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22 November 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 2:09pm

Autumn Statement: The government holds the future of nurseries in its hands

Early years education is under threat from a national funding formula, argue the MPs Tulip Siddiq and Jack Dromey.

By Tulip Siddiq

Back in September, Theresa May wrote of her ambitious plan to “set Britain on the path to being the great meritocracy of the world”. Fine rhetoric, but as so often seems the case with the Prime Minister’s two-faced government, the policies don’t match up to their emotional billing. A perfect example is in early years education, where the government talks of giving every child the best start in life, but its funding plans are actually pushing the sector to the brink.

The government plans to introduce a single national funding formula for the early years. It says it wants to tackle the uneven funding around the country. 

Ahead of the Autumn Statement, the government has a chance to decide whether it wants to meet its commitments to parents and teachers across the country, or whether it wants to proceed with policy proposals that threaten the wholesale depletion of early years education.

Since 2009, more than 15,000 early years settings have closed and there has been a loss of over 45,000 childcare places. In the recent government consultation on free childcare, we learnt that more than half of the nurseries responding were clear that they are desperately short of funding. A quarter went further still, saying that don’t even receive enough money from the government to cover their basic costs.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. The government’s plan to introduce a single national funding formula for the early years is creating a wholly unsustainable situation. Ministers claim it will introduce a fairer and more transparent system across the country, but the truth is that it will see many providers losing out. They will lose the ability to receive a top-up supplement from their local authority and will be left woefully short of the funds needed to meet running costs. Indeed, the government’s failure to offer the supplementary funding for nurseries beyond two years is leaving hundreds of nurseries wondering whether their doors will close for business in 2019. 

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Greater transparency in funding is welcome in principle, but the current proposals are anything but fair. Analysis from the National Association of Head Teachers suggests that this new formula will dramatically reduce funding for nurseries across the country.

Every single region of the country will see cuts, but it is the most disadvantaged communities which will be hit the hardest. Areas such as Liverpool, Hackney and Kingston-Upon-Hull face particularly brutal cuts – but affluent areas, like Theresa May’s Maidenhead constituency, will be protected.

The biggest losers of all are likely to be maintained nursery schools. These are the jewel in the crown of early years provision. They employ more specialist staff, they offer more support for families, they are more likely to be rated Outstanding by Ofsted – and they are usually located in disadvantaged areas.

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The situation is worsened by the fact the government has promised to increase the amount of free childcare on offer from 15 to 30 hours per week. Extensions to the free childcare entitlement is welcome in principle – but you need to provide the resources to make it a reality.

The funding formula and the lack of supplementary funding for nurseries represents a double whammy. Many such providers have said they simply cannot cope.

In Birmingham, we have worked to mount a campaign with nursery teachers in deprived areas who fear the closure of these crucial schools could be catastrophic.

As Sally Leese, Head of the excellent Castle Vale Nursery in Erdington has said: “We stand to lose over £100,000. If we can’t afford our staff, can’t afford to carry out the duties we have to carry out, then nursery schools won’t exist.”

MPs from both sides of the House raised the critical matter of nursery funding at Education Questions. The Childcare Minister breezily dismissed concerns, seemingly existing in a world where childcare providers and places aren’t decreasing in their thousands. Such blasé complacency is completely unacceptable.

Our early years education system provides invaluable support to families across the country. Teachers should be solely focused on nurturing young children, not constantly looking over their shoulder in fear that the next government announcement will drive them out of business.

The Autumn Statement is the perfect opportunity to rectify this. We call upon the Chancellor to provide the additional funding urgently needed to protect our nurseries.

Tulip Siddiq is the Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn and shadow minister for early years education. Jack Dromey is the Labour MP for Birmingham Erdington.