In the year that it celebrates the centenary of the UK’s first nursery school, the Rachel McMillan Nursery School and Children’s Centre in Deptford, the charity says that high quality early years education is increasingly at risk.
In the run-up to the local elections in May, the charity has launched a campaign to challenge local authorities on the cuts being made to maintained nursery schools and children’s centres.
It says that the number of nursery schools is declining - there are now 428, compared with 520 in 1999.
Early Education says that their closure represents “the worst of short-term thinking” and harms the youngest and most vulnerable children.
Since 2010, the number of children’s centres in England has also fallen, from 3,631 to 3,116, and some are now centres in name only, with “half a person and a bunch of leaflets”, the charity says, quoting former Sure Star director Naomi Eisenstadt.
A survey to be published next month by the charity reveals that more than nine in ten nursery schools have concerns about their funding.
Early Education chief executive Beatrice Merrick told Nursery World, ‘There’s been a feeling from the chief executive down to the grass roots level, from our members that we needed to speak out.’
She added, ‘We can’t jeopardise children’s futures by leaving no more than a skeleton core of services.’
At a time when the Government is expanding free places to 40 per cent of two-year-olds, the charity warns that there is huge pressure on the availability of high-quality provision.
‘The emphasis on quality for children is being lost in the debate about getting women back to work,’ Ms Merrick added.
Local authority early years teams are being ‘decimated’, leading to gaps in training and support for settings.
Ms Merrick said that cuts to early years advisers means that there is less specialist support for twos
Julian Grenier, chair of Early Education, said, ‘We should be very proud that Britain has some of the world's best early years provision.’
‘There is widespread agreement around the vital importance of high-quality early education and provision for families with young children, reflected in three major reports commissioned by the coalition government (the Allen Report, the Field Report and the Nutbrown Review) as well as the recent report of Education Select Committee. So we are calling on candidates for the forthcoming local elections to support children’s centres and maintained nursery schools, and stop the accelerating programmes of cutbacks and closures.’
The campaign is being backed by prominent early years figures: a letter in The Guardian co-ordinated by Early Education was signed by more than 30 academics and sector experts, including Professors Iram Siraj, Kathy Sylva and Colwyn Trevarthen, Lesley Staggs, former national strategies director of early years, Ben Hassan, chair of the National Campaign for Real Nursery Education, and Dr Margy Whalley, director of Pen Green Centre for Children and Families.
Local authorities must do more than 'blame national government and the economic recession' for the cuts, the experts say.
‘Local politicians must take action to protect provision of quality for young children,'the letter says. 'We are profoundly concerned about the widespread loss of local early years provision of quality and the resulting harm to children and their families. We understand that the resources available to local government are being reduced, and therefore difficult decisions must be taken. But we urge local politicians to protect early years provision, which can have a lifelong, positive impact on young children and their families.
‘Otherwise we will all pay in the long-term for cuts being made in the short-term.’
However, the Department for Education said that funding for early years provison was rising and that quality was improving.
A spokesperson said, 'We are dramatically extending high quality early years provision. For the first time, every three- and four-year-old has access to 15 hours of free early education a week, and we are extending this to 260,000 two-year-olds from low-income families.
'Far from worsening, the quality of early education and childcare is improving — 7 per cent of early years providers are now rated good or outstanding by Ofsted, up from 69 per cent in 2010.
'Early years funding is not being cut, it is increasing. Total funding for early intervention is rising from £2.2bn in 2011-12 to £2.5bn in 2014-15.
'Only 65 children's centres — just over 1 per cent of the total — have closed since 2010. Many local authorities have successfully cut bureaucracy by merging management and back office functions. There are still more than 3,000 children's centres across the country as well as a further 500 merged sites providing Children's Centre services as part of a network.'
- Early Education is holding a Nursery Schools Summit in London on 14 March.