Some of Lancashire’s nursery schools could face financial collapse unless the government offers more “realistic” funding for the sector.
That is the message from Lancashire County Council’s cabinet member for children, who has written to the Education Secretary to express “growing concern” about the situation.
County Cllr Susie Charles has asked Damian Hinds MP for a rethink of a funding formula which currently sees the county receive the lowest hourly rate in England for nursery school places.
All nurseries in the county receive £4.30 per hour for every child in their care, while the highest paid regions are handed almost double that.
County Hall operates 24 nursery schools - all rated good or outstanding - which serve some of the most deprived parts of Lancashire.
“Monitoring of our maintained nursery schools reveals many of them are already facing financial difficulties,” County Cllr Charles writes.
“We are very proud of the early years provision available in Lancashire, either through our own maintained schools or from [private and voluntary groups]. However, we are extremely concerned about the financial position of early years providers from all sectors.”
It is estimated that there is a funding gap of £1.90 per hour for nurseries in Lancashire offering the government’s 30 hours of free childcare for three and four-year-olds.
Judith Sutcliffe, the lead teacher at Broughton Pre-school in Preston, says the shortfall hits staff hardest.
“It’s not fair on those who have been here for five years and have a qualification, but are still on the minimum wage,” she says.
“The staff are so dedicated and are not doing the job for the money, but it’s a diabolical position for them to be in.”
The charity-run school cannot operate at its 33-child capacity, because it recently had to let staff go so that it could break even, after two years of losses.
Judith is proud of the of the work which the nursery does, but admits to being frustrated at how the sector is treated compared to other education providers.
“Nurseries are not given the same priority as primary schools - and yet we are constantly told early years is the foundation for good learning.”
County Cllr Charles told a meeting of the full council that any further closures or mergers amongst non-council run nurseries in the county could “significantly reduce the places available and mean we may have difficulty fulfilling our statutory duty to secure sufficient childcare”.
However, she welcomed a government announcement this week to extend a special fund for maintained nursery schools beyond its original end date.
The supplementary grant was due to end before the outcome of the comprehensive spending review into all government funding - which would have left council-operated nurseries in limbo.
“Rightly, [councils] want to allocate places in maintained nursery schools for this September in good faith, but without knowing whether the summer term of 2020 will be fully funded,” Nadhim Zahawi, the children and families minister, told an event in Manchester.
“I can reassure you that you can indeed offer places in good faith. We will provide local authorities with a further £24 million...for the whole of the 2020-21 academic year.
“This should remove the immediate concerns about maintained nursery schools. I know that it does not answer the question about their long-term future. But I think this is a pragmatic response – I hope you’ll agree – that recognises the excellent work that many maintained nursery schools do,” he added.