Yvonne at Busy Bees on developing an industry-first digital platform

How can technology help unleash the potential of our children? By distilling 35 years of childcare expertise into an interactive platform for parents and practitioners.

Busy Bees is one of the largest and most renowned childcare providers, operating more than 350 nurseries in the UK and more than 500 globally. Founded over 35 years ago by Marg Randles and John Woodward, their mission is to provide exciting, innovative care for children to give every child in their care the best start in life. Employing 10,000 practitioners in the UK alone, they deliver learning to over 40,000 children every day.

30 years ago, Marg had a vision for a tool that could be used by everyone across the business to deliver a world-class learning and development experience for the children in the care of Busy Bees. That vision became UP — an interactive platform designed to unleash the potential of parents, practitioners, and children. Yvonne Smillie, Deputy Chief Academic Officer at Busy Bees, joined Leon Barrett, Product Director at 383, at Canvas Conference 2019 to tell the insider story of bringing UP to life over the past 12 months.

The journey so far

Yvonne kicked things off by sharing a brief history of Busy Bees and what brought them to this stage in their evolution. The project stemmed from their desire to be sector leading:

 

Children will always remain at the heart of everything we do, but if we stand still, we’re failing them, because we must always move forward. That’s just the way of the world. Today’s children are growing up in a different space to the one that we grew up in… We need our children to be the future. We need them to be skilled and to be able to tackle working lives in jobs that don’t exist today… So how do we, as educators, prepare our children for the future?

 

This question becomes a lot easier to answer when you have a team of 10,000 highly skilled educators and practitioners at your disposal, but the challenge for Busy Bees was how they could capture all of the knowledge, expertise and passion developed over a 35 year history and put it into the hands of parents. And not only that — how could they keep it relevant and up to date in a world that is changing at pace?

Children will always remain at the heart of everything we do, but if we stand still, we're failing them, because we must always move forward. That's just the way of the world.

Yvonne Smillie , Deputy Chief Academic Officer at Busy Bees

Finding the right partner

The logical solution was an application, full of content and ideas that could easily be updated and shared with parents and practitioners on mobile devices. Initially, Yvonne and her team struggled to find the right partner to bring their vision to life.  As they started to talk to software providers, it seemed like many of them presented an off the shelf solution with the addition of the Busy Bees logo. Yvonne and the team were uninspired — ‘We thought, “Well, that’s dull. That doesn’t sing at me. That doesn’t make me want to use it. And you’re only going to let us have our own IP for a year. Are you bonkers?”’

Enter Leon and the 383 team. This time, the conversation started by trying to understand what the users needed, with a full appreciation of the Busy Bees vision. ‘It became really apparent to us, for a number of reasons, how important UP was to the lives of these young children in terms of giving them everything they need to have the best start in life’, Leon explained:

 

I think for myself as a father of two young girls, it resonated straight away. This is  something that could really make a difference. We knew that we had a huge responsibility to get it right. At 383 we have this phrase about making things that people want versus making people want things. For us, this is all about really trying to understand what it is that people use a product or service for and designing it around their needs. For us, UP wasn’t about just something that people wanted to use; it was about something that people loved to use. If we wanted our practitioners and our parents to engage with this, this really had to be easy to use, and simple to use, and a joy to use.

 

To deliver this, UP needed to feel uniquely Busy Bees — not only the branding, but the feel, and the tone, and the interactions. As Leon puts it, ‘it was making sure that we used the language of Busy Bees, so that it felt familiar and it didn’t feel alien, and people didn’t feel like there was this digital tool that was just chucked at them.’ Yvonne and team went even further by roping in staff and practitioners to sing songs and record content for the platform — ‘everything on there, every image that you see, every person that’s there, this is Busy Bees. This is our tone of voice, this is our people, because it’s for us.’

The human element

The potentially contentious issues around the role of technology in childcare were also front of mind. ‘We didn’t want to be replacing any of the face-to-face interactions that practitioners and parents had with their children’, Leon explained. ‘We set out to make sure that UP is all about maximising those people interactions and not replacing that interaction with an app.’

As an example, Yvonne discussed the decision not to include a playlist and repeat function, despite requests from users:

 

When we’re promoting singing within our nurseries, we want the practitioner to become confident with the tune, confident with the lyrics, confident to make it up if you get it wrong, but not to remove the interaction. And actually, if we allowed audio to be played on repeat, if we allowed playlists to be built, you’re then introducing to the learning environment a barrier, because you then have to talk over it, rather than it enhancing what you’re wanting to do. So by having to press repeat — “Shall we play that again? Shall we have a different song? Do we want another song about a dinosaur?” — we’re asking questions and we’re interacting, and we’re encouraging that.

Making magic

The real beauty of UP lies in how it enables parents and practitioners to tap into a child’s passions and interests to enhance their learning experience. ‘Children are capable of so much’, Yvonne explained, ‘we just have to give them that excitement, that love, that safe space to play and to learn, and we have to keep things fresh.’

For one child, that excitement was harnessed with songs, rhymes and activities within UP that played to his love of dinosaurs. The effects on his confidence, speech, language, and concentration were dramatic. ‘What UP enables you to do as a practitioner is take a child’s interest and blend it with their learning needs to make their world magical.’

What UP enables you to do as a practitioner is take a child’s interest and blend it with their learning needs to make their world magical.

Yvonne Smillie , Deputy Chief Academic Officer at Busy Bees

Living the dream

The same sense of excitement needed to be shared by Busy Bees practitioners, and when it was time for rollout, Leon knew that speed was key to success — it was about getting UP into the hands of 9,000 practitioners as soon as possible. ‘We thought, “What better way to put that to the test, then just to launch it to all of the managers at the same time in one big bang?”’

Marg presented UP at the Busy Bees annual manager celebration, where the team were immediately able to see it in action and start interacting with it on tablets around the room — no setup or training required. Yvonne explained, ‘This was a really key thing for us because we are a big ship, and it takes a big ship a long time to turn… you could almost feel that trepidation of, “This is exciting. This is going to change things. This is going to enthuse my team. I need this. I can’t wait a year!” Because in the past, that’s how long staff have had to wait for some exciting things and this needed to be faster. And for the first time, it was.’

Life changing results

Since launching in June 2019, UP has generated 1.2 million content views and 10,000 parent downloads< in the first two weeks, and a five star rating in the app store. And for a few glorious hours, UP was higher than Peppa Pig in the educational app charts (‘This is the one that I love the most’, Leon says, ‘because I bloody hate Peppa Pig…’).

For Yvonne, whilst the stats and numbers are great, it’s the transformational, real life stories that are the biggest indicator of success — such as a letter which told the story of a household where nightmare bath times have been transformed by the activities available on UP. For one Dad, ‘All of a sudden it is no longer traumatic to wash his daughters hair at night. That is life changing.’

UP has also excited staff, unlocking their skills and sharing their knowledge and ideas across the whole Busy Bees group. ‘That is exciting for our children’, Yvonne says, ‘That keeps learning fresh, that keeps things going, and that’s doing the very best for our children… That’s how we give every child the best start in life.’

Want access to all the insider stories from Canvas 2019? Register your details to see all nine full talk videos from the BBC, Virgin Atlantic, National Express, Rightmove and more.