More than 400 state-run nursery schools could ‘disappear at a stroke’ under the Government’s plan to turn all schools into academies, a leading early years specialist has warned.
The concerns were raised after chancellor George Osborne set out in his Budget the radical plan to force all schools in England into the academy system.
Leaders from across the education sector have been voicing alarm at the potential impact of compulsory academisation, which many believe will not offer the improvements that Mr Osborne has claimed.
Beatrice Merrick, chief executive of Early Education, said, ‘If all schools are to become academies by 2020, Government will have to tweak the law so that nursery schools – which are currently excluded from the legislation – are allowed to convert. Otherwise, they will be left in an anomalous position with local authorities which will no longer have the infrastructure to support them.
‘Unless their status is resolved, over 400 of the highest-quality providers of nursery education in England will disappear at a stroke. This will not only affect the children attending – including a disproportionately high number of the most vulnerable children, many with SEND or complex needs – but [also] the wider sector, who benefit from the nursery schools’ activity as teaching schools and beacons of excellence.’
The Treasury confirmed that nursery schools are not included in the academy plans.
Mary Groom, education solicitor and partner at legal firm Bates Wells Braithwaite, suggested that children’s centres currently run by nursery schools could also be at risk from the changes.
‘A further implication is that if maintained nursery schools disappear, a children’s centre which is integrated with the nursery school will have no staff to run it,’ said Ms Groom.
Elizabeth Carruthers, head of Redcliffe Nursery School in Bristol, said she was not wholly against the academy model, which she believes does offer benefits to schools in the form of financial autonomy.
However, Ms Carruthers, who also runs the linked Redcliffe children’s centre, national teaching school and research base, is concerned that the ground gained by centres of excellence such as hers, to have early years valued on an ‘equal footing’ within the wider education sector, could go to waste.
‘Teaching schools are very much like academies in that they’re very financially autonomous,’ she said. ‘You’re kind of running a business, you have a business arm that adds to your funding, and you’re encouraged to be business-like. But we’re still linked to the local authority and there are certain things we can’t do.
‘I’m about 40 per cent in favour of academies, 60 per cent against. Another argument for joining up with primary schools is that transitions might be stronger.
‘But if we were to become part of the nearby academy, when I retire as head, I may not be replaced. Primary head teachers always admit to me they know nothing about early years.’
The head teacher also aired concerns over successful academies subsuming the failing ones, and forcing them to conform to an umbrella ethos that is not accountable.
‘The best academies are the ones with the best business minds,’ added Ms Carruthers. ‘Some are failing because they had a big injection at the beginning, which wasn’t built upon.
‘The Government gave money to support failing schools to become academies but, if they fail, one lead school takes over everything. If there’s no local authority, we could see one academy take over and be God.’
Across the country, a campaign is mounting to protect nursery schools – during the past five years, 200 nursery schools have closed nationally; 408 remain.
Shelagh Morpeth, acting head of Millfield Community Nursery School in Sunderland, said the Government should support such settings, 55 per cent of which have Outstanding ratings from Ofsted.
‘For every £1 spent on nursery education, the Government will save £7 in the long run,’ she said.
Nine settings in the Wearside area have reportedly set up Partners in Pedagogy, to offer training and share best practice.
An All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Nursery Schools and Nursery Classes was established in January to look at the vital role they play in education and what efforts are necessary to secure their future.
The National Campaign for the Nursery Education and TACTYC are supporting the APPG’s aims.
The Government’s academies plans have been slammed as ‘undemocratic’ and an ‘ideological step too far’ by teaching unions and some local authorities.
In his conference speech last autumn, prime minister David Cameron outlined his ‘vision for our schooling system’, which involved giving head teachers and teachers, rather than ‘bureaucrats’, control of education.
In the Budget last week, Mr Osborne also announced the setting aside of £1.5bn to fund five extra hours’ teaching or activities a week, in order to lengthen the school day.
Describing the Government’s plans as ‘reckless’, Islington council leader Councillor Richard Watts said, ‘Parents must have the say over the future of local schools, and it is wrong for the Tory Government to impose a one-size-fits-all approach.’
Education secretary Nicky Morgan has meanwhile launched the education White Paper Educational Excellence Everywhere, outlining the shake-up along with changes to replace Qualified Teacher Status.
Lucy Powell MP, Labour’s shadow education secretary, said the White Paper ‘smacks of a costly, unnecessary re-organisation of schools which nobody wants’.
For more information on the Budget’s effect on the sector, see www.nurseryworld.co.uk/news