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Bristol’s nursery schools battle to stay afloat as government proposals offer lifeline

Bristol’s 12 council-funded nurseries, which play a vital role in reducing inequalities among young children, aren’t sustainable due to years of underfunding.

Image of Simon Holmes, head teacher at St Philips Marsh Nursery School (credit: Aphra Evans)

Simon Holmes, the headteacher at St Philip’s Marsh Nursery School. Photo: Aphra Evans

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After years of underfunding and dire warnings about their future, government plans are giving hope to 12 nursery schools in Bristol, which play a huge role in tackling inequality in the city.

Between them the local authority maintained nurseries, which provide services for families in some of Bristol’s poorest areas, are running a deficit of more than £5m. The total increased by more than £1.2m in the last financial year, with a report prepared for this month’s Bristol Schools Forum warning they are “not sustainable” in their current model. 

That reflects the national picture, with a recent survey by the British Association for Early Childhood Education finding that more than half of England’s maintained nursery schools were struggling to cover their core costs, with one in five facing possible closure within three years.

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“The government remains ambivalent to [nurseries’] dire financial situation, and inaction is leading to further closures,” said Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union said in June. “This is unacceptable and cannot be allowed to continue.”

At Bristol’s Schools Forum, the council approved using an unspent £90,000 from last year’s early years budget to fund a review of how the nurseries are run.

This would include nurseries assessing their employee structures and operating models, and finding ways to make savings – including possibly by sharing staff – and bring in additional money.

But while the local picture remains gloomy, a consultation published earlier in July proposes raising funding levels by £10m from next April, potentially offering an overdue lifeline to nursery schools. In Bristol, a supplement paid to local authority maintained nurseries could increase almost fourfold under the plans.

“If that goes through, it may be possible to come up with a sustainable model,” Simon Holmes, the headteacher at St Philip’s Marsh Nursery School, tells the Cable.

‘Caught between a rock and a hard place’

Three years ago Matt Caldwell, the acting head of Ilminster Avenue Nursery School in Knowle West, wrote about just how tough the financial position facing Bristol’s maintained nursery schools had become. Maintained nursery schools qualify for a funding supplement from the government, but for a long time this has been too little to cover their extra outgoings.

Unlike other nurseries run privately or by charities, maintained nursery schools have to employ qualified teachers and a headteacher – which costs more – and are inspected by Ofsted under the same criteria as primary schools.

Bristol’s maintained nurseries also play an outsized role in providing spaces for two-year-olds eligible for free childcare. This is offered to children in care, kids with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND) and those whose parents receive benefits.

But the government’s funding formula for two-years-olds is woefully inadequate, hence why many private nurseries only offer spaces to paying parents.

“[The formula] makes running a [council]-maintained [two-year-old] provision virtually impossible without a deficit,” the report to the Schools Forum said.

While the maintained nurseries cater to lots of kids with SEND, who need more support, they do not, unlike primary schools, get extra cash to help them do so. Identifying those children’s needs early and setting them out in an education, health and care plan (EHCP) – a legally binding document – can prevent them from falling further behind peers once they start school.

“Maintained nursery schools are caught between a rock and a hard place – we support a high number of children [with higher needs] and the money simply doesn’t cover the costs,” said Holmes, whose nursery opened (initially as an infant school) in 1926. “But if we don’t do it, who will?”

Image of Bristol's St Philips Marsh Nursery School
St Philips Marsh Nursery School has served local communities for almost 100 years (Photo: Aphra Evans)

The answer to that question is spelled out in the Schools Forum report. It notes that in some parts of Bristol – especially the south – the council would be unable, without maintained nursery schools, to meet its statutory duty to ensure there is sufficient early years provision in the city.

“The strategic importance of [maintained nursery schools] in relation to reducing inequalities and the impact of deprivation on children and families is clear,” the report adds.

Holmes explains that his nursery does “a lot of basic family support, in helping people, signposting people to relevant services, making phone calls for people, [and even] distributing food”.

He adds: “There’s a general consensus – from the local authority, in the communities, everywhere, that we have a very valuable, essential role.”

Putting a dent in the deficit

The new proposals published in the government’s consultation would improve the financial picture for maintained nursery schools by bumping up a supplementary fund they receive, which varies massively across the country.

From this, Bristol’s maintained nurseries currently get just an extra 98p per child, per hour of care. Only 10 local authorities get less (some of them receiving zero) while many benefit from a figure four or five times higher.

The new rates would see maintained nurseries receiving a minimum rate of £3.80, which is what Bristol would qualify for, bringing it into line with dozens of other councils.

Other elements of the consultation are much less popular. It also proposes increasing the legal ratio of children per worker from four to five, a change that would affect all nurseries. Many fear this would make things less safe for children, reduce support for those with SEND, and ramp up stress on staff, fuelling a crisis in recruitment that is already seeing some nurseries close while others cut spaces.

But Holmes says the rate increase, if it happens, would make a “substantial dent” in the deficit his and the other maintained nurseries in Bristol are facing.

The council is also involved in a pilot scheme around improving how services that support families are integrated, which is part of a national drive to introduce new ‘family hubs’. 

The programme has its critics, especially given Tory-led austerity’s role in the closure in recent years of more than 1,000 children’s centres nationally. But Holmes says he’s hopeful that with the focus on better joint working, the new funding – so long as it materialises – can enable a way forward to be found that protects maintained nursery schools for the longer term.

“You’ve still got to come up with a plan,” he says. “But for the first time in about three years I think it is actually achievable with a bit of imagination.”

Do you work in early years or children’s social care in the wider Bristol area? Or are you a parent who is struggling to find childcare because there are too few places near you? Our reporter Alex Turner would love to hear from you – contact him directly misteralexturner@gmail.com.

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