MPs have called for nursery schools to be given more protection to ensure their long-term survival.
During a parliamentary debate on funding for maintained nursery schools last week, a number of MPs raised concerns they will cease to exist without a commitment to adequate funding.
This follows a survey of nursery schools, carried out by Pen Green for an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), which found 57 of the 340 that responded expect to be forced to close by July; more than 65 per cent will not be viable past 2019 if transitional funding provided by the Government until the end of this Parliament finishes.
Last year, the Department for Education promised more than £55 million in transitional funding for nursery schools for at least the next two years to support them in moving to the universal base rate under the new funding formula.
The new early years funding formula (EYFF) is due to come into force in April ahead of the 30-hour free childcare offer in September. However, settings are still unaware of how the transitional funding will be divided up and what money will be available after 2019 – a Government consultation to try to find a longer-term funding solution is expected in the next couple of weeks.
During the debate in Parliament, secured by Helen Jones, Labour MP for Warrington North, many MPs revealed how nursery schools in their constituencies are facing funding shortfalls of hundreds of thousands of pounds a year.
Labour MP for Washington and Sunderland West, Sharon Hodgkinson, pointed out that in her area, funding will fall from £5.38 to £5.11 per hour under the EYFF. While she said it may not sound like a big drop, it was the difference between nursery schools’ survival and closure.
Along with inadequate funding, the sector faces cuts to children’s centre budgets and a loss of full-time places, as highlighted in the Pen Green survey, as well as extra costs including those related to pensions and the apprenticeship levy.
The MP for Great Grimsby, Melanie Onn, revealed that one of the nursery schools in her area, Great Coates Village Nursery School, also under threat of closure, had been approached by parents about the 30 hours as several private nurseries would not be offering the extended entitlement because the funding would not cover their costs. She went on to question how state nurseries could be expected to offer the places if private nurseries won’t.
Responding to the MPs, early years minister Caroline Dinenage said, ‘I am concerned by the number of nursery schools that suggest they are facing closure. I would like to speak to those that face imminent closure to find out the issues they are facing.
‘The Government is committed to exploring all options and to ensuring nursery schools have a bright future.’
Earlier in January at a meeting of the APPG on Nursery Schools, Ms Dinenage revealed the Government was considering extending the deadline for disapplication, which allows local authorities to apply to opt out of the cap on the amount of childcare funding they can retain. Some LAs have given some of this money directly to maintained nursery schools.
The original deadline was December, but according to Pen Green, whose local authority, Northamptonshire County Council, is considering applying on its behalf, many nursery schools and local authorities do not understand what disapplication is and therefore did not apply.
At the debate in Parliament, Ms Dinenage went on to reiterate that the Government is spending ‘a record’ £6 billion on childcare.
However, Ms Jones MP said she was far from reassured by the minister’s comments, which she said provided no certainty for nursery schools.
‘Nursery schools care for a high percentage of children with special educational needs, disabilities, looked-after children and those in need. If they cease operating, where will these children go? To PVI settings that don’t have the time and resources to provide the same level of care?’
Pastures Way Nursery School is one of six nursery schools in Luton under threat of closure amid changes to funding.
The setting, which provides places for children from birth, cares for a large number of vulnerable two-year-olds and children with severe and complex needs.
A petition started by the nursery schools, which together provide around 1,300 places, has received 1,368 signatures. It calls for the education secretary to give all nursery schools the same level of funding as schools.
Emma Pobjoy, acting head of Pastures Way, told Nursery World, ‘Under the new funding formula and without additional money, our setting will lose £143,000 a year. One option is to increase fees, but we don’t want to do that.’
She added, ‘At the moment we are trying to save money where we can while continuing to provide the same level of care and education.’