As the Local Democracy Reporting Service revealed in January, the authority planned to restart the process to assess the financial viability of the 24 council-maintained facilities in the county – more than half of which are in East Lancashire – after delaying it for a year because of the onset of the pandemic. That work has now been further postponed until May.
County Hall warned 12 months ago that all of its nurseries were likely to become financially unsustainable if the government did not commit to continuing a top-up grant to local authorities, which helped the county council to plug a £1m hole in its nursery schools’ finances
That cash stream was due to end this month, but ministers have since said that it will roll on during 2021.
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The National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) has now written to the county’s director of education – before the further delay to the consultation was announced – asking the council to pause the process altogether and instead request that the government extends the supplementary pot through next year as well.
However, the authority last year identified – but did not publicly name – three Lancashire nursery schools deemed to be “financially unviable” and ten others that were “financially vulnerable” even under the current funding model.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT, said that any threat to maintained nursery schools “weakens the country’s best hope for education recovery” after the pandemic.
“They offer the highest quality early education and care and disproportionately support children from deprived backgrounds and those with special educational needs and disabilities.. They also work as teaching schools, supporting teacher training and helping neighbouring early years provision to improve.
“It is widely accepted that early intervention is one of the most effective strategies to address gaps in learning. Children need the extra support of maintained nursery schools now more than ever as we tackle the challenge of education recovery.
“It is deeply concerning that a decision has been taken to forge ahead with a consultation in the midst of a continuing global pandemic and at a time when schools are focused on staying open and supporting children,” Mr. Whiteman said.
In response, Edwina Grant, County Hall’s executive director for education and children’s services, said that engagement with nursery school headteachers would not now begin until mid-May in recognition of “the current situation with Covid-19”.
She added: “Until then we will continue with our analysis work, so that we can move quickly at that time.
“We went into the pandemic with concerns about the financial projections of some of the maintained nursery schools, for a range of reasons, and we are keen to talk to them as soon as possible as to how they see their position now.
“The aim of this consultation will be to have an open discussion with nurseries to find out more about any viability issues and how we can support them.
“The Department for Education makes it clear that any decision to close a nursery should only be made based on a strong case to do so.
“If individual maintained nurseries overspend, then it can impact on all schools’ budgets through the way that school funding works.
“So if one area is overspent, it is important that we look at how we can support nurseries to make the best use of the available funding and protect all nursery places where we can, including those in the private sector, who lose their businesses if they are not financially viable.
“Along with other councils, we have lobbied for additional resources for early education,” Ms. Grant said.
She added that she was “proud of our school leaders and their teams for how they’ve responded to the pandemic and worked to keep providing an education for our children in Lancashire”.
The forthcoming consultation will not affect maintained nursery schools in the standalone council areas of Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen.