The report indicates this crisis is most acute in the poorest and most deprived areas of England.
As alarming as this crisis for all nursery provision is, there is one area in particular that faces the most severe and imminent existential threat – the maintained nursery school.
Research currently being conducted for TACTYC by the universities of Sussex and Worcester suggests the crisis for maintained nursery schools (MNS) in England is reaching a cliff edge. The tragedy of this is that MNSs are predominantly located in areas of high urban need, as one headteacher stressed to the study:
‘These children deserve the very, very best. They’re children who are disadvantaged…[But] financially we are on a rapid downturn trajectory.’
Fascinating data about the passion and purpose of MNSs has begun to emerge from our study - information collected through extensive surveys and interviews with practitioners, leaders and headteachers in the focus areas of inner and outer London, where I collected data, and in the West Midlands, overseen by Dr Carla Solvason and Samantha Sutton-Tsang at the University of Worcester.
MNSs have a special role in the history of the welfare state in England, set-up in areas of deprivation during and soon after the Second World War. Like five- to 18 schools, they are required to have a headteacher, a governing body, a delegated budget from their local authority and at least one teacher with Qualified Teacher Status. When first set-up they were flagships for the role of the welfare state, supporting families and communities to ensure pre-school children could thrive regardless of their challenging circumstances. Sadly, their numbers have dwindled over the years.
‘Maintained nurseries have a long, long history and we give up all that accumulated knowledge at our peril’ commented one headteacher whose school was established for over 70 years ago. She went on to explain the trusting relationships the MNS had built up with families over generations as well as reaching out to support new families moving into the area.
‘We are the community,’ she said. Very often MNSs take on the family support role that ever-dwindling children’s centres once offered. Another headteacher told the project, ‘We have to convince the public at large that the investment in these children and families in areas of deprivation is worth it because we are upskilling families with important educational and social skills to prepare them for the future and to get jobs. That’s what families deserve if we are serious about social mobility.’
The other key, hard-to-replace quality of MNSs is the support they provide for children with severe additional learning needs - many MNSs reported that up to half of their pre-school intake was made up of children with some sort of additional need.
Unfortunately this expertise does not come cheap. One headteacher told the study, ‘The amount of money we receive to support the nurseries does not – in any way – cover these needs.’ Despite those financial challenges, practitioners and leaders are committed to fostering an inclusive environment as a cornerstone of their purpose.
One teacher explained, ‘It's an inclusive society. So our nurture reflects that. We upskill [the staff] when we need to upskill, so we have all learned body-signing last year because we had a little boy who was blind.’
The public service a MNS is able to provide is premised on employing staff who have a teaching qualification and specialist knowledge of how pre-school children learn and thrive against the odds.
But employing staff with the necessary skills, qualifications, experience and knowledge comes at a cost. Rising staff costs are a leading factor behind the financial crisis in the PVI sector – they are even more of a factor for MNSs.
Such is the scale of the problem, all the benefits of the MNS system are in danger of being lost - leaving a dangerous welfare and educational void. A current government review threatens to bring about drastic changes to the MNS funding structure.
There is huge concern from within the MNS sector, and their communities, that without supplementary funding they will not be able to continue in their present form.
One headteacher warned, ‘If the additional funding that we get for being a maintained nursery school does go, that will be it for us. There is no way we can survive that.’
With the comprehensive spending review set to be delayed beyond the autumn, additional money has been promised by central government to ensure the allocation of places to children between autumn 2019 and summer 2020. This will buy the MNS sector a little more time but headteachers and governors remain in a state of extreme anxiety about what the future holds beyond that.
With all the societal benefits that MNSs bring, finding a relatively small pile of cash to ensure they are properly funded would seem a no-brainer. While education is playing a back seat role in the campaigning to be the next Prime Minister, everyone in the sector must pray that the next resident in Number 10 shows they understand the true value of early years education. Many before have paid only lip service to this. But without an adequate, imminent and long-term financial resolution, generations to come may pay for the failure to truly appreciate the value of maintained nursery schools.