DfE to assess the value of nursery schools

Newly appointed early years minister Nadhim Zahawi has announced that the Department for Education is to carry out a feasibility study into the cost and value of nursery schools, many of which face an uncertain future.

The announcement was made at a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on nursery schools on Tuesday, whose remit has now been expanded to cover the Reception Year as well as nursery schools and classes.

The APPG, which is chaired by Labour MP Lucy Powell, will now be known as the APPG on Nursery Schools, Nursery and Reception Classes.

The aim of the feasibility study, findings of which will be published in the summer, is to bring together evidence to inform a future Government consultation into the sustainability of nursery schools.

It follows concerns that many nursery schools will not be viable past 2019 if transitional Government funding until the end of this parliament finishes.

In 2016, the DfE promised more than £55 million in transitional funding for nursery schools until 2020 to support them in moving to the universal base rate under the new early years funding formula (EYFF).

A survey of nursery schools, carried out by Pen Green for the APPG, found that 67 per cent believe they will be unsustainable if the transitional funding comes to an end.

There are around 400 nursery schools in England. With nearly all nursery schools good or outstanding by Ofsted, they are considered the 'jewel in the crown' of the early years sector.

Beatrice Merrick, chief executive of Early Education, said, 'We’re delighted that the minister was able to attend the APPG and confirm that the DfE is moving ahead with a feasibility study for a larger piece of research on the costs and value of maintained nursery schools. This is an important step towards the long-term funding solution which is urgently needed so that maintained nursery schools can concentrate on supporting some of the most disadvantaged children and families in the country, and leading quality improvement across the sector, instead of fighting for survival.'

Early Education survey

During Tuesday's meeting of the APPG, Ms Merrick also revealed that early findings from their interim report into availability of funding for children with SEND in maintained nursery schools, suggest that support for these children is being put at risk by pressures on schools' budgets, and in relation to SEND in particular.

Initial analysis of the findings, based on survey responses from over 100 nursery schools, show:

  • There is little consistency across the country as to the amount of funding availability to support children with SEND, the eligibility criteria for obtaining it and ease or otherwise of obtaining it.
  •  A significant majority of maintained nursery schools are spending considerably more on SEND support than they receive in funding for it, having to find other sources of funding to ensure children’s needs can be met, despite the fact that the EYNFF makes no allowance for SEND in the universal base rate and supplements. Moreover, as maintained nursery schools' budgets are cut the scope for cross-subsidy is reducing significantly.
  • For just 4 per cent, there has been an improvement in funding for SEND in the previous year. Just over half (55 per cent) reported no change in the availability of funding for SEND over the past year, although in some cases this was under review and changes were expected to be announced soon, and in some cases funding had been progressively decreasing over time, therefore changes were not attributed to the EYNFF.
  • For 41 per cent of respondents there is less funding available and/or that the administrative processes required to obtain it are more onerous since the introduction of the EYNFF. 

Other issues reported by respondents include no longer having guaranteed funding from year-to-year which enable nursery schools to retain specialist staff on long-term contracts, while at the same time there is a greater numbers of children with SEND transferring to nursery schools from other settings that cannot meet their needs.

The findings also reveal that at least two local authorities have cut additional funding for two-year-olds with SEND.

Commenting on the early findings, Ms Merrick said, 'The initial findings from our survey suggest that maintained nursery schools in many areas of the country are struggling to access sufficient funding to support children with SEND, and many are having to support these children by raiding other budgets, which is less and less sustainable. 

'Because of the high concentration of children with SEND in maintained nursery schools, they are the ‘canary in the coalmine’ that indicates a wider problem with SEND funding in the early years sector. Anecdotally maintained nursery schools tell us they are taking in increasing numbers of children with SEND turned away by PVIs and primary schools because they are unable to cope with their needs due to lack of funding and support. 

'We hope Government will urgently review the amount of High Needs funding available for the early years, and ensure greater consistency across the country in ensuring that funding gets swiftly to where it is needed to support children with SEND in the early years.'

The full findings of Early Education’s report will be published by mid-February.

A Department for Education spokesperson said, 'Maintained nursery schools make a valuable contribution to improving the lives of some of our most disadvantaged children. That is why we are providing Local Authorities with £60m a year up until 2020, to enable them to maintain nursery school funding rates.

'We are carrying out feasibility work, working closely with the sector on our next steps.'

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