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Nursery schools: a national asset under threat

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Thursday, 13 March, 2014

Our new report, Maintained Nursery Schools: a hidden asset, highlights the continued threat to the highest quality early years provision.

Little known and understood, maintained nursery schools are state-funded schools for 3 and 4-year-olds (and increasingly 2-year-olds), with high quality staff and provision.

They act as hubs for developing the early years workforce, as well as supporting children and families in some of the most deprived areas of the UK. Yet current funding arrangements leave them vulnerable to pressures on local authority budgets.

The report says that nursery schools are a unique educational asset, but their existence is largely invisible to most parents, partly because they are few in number and are not a universal service.  The report highlights that their value goes beyond the number of children enrolled, as they have a vital role to play in training early years professionals across the sector.

Key findings

  • Only 700 maintained nursery schools remain across the UK; more than 100 have been lost over the last decade
  • Nursery Schools have the highest proportion of Outstanding Ofsted ratings of any part of the Education system (58 per cent Outstanding in the most recent statistics)
  • More than three-quarters of nursery schools (77 per cent) in the survey were concerned about their future viability or faced imminent loss of their independence. While none faced immediate closure, just 12 per cent said they were positive about the future.
  • Just over 40 per cent of nursery schools also run children's centres and daycare. Other services for families include working with health visitors, family support teams, child health clinics, childminder networks, and work with parents on children's learning - and in turn parents' learning. They were often the preferred setting for inclusion and social care referrals for vulnerable children and their families.
  • 20 per cent of maintained nursery schools were part of a Teaching School partnership and more than 80 per cent offered training and placements. Their role in offering specialised early years support was particularly vital at a time when many local authorities are cutting early years adviser jobs.
  • 60 per cent of nursery schools in England already offer funded places for 2-year-olds and more were in the process of setting it up. Given the difficulty of finding sufficient high-quality places for the 2-year-old programme, these places in high quality nursery schools are a vital resource.

Maintained nursery schools are facing an uncertain future in the face of reducing local authority budgets. With highly qualified staff, and therefore higher salary overheads, they are neither eligible for funding streams received by other schools such as the direct schools grant or the pupil premium, nor able to innovate with the same freedoms as the private sector. As non-statutory bodies, they are vulnerable to cuts when local authority budgets are under pressure.

The Education Select Committee recommended in their recent report on Sure Start Children's Centres, that government should "set out a strategy for ensuring the survival of those [maintained Nursery Schools] that remain." The government response to this recommendation failed to address this issue and showed a worrying lack of understanding of the distinctive qualities of maintained nursery schools. No doubt this will be one of the gaps the Minister will be asked to fill when recalled to give further evidence to the Committee.

Early Education chief executive Beatrice Merrick said,

"Our survey shows how maintained nursery schools are on a knife edge, threatened by cuts in local authority funding. Often these cuts are based on the flawed premise that nursery schools are just one more form of childcare, and that funding levels for all providers should be the same. Our findings show that nursery schools offer a wide array of services. Once lost, this expertise will be exceptionally hard to rebuild. Cutting now will have huge costs in the longer term, both financial and social.

Closing maintained nursery schools is like throwing away the family silver. Few people would suggest closing down Oxford and Cambridge because it takes more resources to maintain centres of excellence. So why use that argument about maintained nursery schools – especially when instead of benefitting the already privileged, they benefit the most deprived sections of society?"

Download the full report

Notes to editors: 

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