Pre-schools at risk from longer hours

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Some pre-schools will be forced to opt out of providing free nursery education places for three- and four-year-olds, unless they commit to opening for 38 weeks a year, Nursery World has learned. Providers claim that they may be forced out of business by Kent County Council's decision to deny them funding for the free early education entitlement if they do not extend the weeks they are open from September 2007.

Some pre-schools will be forced to opt out of providing free nursery education places for three- and four-year-olds, unless they commit to opening for 38 weeks a year, Nursery World has learned.

Providers claim that they may be forced out of business by Kent County Council's decision to deny them funding for the free early education entitlement if they do not extend the weeks they are open from September 2007.

But some pre-schools told Nursery World that they will not be able to meet the conditions because they share premises, while others fear they could lose well-qualified staff and claim that there is no parental demand for 38 weeks' provision.

Kathie Foster, who runs Dunton Green Pre-School in Sevenoaks, said, 'One of my colleagues has been told by Kent she will have to close if she cannot offer the 38 weeks. The Government has underestimated the impact extending the entitlement will have on small village pre-schools. Our parents are not particularly keen on extending the hours. I think we should be able to choose to run the services parents want and what's right for children.'

Sandra Brown, who runs the Vine Pre-School in Sevenoaks in a rented cricket pavilion used by others during the summer, said, 'I'm desperately trying to find other premises.'

In a statement, Kent County Council said, 'In order to support continuity of care for children with effect from Septem- ber 2007, any providers not able to open 38 weeks will no longer be eligible to deliver the free entitlement.'

However, speaking in a House of Lords debate on the Childcare Bill on 12 June, schools minister Lord Adonis said that as long as local authorities could provide sufficient 38-week places, 'there should be no need to put undue pressure on providers to deliver places only over 38 weeks, when there is also a market for parents for a provision over a lesser period...

It is not an all-or-nothing approach to the 38 weeks.'

A spokesperson said the DfES was 'in ongoing dialogue with Kent County Council about the increase to 38 weeks for the authority and providers'.

Not all local authorities hold the same view as Kent. Reading Borough Council said, 'Some providers may always find offering a 38-week place difficult due to circumstances beyond their control. We have arrangements that ensure such providers are able to continue to claim the nursery education grant.' Providers are funded pro-rata for the number of weeks they are open.

Pauline House, Reading's head of Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare, said parents should be made aware they would not be able to access their full entitlement. 'They need to have the option of continuing to use their preferred provider even if they are open for less than 38 weeks.'