Covid-19 costs and loss of income could lead to mass cuts and closures

Only 10% of local authority maintained nursery schools in England are confident of being able to keep going with current funding levels, according to a survey carried out by early years charity Early Education and unions NAHT, NEU and UNISON published today (Friday).

Delays to a long-promised revision of their funding formula has left these schools facing real-term cuts and rising costs over the past four years, say the four organisations.

A third of schools were in deficit at the end of 2019-20, and even before the pandemic, only 51% expected to balance their budgets in 2020-21. 

As a result of increased costs during the pandemic and the loss of parental fee income, only 28% now expect to balance the books at the end of the current financial year.

Only 389 maintained nursery schools remain open in England. Compared to other early years providers, they cost more in order to cover the cost of being schools with a headteacher, qualified teachers, and admissions policies that prioritise the most vulnerable children. 

They are predominantly located in disadvantaged areas, where need is greatest, and their expert staff teams and exceptional quality of education have a strong track record of closing the gap in educational outcomes, says the research.

Maintained nursery schools were twice as likely as private sector providers to have stayed open during the pandemic, caring for children of critical workers and vulnerable children, offering support for home learning to families in lockdown, and helping provide food parcels and emergency support.

Yet maintained nursery schools have been unable to access government sources of support such as the business rates holiday. Unlike other schools, they were not eligible for government support with additional COVID costs. 

According to the survey, maintained nursery schools reported an average loss of fee income from parents of £36,000 and additional costs of £4,000, putting further strain on already stretched budgets.

The Department for Education has yet to propose a viable long-term funding formula for maintained nursery schools to replace the stop-gap arrangements put in place in 2017. 

Ministers have indicated that proposals are dependent on the spending review. The sector is therefore calling on the Chancellor to provide:

  • sufficient funding for a viable long-term funding formula for maintained nursery schools (c.£98m plus transitional funding as needed) from 2021-22
  • additional support for the duration of the pandemic to ensure that extra costs and loss of income do not push maintained nursery schools into closure.

Beatrice Merrick, Chief Executive of Early Education, said

Successive early years ministers have described maintained nursery schools as the jewel in the crown of the early years sector but have yet to put in place a funding formula that will ensure their survival. 

The added strains of the pandemic have pushed these vital community institutions to the brink and beyond. We need additional support for the whole early years sector to tide it through the pandemic.

Funding rates for all providers need to be reviewed to ensure they are viable and targeted where most needed, ie to the most disadvantaged communities. But as the government acknowledges, one formula does not work for all. Maintained nursery schools are expected to play a different role and deliver to a different standard. It is vital their specific funding needs are addressed.

Paul Whiteman, General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) said:

This survey demonstrates the devastating impact that coronavirus has had on maintained nursery schools. Once again maintained nursery schools have been overlooked by the government. They played a vital role throughout lockdown, but once again have been made to feel like the forgotten relative of the education sector. This has left many teetering on the edge. The government repeatedly tell us how much they value maintained nursery schools – now is the time for them to demonstrate that this goes beyond just warm words and empty platitudes. These schools need both immediate financial support and clarity about long term funding arrangements.

Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary, National Education Union, said:

The results of our survey confirms that the financial pressures our excellent maintained nursery schools (MNS) are facing are very real. It is now clear that without immediate government support, this situation is only going to worsen in the future – 72% of MNS surveyed don’t expect to balance the books at the end of the current financial year.

The NEU is calling on the government for emergency funding to support MNS with Covid-19 costs, and sufficient long-term funding and resources to ensure they remain open and continue to offer their pupils access to good quality early years education.

UNISON head of education Jon Richards said:

When the pandemic hit maintained nurseries stepped up to look after the       children of NHS and care staff, and other essential workers, so they could continue looking after us.

These nurseries play a huge role in supporting vulnerable communities. They are high quality, but quality costs. The positive impact on disadvantaged families cannot be underestimated. The government must show it understands their value and find the cash to guarantee their long-term future.

Download the survey report: Maintained nursery schools and COVID-19: vital community services on a cliff-edge

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