School-led nurseries will be at the heart of the Government's plan for education, according to childcare minister Sam Gyimah. He called on schools to offer more nursery provision, particularly for disadvantaged two-year-olds, in a speech in October last year. He also asked schools and private, voluntary and independent (PVI) settings to work together to increase capacity. What he omitted from his address was that schools across England are already struggling to provide sufficient statutory places, let alone to accommodate children of pre-school age.
Mr Gyimah favours school-based provision because it allows schools to 'get to know children and their parents earlier on, offering them the tailored support they need, sooner'. He said it improves the transition to Reception year, helps schools strengthen links with communities, and makes it easier for parents with children already in a school to drop off younger siblings at the same location.
Some 44 per cent of primary and infant schools have nursery classes, according to the Department for Education (DfE). Yet its most recent figures, published in January 2014, show nursery classes in primary schools provide only 1 per cent of two-year-old funded places. To encourage schools to expand their offer, the Government wants to change a law that requires schools to register separately with Ofsted to take twos. A bill containing the amendment is currently passing through the House of Lords.
Yet for many schools, recent and future years will be occupied with trying to accommodate growing numbers of school-age children. The DfE predicts there could be 900,000 extra pupils in English schools over the next decade. According to the Local Government Association (LGA), this cost of creating extra places will be £12bn.
In January, the Labour Party published figures obtained through Freedom of Information requests to councils suggesting one in five primary schools operates over capacity. It also found more than three-quarters of councils need to open additional places over the next three years.
The party also criticised the Government's free schools programme, after discovering the new institutions have opened in areas with no shortage of places. It claims four in five free schools in the current academic year had not filled their places. The DfE directly approves free school applications. However, a report published by the Education Select Committee in the same month recommended that the DfE ensures local authorities are informed of such proposals so they can help increase capacity.
Free schools will remain a major plank of Conservative education policy if the party is re-elected in the May General Election, with Prime Minister David Cameron last month announcing a plan to open at least 500 of the schools over the course of the next Parliament.
The shortage is most pronounced in London. According to research published by London Councils in July 2014, two-thirds of London boroughs will need to increase primary school capacity by more than 10 per cent in the next five years. Between 2010 and 2016, London local authorities will have funded 48 per cent of new places from existing resources because of underfunding from Government. This is despite DfE allocating £4.3bn in capital funding to local authorities for new school places in England from 2010 to 2014, according to the National Audit Office.
London Councils programme manager for early years commissioning transfer Clive Grimshaw says the situation in London will make it harder for primary schools to expand provision to two-year-olds. 'It will be a mixed bag across London depending on the existing local two-year-old market and the historic process in terms of primary school places,' he says.
One reason is because schools that needed to create new places have already used up any spare land available. Another is funding. 'Government funding that provides primary school places doesn't provide any elements for the capital two-year-old costs,' he adds.
Mr Grimshaw says local authorities are working hard to meet demand for school places. They have also created spaces for two-year-olds which, though short of the number of children eligible for the entitlement, are meeting demand. The Government wanted 260,000 eligible two-year-olds to access 15 hours of free childcare a week from September 2014. But Mr Grimshaw says this is not as pressing a problem as school places. 'Not all those places are being taken up by parents who are entitled to them,' he says.
Just outside London, Surrey County Council is working to provide 13,000 more school places over the next five years. Cabinet member for schools and learning Linda Kemeny says this cost will leave the authority with a £215m funding gap.
'The population of children in Surrey is growing all the time, with an increased birth rate and the influx of families into the county, particularly from London, with more than one in 10 applications from the capital,' she says.
Her priority is to deliver these places, rather than care for twos. 'The Government's strategy to increase places for two-year-olds can only help, but we still need to find the 13,000 school places.'
Chairman of the LGA's children and young people board David Simmonds says the picture across England is different, and it makes sense for schools that can offer two-year-olds places to do so. Some schools are struggling to get children through the door, and offering extended nursery provision could help. 'In some cases there are schools at risk of closure, particularly in rural areas,' he says.
'Some schools are looking at what they can do to increase their popularity - whether they could offer things like nursery care open for longer hours. That seems to me a sensible thing to do, particularly when you've got schools already employing staff to do things like provide nursery care on a wraparound basis.
'Why open the nursery for just a few hours a day if potentially you're going to find mums and dads who perhaps have a child attending the school and a nursery-age child, so you could drop them both off in the morning and then pick them up again at the same time when schools close?' He adds that expanding nursery provision is also a way for schools to boost income.
But within the early years sector, practitioners have raised concerns that the Government's motives for putting two-year-olds into schools are economic rather than what is best for children. Despite Mr Gyimah's call for schools and PVIs to work together, Pre-school Learning Alliance chief executive Neil Leitch fears the Government is giving schools unfair advantages.
'Why would you move to the position that schools no longer have to register with Ofsted to deliver for two-year-olds?' he asks. 'There's a real anomaly in the rhetoric arguing this is about working with the PVI sector, then doing things that make it significantly easier for schools to offer the two-year-olds offer themselves.'
Mr Leitch's nurseries have already experienced negative consequences of the twos agenda. Recently, a London-based PLA nursery that had operated as an independent setting on a school site for more than 20 years was served notice by the school headteacher. 'It was an "outstanding" setting and we were called in because the school wanted to take over the provision itself,' explains Leitch. 'It wanted to put our rent up by 300 per cent. It also asked us for a block of money to compensate it for what it would have received had it been operating the two-year-old offer itself.'
Mr Leitch believes other schools may see Government funding for disadvantaged two-year-olds, as well as the Early Years Pupil Premium funding due to become available for three and four-year-olds from April, as a tempting way to increase income.
CASE STUDY: SOUTHWARK LONDON BOROUGH COUNCIL
By 2020, Southwark Council plans to have created more than 2,600 new primary school places to meet anticipated demand. Over the past five years, its primary school population has increased by 13 per cent. This is due to a slow down in migration out of the borough, a local population increase and more people moving into the area.
The council expects the expansion programme to cost £64m by 2015/16. This is partly funded by DfE and money drawn from existing council budgets. Southwark has permanently expanded its most popular schools and used council assets to provide accommodation for new school buildings. But it has been unable to open new schools, as the Academies Act 2010 and Education Act 2011 forbid local authorities from opening schools to meet anticipated demand.
Instead, Southwark has tried to work with academy and free school founders to ensure they are provided in areas of demand. Free schools can apply to open where their sponsors wish. This can lead to overprovision, impact on existing good schools and failure to address undersupply in other areas. Identifying land appropriate in terms of space, location and availability has been another challenge.
Southwark currently has five nursery schools delivering two-year-old funded places, and two primary schools. Several primary schools are considering opening to twos, especially when the proposed changes to Ofsted registration requirements come into effect.
However, the council expects many schools interested in providing for two-year-olds will not have the physical space to do so. One effect of the high demand for primary places is that school premises are being used at high capacity. It is rare for schools to have vacant or underused spaces to convert to twos provision.