This is the full speech I gave in the House of Commons Yesterday calling on the government to do more to protect this vital resource in Bradford.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for securing this timely, much-needed debate. There is a huge misunderstanding about the treasure we have in maintained nurseries and the services they provide, and I welcome the opportunity to talk specifically about why the service should be offered considerably more protection from the Government.
Only two weeks ago, I met the Headteachers and governors of the maintained nursery schools in Bradford, four of which are in my constituency. We talked about the funding pressure and challenges that this vital service is facing and the incredible early years education service that they provide. Of the four maintained nursery schools in Bradford West, all are considered good or outstanding by Ofsted, and all offer unique and exceptional early intervention for those most in need. They are what the former Education Secretary would no doubt have described as “a cluster of excellence”, but they are all facing an uncertain financial future due to the changes to Government funding for nursery provision. Although they have seen a short-term funding solution, it does not feel like a settlement that truly appreciates the high-quality services that they provide.
Absolutely; I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point. As I was saying, the settlement does not seem to recognise the high-quality services that they provide or compensate for the unique challenges that they face, and it will do little to ensure their long-term sustainability.
Nursery schools are the one aspect of the education system where the gap in attainment between the poorest children and the rest is significantly narrowed. The reason is that nursery schools are staffed by qualified teachers and led by qualified Headteachers. They are schools, and although they are not afforded all the same protections by the Government as other schools, they represent the very best provision in terms of teaching quality and outcomes, and they play a vital role in social mobility. The Government’s funding proposals will have a devastating effect on such quality provision. The funding formula will make it impossible to pay for the qualified staffing teams that have consistently delivered such outstanding results in Bradford.
Let us be clear: we are talking about schools staffed by teaching professionals that also provide a hub of support for Bradford’s children’s centres and sit at the heart of Bradford’s early years provision. Those centres play an increasing role in the early years sector, providing training and support for other types of nursery provision, as well as being the only service where the outcomes for the poorest and most deprived children are on a par with those for their more affluent counterparts. That is the case not only when compared with other forms of early years education, but across the entire education system. Such provision targets those who will struggle the most. It works with those who face the most uncertainty in their education and plays an innovative and exceptional role in the development of those with special educational needs and disability.
The question for the Government now is the same as the one that the Social Mobility Foundation asked: essentially, what do we want our early education to be? The Government seem torn between genuine development in early years and parental employment, but those things do not need to be mutually exclusive. I understand the concern that these forms of education provider may be more expensive, given that they are schools. They are also not consistently distributed across the entire country, with 64% clustered in the most deprived areas, but that is not a reason to allow the demise of expertise or to water down provision. They are located in those areas because that is where they add the most value and where they are essential.
All the evidence clearly demonstrates that maintained nursery schools are one of the most successful types of education provider, if not the most successful. That alone should be enough of a reason to give them the guarantees and support that they need, not just to maintain their current level, but to expand and to genuinely secure their long-term future. As children move through these providers, they not only develop in their environment but maintain momentum through the rest of their education.
I call on the Government to consider the wealth of data now available on the early years funding formula and to go back and try again to find a better way to support the nursery school sector. There is clear evidence that the early years funding formula will take money away from nursery school provision and that many nursery schools will become unsustainable in the very near future. There are many ways in which they could be guaranteed the funding that they need, but the Government need to go further and support the sector in its entirety, bringing provision up to par with that for other schooling. These are expert institutions that have a genuine impact on social mobility, so I call on the Minister to do everything she can to ensure that the services they provide are not watered down and can be allowed to flourish as the models of excellence that they are.
In Bradford West, and in Bradford as a whole, we face the significant challenges of complex educational needs and deprived communities. When I have met nursery heads, as my hon. Friends have done, they have told me about the other services that they provide in the community. They act as a hub and a resource for their communities. With all the funding cuts we have had across the sector, with community centres closing down and other areas being affected, nurseries are the last thing we can afford to lose. They are the one hub that binds communities together, keeps families together and gives children a start. I really, really urge the Minister to reconsider the package and to bring something much more sustainable to the table.