Labour commits to more nursery provision in schools

On 10 June, Labour announced their plans for “over three thousand new nursery classes across England to open up access to childcare hours for families”, with “spare classrooms” in schools to be used either for nursery provision delivered by schools, or by PVIs. According to the Guardian, this will include funding of £140m to refurbish classrooms, and will be targeted at “childcare deserts” where there is a shortage of provision.

Update: On 13 June, they launched their manifesto confirming this pledge. Additionally, they pledge to promote numeracy teaching across nurseries and primary schools and mention early communication skills, but only in reference to schools, not nurseries. They pledge to introduce a strategy to reduce child poverty and review the parental leave system. They also commit to improving data sharing among services working with children, including introducing a unique child identifier. They plan to replace Ofsted’s single word judgements with a report card. While there is mention of bringing multi-academy trusts into the inspection system, there is no mention of whether a similar approach would apply to nursery chains. They will review curriculum and assessment in schools, which could open up the possibility of removing the Reception Baseline Assessment.

We welcome any steps that will ensure that high quality early childhood education is available and accessible for children everywhere, and the need for active intervention to address sufficiency issues.

It’s already the case that in the most disadvantaged areas, children are twice as likely to be in school-based nurseries as in the most advantaged areas, so Labour’s proposals fit with a model where maintained provision fills the gaps which are left where other providers can’t or won’t operate. However, this often relies on schools cross-subsidising nursery provision from elsewhere in the budget, which is not viable at a time when school budgets are already under huge pressure. For this policy to work, Labour must also commit to ensuring that hourly funding rates cover the full cost of nursery provision in schools, where staff costs are higher due to higher qualification requirements and national and local pay agreements. Recruitment of appropriately trained early years staff will also be a challenge for expansion of any kind, and a workforce strategy is vital. Labour must also consider the additional costs and practical challenges if it wants school-based nurseries to be open year-round and to fit with parents’ working hours, and the additional expertise needed in primary schools if they are to take in younger children.

To put this proposal in context, there are currently over 16,000 primary schools in England, all of which have reception classes (the final year of the Early Years Foundation Stage). At least 7,500 have a nursery classes as part of the school which are led by teachers. Another 900 have what is called “governor-led provision” where the school governors run a nursery as a separate entity, allowing them to operate on the same staffing model as private and voluntary sector nurseries, led by a staff member with only a Level 3 Early Years Educator qualification, and without a requirement to employ teachers. There will be other primary schools which have a nursery on site run by a private or voluntary sector and not under the direct control of the school.

The Labour proposal appears to allow for any of these options. It is not clear whether it will only be for schools without nursery provision at present, or whether it could allow schools with nurseries to extend their provision, for instance to create a space for 2-year-olds or younger children.

If looking at the capacity of the maintained sector to support younger children, Labour would do well to look at maintained nursery schools. Since the introduction of the entitlement for disadvantaged 2-year-olds, the amount of provision for them in primary schools has only grown very slowly. Just over 1,500 primary schools are providing places for 12,000 disadvantaged 2-year-olds (9.7% of places). However, just 316 maintained nursery schools provide 6,600 places for disadvantaged 2-year olds – 5% of all places nationally. Particularly when it comes to the needs of younger children, maintained nursery schools as early years specialists are far better placed the primary schools to offer the volume and quality of places needed. Crucially, they also have a strong track record of inclusivity, being based primarily in the most disadvantaged areas of the country and taking higher proportions of children with SEND than any other part of the sector.

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