children.”

Certainly the government adviser, Professor Cathy Nutbrown agrees with Kate’s views.  She has said the loosening of staff-to-child ratios is ‘nonsense’ and will only harm vulnerable children.

Sixpenny at AldbourneSixpenny at AldbourneThe government responded to Prof Nutbrown by saying they had calculated that the change in ratios would enable nurseries to pay expert teachers £3,000 a year more, which is strange logic when you are trying to make childcare cheaper.  It would have less impact on the children simply to reduce the business rates nurseries have to pay.

But enough of the politics.  Back to the Sixpenny food regime: the day before MNO visited Minal Nursery the children had a lunch of ‘Fresh locally sourced beef and vegetable Bolognese with pasta’, with fruit and natural yoghurt to follow. A healthy foundation for an afternoon of constructive play and good fun.





Sixpenny Nurseries were started in Aldbourne by Veronica Handover, wife of Richard Handover, then chairman of W.H.Smith.  She lived in the village in Sixpenny Cottage and the nursery moved from her kitchen to the local Methodist Hall.  When Kate Easter needed childcare for her own children, she took it over.  She had previously worked in the sports and leisure industry – especially on children’s programmes and the provision of crèches.  She moved the first Sixpenny to a converted barn and then opened the other branches – seeking out farmers who had to diversify and were eager to earn rent from redundant barns. The Minal barn conversion was opened in 2001.  There are now Sixpenny Nurseries in Aldbourne, Minal and at the Roundway Hill Business Centre in Hopton, Devizes.  And there’s the Stepping Stones nursery and Pre-Prep centre in Froxfield – also in converted barns.  The nurseries are subject to unannounced inspections by Ofsted.

Click on pictures to enlarge them.