WHEN I ask Purnima Tanuku if she has any hobbies, I’m not really prepared for the answer
After all it would be safe to assume that her role at the helm of the National Day Nurseries Association is more than a full-time job,
But perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised when she says she is also involved at an executive level with a Bradford-based South Asian performing arts school, because there’s one thing that Purnima appears to have in abundance and that’s enthusiasm.
Her passion for her job as chief executive shines through as soon as we begin to chat at the NDNA’s head office, the National Early Years Enterprise Centre in Bradley.
“I give 110% to my job,” she says.
And I can believe it.
Purnima has most likely given 110% to every job she’s ever had – and she’s got an impressive portfolio of achievements and firsts. She was the first Asian woman to head a regeneration trust – in Lancashire, where she lives today – and was the first ethnic communities officer for Leeds City Council.
When she arrived at the NDNA eight years ago the organisation had barely more than 20 staff. Today it employs over 60 people and has offices in Wales and Scotland as well as the base in Huddersfield.
It is the only childcare organisation based in the North of England and the only national charity representing day nurseries.
With 15,000 day nurseries, employing 250,000 people, the NDNA aims to be a force to be reckoned with. It is the voice of the sector.
It is Purnima’s job to do battle with politicians and keep members informed of changes in legislation, rules and regulations. To that end she makes regular forays around the country.
“Every year we have member events. From next month we will be visiting nine regions delivering the latest on legislation, including Ofsted.
“I attend every one because I’m not just a picture on Nursery News, it’s a fantastic opportunity for me to find out what is happening on the ground.”
Purnima, who is now in her mid-fifties, was a young woman when she first came to England from the Andhra Pradesh state of India, leaving behind her entire extended family.
Her husband, a doctor, came here to further his education while she embarked on building a career. “Like many young people I didn’t know what I wanted to do so I’ve done all sorts of things. But it was all valuable experience for where I am now,” she said.
She’d gained a masters degree in information science back in India and says she was blessed to come from a family that encouraged her to achieve. “I have a sister and two brothers but the girls were treated no differently than the boys, which is fundamental to the confidence of girls.
“And throughout my life my husband has supported me in everything I’ve wanted to do,” she explained. Their two children, a son and daughter, are now grown up and pursuing careers of their own, one as an architect and the other in chemical engineering.
Purnima has worked in the public, private and charitable sectors. “I have always been a working mum,” she says.
“My children went to nurseries and we had a lovely couple who helped to look after them, so I know what it’s like to put your children into day care.”
She sees day nurseries as much more than small businesses – 85% of them are independently owned or run by voluntary organisations – they are valuable resources for parents.
“Because most are privately owned people have the impression that they’re making loads of money and unfortunately that’s not the case. They are community businesses and very complicated to run, with all the legislation and health and safety,” she explained.
And nurseries are suffering because of the recession. “Occupancy has dropped. And while the Government funds 15 hours of free nursery education for four to five-year-olds some parents only use this, which means it is not sustainable for nurseries.
“The Government has extended this free provision to two-year-olds from the most deprived areas and is trialling it now. But the Government hands the money to local authorities and their cutbacks mean that nurseries are only getting £3.50 an hour on average for each child.
“For that the nurseries have to provide high quality care, the food and nappies. It doesn’t even cover their costs and they make a loss of £500 a year on each child.
“This is where I battle with the politicians.”
Purnima is also prepared to fight over the issue of staff ratios.
She says: “The Government wants to re-visit this – currently one member of staff for every three children under one – because in countries like Denmark and France it is one staff member to every four or five children.
“But their nursery system is better funded and the culture is quite different. We want a proper consultation over this with the people who are delivering the care.”
The NDNA works to raise the profile of nurseries and nursery staff.
“Nursery nursing is still low paid and a low status profession even though what they are doing is an extremely important job,” said Purnima.
“Up to 98% of the employees in the sector are female. We need to change perceptions but the problem is that its still being seen as an alternative to hairdressing and beauty therapy for students without qualifications.
“The Government says it wants high quality child care but until it invests in supporting parents to pay for care, nurseries can’t charge more and pay more to their staff.”
Purnima says she enjoys tackling challenges and it’s clear to see that her current role will never short of those.
Even in her spare time she obviously relishes responsibility. For several years now she has been chair of Kalasangam, the South Asian Academy of Performing Arts, based in Bradford.
A keen classical Indian dancer in her youth, Purnima introduced her daughter to the artform, rediscovered it herself and began dancing, teaching and performing.
“I don’t perform as much as I used to but I still enjoy dancing,” she says. “When you have a busy job it’s easy to get immersed in it and not have other interests, but I really love dancing.
“I’d strongly advise people to join something like it. It’s great for dealing with stress and getting away from it all.”