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Opinion: Our children’s future must not be built on sand

If funding cuts continue, our children face losing the opportunity to get the best possible start in life.

a small person sits sdadly on the end of a ruler
Matt Caldwell's smiling faceMatt Caldwell,
Acting Headteacher, Ilminster Avenue Nursery School

If funding cuts continue, our children face losing the opportunity to get the best possible start in life.

Illustration: Gordy Wright

“Don’t you just play in the sand all day?” It’s a question people who work in nursery schools often get asked. The reason it’s hard to rebuff such a question is because the work we do is so varied and subtle that it’s often hard for those on the outside to see.

We don’t just provide learning environments and a place in which to emotionally nurture very young people. Nurseries are social hubs and beacons in communities that have nothing else left in their locality, as service after service has been gutted by years of austerity.

“Our current underfunded position is only guaranteed to 2020 – and after that we drive off a cliff edge. Every single nursery school in Bristol could close”

We work with vulnerable families in vulnerable areas, we have expertise for children with special needs, and we give thousands of children in Bristol the best possible start in life.

But all this could be lost. In 2004, there were 800 local authority maintained nursery schools across England. Now there are fewer than 400.

The current early years funding formula, years of central government underinvestment, and increasing cuts to local authority education budgets have put nurseries’ financial security – and their very existence – at risk.

In Bristol, just 12 local authority maintained nursery schools remain (Filton Avenue, Redcliffe, Hartcliffe, Rosemary, Ilminster Avenue, St Paul’s, Knowle West, St Philip’s Marsh, The Limes, St Werburgh’s Park, Little Hayes and Speedwell). All are under threat.

The bare minimum

Staffing structures have already been cut back to the bare minimum, safety and statutory staff-to-child ratios are maintained by the narrowest of margins, services offered to children and families have diminished, and staff are increasingly feeling the effects of stress.

This current, underfunded position is only guaranteed to 2020 – after which we drive off a cliff edge (a bit like another political scenario I can think of). The loss of our existing £59m supplementary funding would represent a 31% cut. Every single nursery school in Bristol could be forced to close.

This is why we’re launching a campaign headed up by the All Party Parliamentary Group on nursery schools and asking families, governors, local councillors and the wider Bristol community to sign a petition, which will be delivered to Parliament.

Every single nursery school in Bristol is rated as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, an achievement that’s unmatched in the city’s primary or secondary sector. Yet nursery education doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.

Detractors might say that there are plenty of other private nurseries and childminders around – so what if a few old nurseries close down? I would agree that there’s a lot of quality childcare in Bristol, and I work closely and have positive relationships with many childminders and private, voluntary and independent nurseries.

Different class

But nursery schools are different. First, we’re judged by the same Ofsted criteria as primary schools and must hire qualified teachers and a head teacher, which provides a focus on learning, which in turn helps children do as well as they possibly can.

Second, we offer huge special needs expertise that supports growing numbers of children – it is common for 20% to 30% of children at Bristol nursery schools to have some form of special need. This is another area of education where funding has been slashed, at least until last year when Bristol parents forced the council to reverse the cuts. We have developed a strong commitment to meeting these needs and have experienced practitioners, teachers and special educational needs coordinators.

A few weeks ago in my school, a family facing crisis was going to have the social care support they were receiving stopped. We put forward a good case that things were not going well, and argued that they still needed help. Two days later, the child didn’t turn up for school, so a member of my staff went round to the house and was let in by the three-year-old child. His mother was difficult to rouse, while a sibling was hiding in a bedroom.

What would have happened had my member of my staff not visited? Or if the child was no longer being looked over by social care? In the past year we have also seen two children moved into foster care, and have put the child at the centre of this process and advocated for them.

Empowering families

We have also seen many cases of domestic abuse, but have signposted survivors to other services and run our own courses at school to empower the women who have been through this. We provide emotional nurturing for families who are mentally and emotionally exhausted and catch them before they slip further into dark places. No one else will replace this if we close.

So don’t just support your local nursery school – support all of them. Mine has been in existence since 1936 – when the staff could only be unmarried women, and the school inspector was a man in a black trilby and long greatcoat.

Their core purpose and ideal was the same back then though – social justice can only be achieved if you provide hope and empowerment. I often wonder whether my school will see its 100th birthday. in fact, I wonder whether any nursery school will survive past 2020.

And by the way, we do still play in the sand. We just also happen to be trying to build the foundations of a future Bristol.

For more information: see Secure the Future of Maintained Nursery Schools or sign a petition at your nearest nursery school.

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  • Valid points in part, but the article reveals a clear bias and a poor understanding of what other Early Years settings provide. The criteria for saying nursery schools are different from the PVIs are misleading, as many PVI settings have similar or identical staffing and qualification requirements to nursery schools and their SEN and Family Support responsabilities can be equally demanding…. yet PVIs don’t get supplementary funding to provide these services or to support wage costs. PVIs make up the vast majority of provision in Bristol and there is no consistently valid justification for nursery schools getting the special treatment and extra funding they get. Some nursery schools are absolutely great and I’m sure this includes the author’s own, but others offer very little, in some cases less than neighbouring PVIs. All settings should be fairly rewarded for the quality work they do, but that just isn’t happening… so it’s hard to feel too sad that a bonus nobody else gets isn’t secured forever. We have always had to survive without it.

    As well as the extra funding paid to nursery schools, many are also hub settings… who now receive a cut of all neighbouring settings’ funded hours payments, proportedly to provide centralised services that are actually of disproportionately low value. This money comes from attending children’s funding and used to be paid directly to high-achieving settings via the Quality Supplement, but is now sliced off by BCC to further top up its own settings.

    The whole sector is underfunded and in risk of collapse. All settings need help, but the sad truth is that nursery school funding really is a minor and less pressing aspect of a much bigger problem.


  • My local early years setting has been forced to go term time only leaving a gap over holidays as there will be limited help available


  • A lot of nurseries are having to go term time only now as they can not afford to be all year round I appreciate that there are other providers but most if these cost money and if you are on benefits it is not feasible to do this also if nurseries I’m deprived areas do close or go to limited hours the kids could potentially suffer from missing meals it is also going to put more pressure on food banks


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