PVI sector's voice not heard on schools forums

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The Pre-school Learning Alliance is calling for a shake-up of the way local authority education funding decisions are made.

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Neil Leitch is calling for proportional representation on school forums to ensure the early years sector's views are heard

Research by the Alliance has revealed that most councils keep to the bare minimum legal requirement for early years sector membership of schools forums.

The organisation says that private, voluntary and independent providers are underrepresented on the majority of schools forums.

It is calling for a change to the law to require local authorities to include a proportional level of early years representation on all schools forums to ensure the sector's views are heard on funding decisions.

It says that the impact of early years underrepresentation on schools forums has been highlighted most recently by concerns from providers about SEN inclusion funding, in terms of their ability to access this funding, and the fact that some councils are sourcing this money solely from their early years funding pots, despite having the option to fund it from high needs funding pots.

The Alliance submitted Freedom of Information requests to every local authority in England asking for details on overall schools forum members, school and academy representatives, and PVI representatives.

This showed that while forums have an average of 25 members, the vast majority (70 per cent) include just one early years provider from the private, voluntary or independent sector – the statutory minimum.

Representatives from schools and academies make up the majority of members on schools forums – 19 on average.

Just over a quarter of local authorities that responded (29 per cent) reported two early years PVI reps, and just two councils had three or four respectively.

The Schools Forums (England) Regulations (2012) state that ‘Schools members and Academies must together comprise at least two thirds of the membership of the forum’, and ‘The authority must appoint non-schools members to their schools forum comprising…one or more persons to represent early years providers.’

The Pre-school Learning Alliance has released the findings from the research ahead of its annual conference on Friday.

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said, ‘At a time when all education providers are having to share an ever-dwindling funding pot, it is simply unacceptable that the early years sector is so woefully underrepresented on the very panels that advise key funding decisions.

‘Our research showed that, on average, schools and academy representatives outnumber early years PVI providers 14-to-1 – how is that a fair basis on which to make funding decisions?

‘For far too long, the early years sector has been a secondary consideration when it comes to education policy, and this is clearly reflected in the current rules on schools forum membership. It is simply not acceptable that in the vast majority of councils, one early years representative is expected to speak on behalf of the entire local PVI sector, while schools and academies make up more than three-quarters of the forum.

‘It’s high time that the early years sector had a much stronger voice when it comes to funding decisions and we believe that ensuring proportional representation on schools forums would be an excellent first step.’

Concerns for SEN inclusion funding

‘The impact of early years underrepresentation on schools forums has been highlighted most recently by provider concerns around SEN inclusion funding – both in terms of early years providers’ ability to access this funding, and the fact that some councils are sourcing this money solely from their early years funding pots despite also having the option to fund it via high needs funding pots.’

Nicola Gibson, Alliance inclusion manager said, ‘The current system is not fit for purpose. Many forums lack clear accountability and a fair system for providers to challenge funding decisions.

‘Some early providers have historically found it difficult to secure SEND top-up funding, and unfortunately, for many, this remains the case with the new SEN inclusion funds. What’s more, with such an unequal representation on schools forums, providers are often afraid to challenge rejected applications.

‘This is all the more problematic given the growing number of reports of councils opting to effectively lower early years base rates by taking this inclusion funding solely from their early years funding pot, rather their high needs pot which is shared with schools and other education providers. Proportional representation on schools forum is vital to prevent precisely this kind of unfair and unbalanced situation.’

The data on schools forums is part of a wider local authority-level research that is being carried out by the Alliance. More findings will be revealed at the Alliance’s annual conference, ‘Free childcare’ – at what cost? in London on Friday.

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