Council "committed" to Lancashire nursery schools facing financial threat

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The financial challenges facing Lancashire County Council’s nursery schools are “not insurmountable”, according to the authority’s cabinet member for children.

County Cllr Philippa Williamson made the comments 24 hours after it emerged that uncertainty over the future of a government grant that keeps the facilities afloat could mean that they are no longer sustainable in little more than a year.

Lancashire has 24 council-run nurseries - can they all survive?

Lancashire has 24 council-run nurseries - can they all survive?

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She also said that there may even be ways to bring back from the brink four nurseries already deemed to be financially unviable. Cabinet members will be asked next week to approve a public consultation into the future of those pre-schools - and the authority declined to identify them until that move has been given the green light.

The extra costs incurred by so-called “maintained nurseries” compared to private providers - such as employing a headteacher - are currently covered by a special government grant. But there is no guarantee that the additional cash will last beyond spring 2021.

Even under the current system, Lancashire’s council-controlled nurseries have been struggling financially in recent years. Fifteen of them have received support from County Hall which is described by the authority as being “extremely resource intensive”.

However, County Cllr Williamson said that the council is “committed” to its nurseries.

“Some of the schools have actually found a way to work through [the financial challenges] - we want to learn from them and...if we can do that successfully, then hopefully we will be able to maintain them all,” she said.

Questioned about whether that hope extended to the four nurseries already classed as being financially unviable or suffering critical financial stress, County Cllr Williamson said that their futures could also be secured - but that it would require doing something “very creative”.

“We want to maintain those places and see how we can...make them financially sustainable and then go from strength to strength in the future. The quality of education and care that they give our young people is fantastic and we want to be able to keep that.”

A further 12 nurseries have been categorised as “financially vulnerable” and a separate review into the futures of all 24 in the county would be launched should the government grant on which they rely come to an end.

Free childcare entitlements can be secured through private nurseries and other providers, of which there are almost 1,200 in Lancashire.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Maintained nursery schools make a valuable contribution to improving the lives of some of our most disadvantaged children, alongside wider government support including our free childcare offer for two-year-olds.

“We have pledged to continue funding Maintained nursery Schools for the 2019/20 academic year. The Government also recently announced plans to spend more than £3.6 billion to support free early education offers in 2020/21.”