Faced with cuts to its Government funding, Tower Hamlets Council is due to consult on proposals to close its last remaining local authority nurseries, which it says cost about three times more than the average spent on a child by the service. According to the council, the nurseries cost £15,000 per child or £1.5m a year.
Under the proposals, Mary Sambrook Nursery - a standalone setting - would close at the end of next month, John Smith Nursery in December and Overland Nursery, which has a specialist deaf unit, in the first half of 2019. Both John Smith and Overland nurseries are based in children’s centres.
Together, the nurseries currently provide care for a total of 69 children, many of whom have special educational needs and disabilities.
According to the union Unison, which is lending its support to the nurseries, the three settings have a combined total of 125 children on their waiting lists, a figure that is contested by the council.
The union says that since last year John Smith and Mary Sambrook have been turning away non-fee-paying children. Overland Nursery stopped accepting new admissions from last December.
A total of 27 staff work at the three nurseries.
It is rumoured that the running of the nurseries in children’s centres will be put out for tender to private providers.
The council also runs six maintained nursery schools, which are not involved in these proposals.
Nirupama Naidu, whose son attends Overland Nursery, said she was very concerned that children will ‘fall through the cracks’ if the nurseries are closed.
She explained, ‘My son was non-verbal when he started at Overland Nursery (after being on the waiting list for 6 months), but with the specialist help he has made huge progress with his speech and language.
‘The nursery has also provided him with support to help with social communication and interaction which is especially important now we have a definitive assessment for Autism Spectrum Disorder.
'Early intervention in his case has made a massive difference. I'm very concerned about all the children who may now fall through the cracks and won't get this early intervention. If my son hadn't been at Overland I don't think he would have received this specialist support and hence made so much progress.’
Another parent, Candace Reading, who is campaigning to save the nurseries, said, ‘It was last September I was looking at a few of the local nurseries. My son has dwarfism and he has been under the care of a childminder and I was cautious [about] him going into a nursery setting when I saw a few of them. Things like stairs going outside, too many children and probably just being a little over protective, prevented me from sending him to most places. At the same time the children his age had left his childminder and I wanted him to be with children his own age.
'I heard good things about Overland about the staff and he was already familiar with the children’s centre. In the end, he stayed with his childminder and I ended up using a co-working creche where he could play with kids his age.
'He will go to nursery this September instead but it would have been much easier if Overland had accepted him and I think he would have got a lot out of being there as he is a very social child. I was quite surprised to hear that the nurseries have so few children to resettle this year after being told that the list was so full there was no point even putting his name down.'
A spokesperson for Tower Hamlets Unison said, ‘Despite what council chiefs claim, the local authority day nurseries are a much-valued community resource. They provide affordable childcare for some of the borough’s most vulnerable children and demand for a place is very high.
'The fact that over 100 children are on the waiting list demonstrates this. But for some months now, council managers have surreptitiously blocked new admissions and it appears they have been secretly scaling down the service in order to label it unviable and to justify shutting it. Unison condemns this clandestine attempt to close our public nurseries. We are calling on the Mayor to save the service and the jobs of our dedicated nursery staff.’
Mayor of Tower Hamlets John Biggs, said, ‘With a young and growing population and with a drive to support parents getting back into work, our priorities are to make sure that childcare works for all families in the borough who need it.
‘We are committed to improving our offer for parents of and children under five-years-old, but this requires some rethinking of how to meet those needs, fairly and maximising benefits for all. Funding cuts have made it increasingly clear that it is simply not fair to continue to run these three nurseries at a cost of £15,000 per child, when the average our Early Years Service spends on each child is far, far less, with excellent services still provided.
‘I understand that this is difficult news for the parents of the 22 children that were due to use these nurseries from September. If the plans go ahead, we will work closely with them to find alternative suitable places. But we intend places to grow in a number of our other under-fives providers.’