Sustainability of maintained nursery schools debate

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell). I thank her for securing the debate and for the wonderful work she does as chair of the all-party group on nursery schools, nursery and reception classes.

I am grateful for the opportunity to make a small contribution to this debate, and I will start by drawing attention to the brilliant work that staff and support teams at maintained nursery schools do to provide some of the best early years education to our young children. It is no coincidence that almost 98% of maintained nursery schools are rated as good or outstanding by Ofsted. They are key drivers of social mobility and provide exceptional services and resources to children in their care. They offer superb support networks for children and their families, and deliver an excellent education that allows for greater personal development.

Chichester Nursery School in my constituency is a brilliant example. When I visited recently, I was impressed by the wonderful facilities and workshop areas, and I was not surprised to find it had been rated as outstanding in its latest Ofsted report. It is first rate. It was clear that the children were fully engaged with a wide range of enriching activities, both inside and outside the classroom, from crafts, technology and painting, to dressing up and woodwork—three-year-olds were filing, cutting and sawing wood, cooking in mud kitchens, and participating in a variety of educational activities to rival any household in the country. It was wonderful to see, especially since many of them might not have had all that at home. They might not have been learning to ride a bike aged two or three if not for this nursery school.

The staff were eager to tailor educational experiences to the needs of their pupils. It is that level of care and support that gives the children the best start in life, and the personalised care offered is certainly helped by the fact that all the teachers need a level 3 teaching qualification, but having highly qualified staff naturally means higher operating costs. In that regard, I was recently contacted by Ruth Campbell, the new headteacher at the nursery school, who raised with me the concerns mentioned today about the future of maintained school funding.

The announcement in 2017 that the Government would sustain funding for maintained schools through to 2020 was warmly welcomed. The amount is just over £60 million per year. At the time, it provided certainty to headteachers such as Ruth, enabling them to produce medium-term plans for staffing allocations and to calculate what resources and equipment their school could afford in each academic year. However, the current uncertainty over funding arrangements beyond 2020 means that maintained nursery schools cannot adequately plan ahead, and we all need to be able to plan.​

For this academic year, Chichester Nursery School has already had to make tough decisions about how to proceed with its budget and has said goodbye to some very valued members of staff. For any job to remain safe, guarantees that payroll demands can be met are essential. Teachers such as those at Chichester Nursery School are essential in providing for and influencing the minds and experiences of our young children, so I hope that the Department for Education can clarify funding arrangements as soon as possible.

Maintained nursery schools need to plan, and teachers and staff need to have their minds put at rest. Ruth has warned me that if this does not happen, she will be unable to meet the costs of her current staff, and that the equivalent of a full-time teacher, a nursery nurse and a full-time nursery assistant will be lost for the 2020-21 academic year, which would affect the number of pupils the school can care for. It would need to reduce its intake by 52 children, which would be a devastating loss to the local community.

Maintained nursery schools are important in helping some of the most disadvantaged children in the country and improving social mobility. Some 64% of them are based in the 30% of England that is most deprived. They are life changing. They provide a unique range of expertise, and the Government have a good record of supporting them so far, whether through the fairer early years national funding formula or the requirement for local education authorities to pass on 95% of received funding directly to providers.

We all understand the need for value for money in our public services, but getting the early years right for children is the most important investment we can make, as I am sure that everybody in the Chamber would agree. In helping young children to develop and in supporting families in their busy lives, maintained nurseries play an essential role in our communities. I hope that, as we near the end of the guaranteed funding, the Government will offer a meaningful long-term funding arrangement to keep this jewel in the crown of early years development.