A report from Early Education to be published on Wednesday 11 March, Maintained Nursery Schools: the State of Play report, argues that government must step in urgently to secure the future of maintained nursery schools, which are hugely vulnerable to funding cuts from local authorities, despite being at the leading edge of delivering high quality early education.
The report finds that nursery schools narrow the achievement gap for the most disadvantaged children, and develop the quality of the workforce in the rest of the early years sector.
Based on government data and a survey completed by 349 of the remaining 408 nursery schools, the report shows that: 64% of maintained nursery schools are located in the most disadvantaged areas, and all prioritise the most vulnerable children for admission. Their quality is exceptional: 57% are designated as outstanding and 38% as good. Ofsted notes their importance as the only part of the school sector where quality is as high or higher in disadvantaged areas.
However one-third of maintained nursery schools have closed in the last 30 years (around 200 schools) and the remaining face deep cuts as local authorities make tough decisions on budgets. Of the 400 or so which remain, their specialist expertise is also under threat as a third no longer have a full-time head teacher, which is a crucial foundation for their excellence. 12% have already lost their standalone status, and a further 20% are actively considering federation or amalgamation with other nursery schools or with primary schools in reaction to reduced funding.
The report’s author Beatrice Merrick, Chief Executive of Early Education, said:
“Nursery schools are different to other early years settings because of their specialist workforce of qualified teachers and nursery nurses. They are unique because they have a set of characteristics that have been proved to be highly effective. They offer integrated learning and are often community hubs with high levels of teaching expertise.
“Past experience shows those nursery schools which merge with primary schools lose the benefits of specialist leadership and offer a watered-down experience of nursery provision which is less effective in improving children’s outcomes.
“The gradual erosion of nursery schools is on the verge of becoming a rapid collapse, with a resultant loss of high quality places for children from the most disadvantaged communities, and a loss of expertise to the sector as a whole. Urgent action must be taken now.”
The report is supported by a campaign group including head teachers, education experts and cross party support from politicians.
The report concludes that the numbers of maintained nursery schools will continue to fall unless action is taken now, because:
· They are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to funding. As schools, they have to meet certain requirements including employing a head teacher and qualified teachers. But because of a legal anomaly, local authorities are not required to fund the costs of being a school. There are huge local variations in funding levels under the Single Funding Formula (SFF), with some covering the full cost while others are attempting to introduce funding formulae which only pay maintained nursery schools the rate paid to private, voluntary and independent (PVI) providers. PVI’s don’t have to employ the qualified teachers, and can therefore keep staff costs lower.
· The pressure on local authority funding in the next few years will make them especially vulnerable if their funding is in no way protected.
· The added value provided through the quality, impact and breadth of their services is not explicitly recognised in the Single Funding Formula, so it fails to ensure the costs of these activities are covered.
· When faced with competition from local PVIs or schools setting up new provision, maintained nursery schools do not have comparable freedoms, as they are subject to the decisions of the local authority. This may mean that they cannot freely address issues around viability, for example by offering places for 2-year-olds, or taking reception-age children.
· They do not have the freedom to become academies or co-operative trusts (the legal status of foundation schools) or opt out of local authority control, even where local authorities are outsourcing their children’s centres or seeking to turn all their schools into academies.
· Many are struggling to fill head teacher vacancies. Without strong, expert leaders maintained nursery schools cannot maintain their high quality. But the extreme level of uncertainty around maintained nursery schools’ prospects for survival makes the post of head teacher distinctly unattractive..
The support of the City of London Corporation in funding the report is gratefully acknowledged.
Early Education (The British Association for Early Childhood Education) is the leading independent national charity for early years practitioners and parents, campaigning for the right of all children to education of the highest quality. Founded in 1923, it has members in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and provides a national voice on matters that relate to effective early childhood education and care of young children from birth to eight. The organisation supports the professional development of practitioners through publications, training, conferences, seminars and access to a national and regional branch network. For more information on the work of Early Education visit www.early-education.org.uk