For me, it’s been a pretty intense year. After deciding on an almost complete lifestyle change, I headed towards the Dales, leaving behind 25 years of inner-city teaching and headship to become head teacher of one of North Yorkshire’s three maintained nursery schools.
My new staff team are welcoming and hardworking, while neighbouring heads have been tolerant and attentive. I understood that moving to a smaller setting would mean new priorities and I’ve been unfazed by having to wear many hats – I am now the SENCO, safeguarding lead and have a teaching commitment. But coming from an inner-city London estate in a small authority, what I wasn’t prepared for was the enormity of North Yorkshire; it really is huge.
Its scale was brought home to me when I realised that a mandatory training session was an hour-and-a-half drive away; and by the Government consultation on the proposed National Funding Formula for the early years.
We all know the financial vulnerability of maintained nursery schools. However, the consultation has brought sharply into focus the potential risks to other provision – risks currently well disguised by Government promises of ‘a higher hourly rate’ and ‘a level playing field’.
Three-quarters of local authorities will apparently gain under the new arrangements, but in the remaining quarter, and in all those receiving a sub-£4 settlement, there is a real
and significant threat to all types of setting.
WINNERS AND LOSERS
Looking at the spread of ‘winners and losers’ from my new perspective in North Yorkshire, I can see a definite bias emerging. It’s not simply a North-South divide, though it certainly contains elements of this. In basing their calculations on factors such as deprivation, rateable value and English as an Additional Language, which favour urban, inner-city areas, the authors of the consultation completely ignore the practical challenges faced by non-unitary authorities.
The result is that large authorities overseeing huge areas (often with places of significant deprivation) become discriminated against. I know there is a supplement for rurality and sparsity, but this comes out of the final payment to authorities and is not a part of the ‘metrics’ – interestingly, the Government has accepted rurality in schools’ block funding, but not early years.
To put this into numbers, the hourly rate in North Yorkshire is likely to be around £3.57 after adjustments, not the published figure of £4.88. In my previous London authority, it will be about £7.92.
Of course, London authorities carry higher costs, but when the highest-paid authority is drawing a rate of £8.51 (actually a 10 per cent cut in funding), then talk of ‘a level playing field’ begins to sound hollow – though I know from managing a budget in two authorities that even with adjustment the figures don’t add up.
WHAT ABOUT EQUALITY?
This disparity in the rates raises important questions about equality. They certainly make childcare provision inviable in our authority, in both maintained nursery schools and PVI settings. Staffing is the highest cost to providers, and at a base rate of £3.57… well, you do the maths.
I know that some local authorities are better off under the new proposals, but take a minute to consider the 46 that receive the much-vaunted £4.88, and then guess where they are.
We have just been through an immensely divisive referendum and there are many interpretations as to why some regions voted to leave the European Union. Look at that list, compare it with the childcare funding tables and tell me that you couldn’t see it coming. You see Whitehall neglects not just the North, but huge areas of Britain that simply aren’t on its political radar.
One thing moving to Yorkshire has taught me is that London and the South aren’t just a privileged part of the country; it feels as if they are another country entirely. I know about the huge stresses and strains in inner-city London, but that doesn’t mean that those in the rural, more sparsely populated areas are insignificant. In fact, if the referendum taught us anything it’s the opposite.
There’s also the question of equality between under-fives and their older peers. I believe absolutely in – and have seen first hand – the transformative power of nursery education and high-quality childcare in children’s lives. But given these new hourly rates, I have to ask, ‘Why is the early years sector seen only as a way of improving tax revenue by getting parents back to work, not as an investment into developing this country’s future?’
The different levels of investment into the different sectors is startling; think free school meals for infants but not under-fives, or the higher Pupil Premium and SEN supplements in primary than in early years – I could go on.
SUPPORT AND QUALITY
When we were promised a level playing field, there were some genuine concerns about how local authorities prioritised the early years block of their Dedicated Schools Grant (DSG), but at least there was a local understanding of the needs of the community. With the introduction of a fixed funding formula, authorities such as North Yorkshire (now the seventh-lowest-funded) cannot meet the needs that they know exist.
They will be unable to provide the services, such as portage, SEND advice and monitoring that many of the smaller, PVI providers rely upon. This cannot be seen as equality, and the children and families in North Yorkshire will inevitably suffer the consequences.
Under the new arrangements, local authorities will be able to retain only 5 per cent of grant funding, as opposed to the current figure of around 10 per cent. This may sound a wonderful idea to large, national childcare providers. However, for smaller providers, on which large, sprawling authorities depend to meet the needs of families in rural areas, it means economy of scale will disappear and opportunities for training, support and quality with it.
I was astounded that two points out of more than 240 within the funding consultation mention quality specifically, so encouraging the view that in childcare, efficiency and cost take priority. Yet every longitudinal study of early years provision (none of which are referred to within the consultation) views quality as the single most important factor in improving children’s life chances.
So, my argument is not so much about the hourly funding per se as the premise on which it sits and the philosophy which brought us here in the first place.
When I read the Review of Childcare Costs (November 2015), the Government study of how early years education and care is financed, the reality hit me that what ‘unit costs’ refer to are actually children. Now, for me, those ‘units’ have names, faces, aspirations and families. I feel privileged to share in their formative years. As soon as we refer to our future generation as ‘units’, they become an economic commodity.
You can roll out 30 hours of free childcare, as promised in the General Election, and it will be welcomed by parents already squeezed between rising costs and an overwhelming desire to do the very best for their children. However, if you apply the philosophy of stack ’em high, sell ’em cheap, I’m not sure that it will be as appealing.
I note that our new Minister for Early Years, Women and Equalities was previously an ambassador for small business. When the settings across our authority cease to be able to offer 15, let alone 30, hours of free provision to three- and four-year-olds, it will have an astonishing impact on all of those areas, and none of them will be positive.
For those in the sector, education and childcare is not a business, it’s a service. We are not deciding whether to shop locally or buy something cheaper at Amazon. By imposing a set of principles determined centrally through a ‘consultation’, we are treating children and their families with little or no respect. I never believed that local problems had universal solutions, especially when I worked in London.
BANNER OF EQUALITY
In the consultation, I knew that I would have to stand up for maintained nursery schools in my area, but I wasn’t expecting the decimation against PVI settings as well under the banner of equality. In centralising the spend on early years, it demonstrates what little value Government places on regions such as ours.
But the bottom line is that the funding isn’t enough, not for London and certainly not for Yorkshire. Using a business model for children is not fit for purpose and ultimately reflects poorly on those in Government who had an opportunity to make a substantial and lasting difference for those children who have names, faces and a future ahead of them.
We have always been a divisive lot in the early years, whether through type of setting, area or pedagogical philosophy, and the disparities in funding put us in danger of once again quarrelling among ourselves. If I were still in London, I would still be worried (but not catatonically so). However, I do believe that we all have the best interests of children at heart, and I feel now more than ever we need to support each other, question the principles upon which the consultation is based and ask ourselves whether this is what we want; to manage a business or give hope and opportunity the wings that they need? If it’s the latter, and knowing the sector I think that it is, it doesn’t matter where you live or work.
Michael Pettavel is head teacher of Brougham Street Childcare and Nursery School, Skipton