Government-funded nurseries are facing a crisis which is threatening their survival, according to a survey by leading unions and charities.
A third of maintained nurseries, which are financed and controlled by local authorities, are cutting staff and services because of the impact of coronavirus, and uncertainty over the funding they will receive in the next school year, the survey found.
They are losing an average of £70,000 of income, but have to spend an extra £8,000 for additional COVID-related costs, the poll by Early Education, NAHT, NEU and UNISON says.
But because they are run by local authorities, maintained nurseries are not eligible for COVID-19 relief schemes which help the private sector. And unions say they’ve had little or no access to the extra COVID funds provided to schools.
"What has happened is there’s been incentives to support schools and to support early years private sector but the maintained sector has fallen in the gap and as a result of that we’ve been challenged financially by the fact that a lot of our COVID costs haven’t been refunded by any incentives," said Cathy Earley, head teacher of Greenacre Community School in Bootle.
She said that the work she and her staff did during the pandemic went well beyond the classroom.
"We were a lifeline and we were picking up situations that families were in. So if families were isolating and had no one to get shopping or couldn’t get a Tesco delivery we would help with that, sometimes single parents who were isolating with their families were on their own. And we were the only voice at the end of the phone sometimes."
Maintained nurseries are located in some of the most deprived areas of the country. Beatrice Merrick, Chief Executive of Early Education insists a reduction in their services would disproportionately impact vulnerable children.
She said: "Maintained nursery schools have a really unique role, they are specialist in early years with much higher level of expertise among their staff, so they have a particular role in supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities.
"And very often they are supporting children who other settings locally don’t have the expertise and facilities to take in."
She added: "If the nursery schools weren’t there, these children might not have anywhere else to go."
Lucy Kavanagh’s two young children have free places at a maintained nursery, which has enabled the young mother to go to college, and plan on pursuing a career as a midwife.
"If I didn’t have access I’d have to drop out and I wouldn’t be able to go to University. It would have an impact on my children’s life," Lucy told Sky News.
"Even in times when it was lockdown and I wasn’t in college I was able to send my children so I was so lucky, because if I had the children at home with me while still online on zoom, on teams, doing my college work. I just wouldn’t have been able to do it and I wouldn’t have got the grades to go to university either."
A Department for Education spokesperson said: "We are providing local authorities with around £60m in supplementary funding this year for their maintained nursery schools, and have confirmed the rates they will receive up to March 2022 to give them clarity around their budgets as early as possible.
"This supplementary funding was introduced as a temporary solution while a longer-term solution to funding maintained nursery schools is considered.
"Ministers have been clear that our commitment to doing this remains unchanged, and any change will follow a public consultation."