Friday, 23 December 2016

State nurseries: we need more, not less.

‘Early intervention’ before kids start primary school is vital for giving children an opportunity to fulfill their potential. It reduces the life chances gap and combats the postcode lottery, by closing attainment disparity between disadvantaged and affluent kids. This is why the last Labour government introduced free childcare for 3 and 4 year olds, created Sure Start Centres in every community and expanded school nurseries.

Unfortunately, in the last decade, 500,000 poorer children were not school-ready by the age of 5. And since 2010, the Tories have closed more than 800 Sure Start centres and 1,000 childcare providers. 45,000 childcare places have been lost.

Yet despite this, the Government plans to drastically cut funding for state nurseries even further. Through its new funding formula, childcare provision will be threatened in every region and 750 providers (both state and private) now fear closure.

The formula seeks to treat maintained nurseries as private nurseries, where standards are not required to be as high. GM state nurseries also accommodate complementary services – such as maternity and outreach advice to struggling mums – and take on board more children with special needs. They employ more specialist staff and offer better support for families; it’s no surprise that they are more likely to be rated ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted. Moreover, GM state nurseries by and large operate in deprived areas. Without them, problems will only increase.

The formula will also prevent early intervention providers from receiving a top-up supplement from their local authority. Until now, the County Council gave enhanced payments to pay for qualified teachers etc. Yet the LCC can no longer afford it because the Tories have announced that no specific nursery can receive enhanced payments per pupil and that they cannot afford to pay enhanced rates to every nursery in Lancashire.

Although the Government is providing £55m extra, this is totally inadequate to pay for current educational needs, let alone the Government’s apparent desire to roll-out greater free childcare entitlement.

While affluent areas like Theresa May’s Maidenhead constituency are protected, disadvantaged communities face the greatest cuts. Here, Fairfield Children's Centre in Spring Hill, Hillside GM Nursery in Haslingden, and Stag Hills in Rawtenstall, will all close. And on Friday, I met with Karen Wiggan (from Hillside) and the Head teacher of Stag Hills.

Of the 23 state nurseries in Lancashire, Karen informed me that OFSTED had found 21 to be ‘Outstanding’ and 2 to be ‘Good’. Nationally, 100% of state nurseries are classed as ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’; of this, two-thirds are ‘Outstanding’.

With the withdrawal of other services, state nurseries are being asked to pick up additional running costs. Fairfield is being asked to pay for the new £250,000 upper story extension to the Children's Centre which is now being scrapped due to cuts. Stag Hills is also losing its Children's Centre due to Tory cuts.

GM state nurseries are feeling the full force of the issues in left-behind communities. Levels of early years attainment are falling with new entry children. Some children cannot speak properly and there are more child protection cases and more children-in-need meetings. My own survey of head teachers at Hyndburn primary schools revealed increasing numbers of children coming to school hungry and wishing the school would stay open during the summer holidays.

As for funding, one place to start might be redirecting £50 million per year – which is to be spent on grammar schools – to a National Education Service, which provides comprehensive nurseries for all youngsters, particularly those that are vulnerable. This Service should include outreach and family advice services, as well as education for adults too. By providing education from the cradle to the grave, it would allow every person to fulfill his or her potential.