A report from Early Education to be published this week, Maintained Nursery Schools: a hidden asset, highlights the fragility of nursery schools' existence in an era of local authority cuts and Government pressure on schools to expand Reception classes and push more children into schools earlier.
Some local authorities are also weighing up their options and considering whether to merge maintained nursery schools with local primaries.
The report, based on the organisation's membership survey with responses from 127 nursery schools, seeks to identify the current health of nursery schools, the challenges they face, and the wider contribution they make.
Early Education chief executive Beatrice Merrick said, 'Our survey shows how maintained nursery schools are on a knife edge, threatened by cuts in local authority funding. Often these cuts are based on the flawed premise that nursery schools are just one more form of childcare, and that funding levels for all providers should be the same.'
More than three-quarters of nursery schools (77 per cent) in the survey were concerned about their future viability or faced imminent loss of their independence. While none faced immediate closure, just 12 per cent said they were positive about the future.
Some nursery schools report that local authorities are continuing to value and support them, but others say they are at risk of closure.
Most nursery schools are rated good or outstanding by Ofsted, reflecting their highly qualified staff and high-quality provision.
The survey also reveals that nursery schools offer more than early education. Just over 40 per cent of nursery schools also run children's centres and daycare. Other services for families include working with health visitors, family support teams, child health clinics, childminder networks, and work with parents on children's learning - and in turn parents' learning.
They are often the preferred setting for inclusion and social care referrals for vulnerable children and their families.
Nursery schools also offer vital specialised early years support at a time when many local authorities are cutting early years adviser jobs.
Twenty per cent of maintained nursery schools are part of a Teaching School partnership and more than 80 per cent are involved in training and placements.
Ms Merrick added, 'Our findings show that nursery schools offer a wide array of services. Once lost, this expertise will be exceptionally hard to rebuild. Cutting now will have huge costs in the longer term, both financial and social.'
The report says that nursery schools are a 'unique educational asset', but their existence is largely 'invisible' from most parents, partly because they remain small in number and do not offer universal services.
According to the Department for Education's Childcare and Early Years Parents' Survey 2012-13, 14 per cent of three- and four-year-olds are in nursery school provision, but the report highlights that their value goes beyond the number of children enrolled, as they have a vital role to play in training early years professionals across the sector.
Only 700 maintained nursery schools remain in the UK and these numbers have gradually been eroded over the past ten to 15 years.
PLAYING A VITAL ROLE
Many nursery schools are playing a vital role in the expansion of places for disadvantaged two-year-olds.
According to the survey, 63 nursery schools already offer places under the two-year-old funding and more are in the process of setting it up.
Bedworth Heath Nursery School and Children's Centre in Warwickshire was part of the pilot for twos in 2010. It offers 48 places for twos and is a mentor for other early years settings considering taking part in the scheme for Warwickshire County Council. The nursery school is also part of the Pen Green research project Being Two.
Headteacher Amanda King said, 'Our expertise in the birth to five age range make us perfectly placed to meet their developmental needs and utilises the specialist skills and knowledge built up in the staff team over many years. The introduction of two-year-olds has had a very positive impact. It facilitates appropriate early intervention via access to the wholly integrated children's centre services. Children spend two years with us, grow, develop and thrive.'
However, long-term financial sustainability is an issue, which Ms King attributes to 'inadequacies' in the funding, no mechanism for special educational needs funding, and the fact that deprivation funding is based on postcode and not a child's circumstances.
Catherine Larkin, headteacher of Offerton Hall Nursery School in Stockport, has also started offering places for twos. As well as helping local parents, the hope is that the move will improve the nursery school's sustainability.
'We were losing children who were going to other settings at two and not starting with us at three, which they had traditionally done,' she said. 'This is something we can do to a high standard.'
CASE STUDY: LARK HILL NURSERY SCHOOL, STOCKPORT
Over the past three years, four nursery schools have closed in Stockport, leaving a total of five.
Unlike some other local authorities, the remaining nursery schools in Stockport have not ended up managing children's centres, although two nursery schools did become children's centres as part of phase 1 in the early days of the children's centre programme.
Three of the nursery schools offer places for disadvantaged two-year-olds.
Lark Hill, graded outstanding in its last inspection, has just started offering funded two-year-old places. Its two-year-old provision was inspected last month by Ofsted for the childcare inspection, and the head teacher is anticipating an excellent result. The nursery school offers 16 funded places for twos and two non-funded places.
The three-hour sessions are spread over five days. There is a 'demand' for places and the nursery school is considering extending more provision for twos to meet parents' requests for more hours.
The Stockport Consortium of Nursery Schools is keen to share its expertise and runs training for private and voluntary early years settings, maintained nurseries and for nursery classes in primary schools. Nursery schools also act as early years experts to support primary school heads and hold half-termly meetings to give updates on early years policy and practice.
Jo O' Raw, headteacher of Lark Hill Nursery School in Stockport, said that there is 'a genuine fear' that nursery schools could be merged with local primaries.
'There's uncertainty. On the one hand there are cuts, but the birth rate is really high,' she said. 'I know that I couldn't leave my school without the question of its future being raised.'
Read Julian Grenier's analysis on Early Education's campaign.