It has emerged that all of Lancashire’s nursery schools will be the subject of a consultation into their future – not just those currently deemed to be financially unviable.
Confirmation of the plans came after an attempt to force Lancashire County Council to pause the process – and instead create a £1m contingency fund for the pre-school sector – failed.
But the authority said that the consultation was about putting its maintained nurseries on a firm financial footing “where possible” – and not seeking their closure.
A group of opposition councillors had requested the matter be ‘called in’ – meaning a decision about the consultation taken earlier this month would either have to be reversed or further justified.
That decision committed the authority to consulting on the future of “those maintained nursery schools identified as currently being ‘non-financially viable’ or suffering critical financial stress’. A report to cabinet revealed that four nurseries fell into that category, but did not name them.
However, following the call-in defeat, cabinet member for schools, Phillippa Williamson, told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that the consultation would in fact cover all 24 nurseries in the county, based on the latest financial and demographic data.
“We’re treating all the schools the same, because it’s a fair, equitable and transparent process – we will look at the financial situation, the pupil numbers that can come into [a] school and…other aspects of provision in that area,” County Cllr Williamson explained.
A further dozen nurseries had previously been categorised as “financially vulnerable” – with the whole sector in the county considered unsustainable should a government top-up grant not be extended beyond its current end date of March 2021. The proposed contingency fund was designed to keep the pre-school network intact until then.
A special meeting of the education scrutiny committee to assess the call-in request heard that council-run nurseries are often doing the work of children’s centres, whose numbers have fallen in the county over the last five years.
“We are supporting vulnerable families,” explained Nelson’s Woodfield Nursery School headteacher Angela Towers.
“We teach our children so many skills that are preparing them for life – making them independent and school-ready.
“A lot of children [start out] in nappies and are still having baby bottles at night,” she said – adding that fluidity in pupil numbers made it difficult for nurseries to know “who would be coming through the door in September”.
The opposition Labour group claimed that several nursery schools had also been left with “the burden” of building costs for associated children’s centres that have now closed – and whose upkeep was previously shared with the county council.
Labour leader Azhar Ali said a rejection of the contingency fund proposal would amount to putting a “do not resuscitate notice” on the county’s nurseries.
“There is a need for an independent impact assessment on [the effect of] any closure on the local community – that needs to be part of any decision made by the cabinet,” he said.
But Conservative council leader Geoff Driver accused the call-in signatories of being “irresponsible”.
“The only people who have mentioned closure are the people who have put forward the request for a call-in. It’s causing alarm and despondency amongst the nurseries themselves and the parents of the children who attend [them],” County Cllr Driver said.
Labour’s Lizzi Collinge said the call-in should be approved, because the cabinet decision breached a number of the authority’s “decision-making principles”.
“Early education is vital for the outcomes [of children with special needs, disabilities and social needs] – and the report has not looked at what extra costs there could be to the county council if the needs of those children…are not met in the early years setting.
“That’s not even been considered, let alone quantified – so it can’t be financially proportionate,” County Cllr Collinge said, warning that a sufficiency analysis of alternative places in the event the closure of any nursery schools was also flawed.
County Cllr Williamson responded: “We are constantly reviewing the position across all providers – we do not currently have any concerns about sufficiency of places across the county, but we will be carrying out further work based on the latest census information.
“Out of the 1,150 [early years] settings in Lancashire [across the private, voluntary and faith sectors], all of them are accessible to children with whatever types of need.”
Committee chair Christian Wakeford later told County Cllr Williamson that she did not have to answer a question form Labour’s Lorraine Beavers asking her to commit that no nursery schools would close “on her watch”.
Just over 2,500 children attend a maintained nursery school in Lancashire – 10 per cent of all those accessing pre-school provision.
Lancashire currently receives the lowest hourly per child funding rate from the government for all early years activity across the public, private and voluntary sectors. The county council has committed an extra £2m to the sector for the next financial year.
MARK OF RESPECT
The meeting began with all members standing to observe a minute’s silence in memory of the headteacher of Bradley Nursery School in Nelson. Claire Lucas, 43, was killed in a road accident along with her partner last week.