Funding threatens free nursery places in St Albans

NURSERIES and pre-schools in St Albans may have to pull their free places for three and four year olds if plans to prevent them charging top-up fees to parents are not changed.

Private, voluntary and independent nursery, day care and pre-school providers in the district and across Hertfordshire will be hit by a new government provision after Easter which forces them to provide 15 hours of free child care and prevents them charging top-up fees.

That means that per child per hour, the provider will receive around �3.80 from the government but be prevented from charging any additional fee which they have been able to do until now in order to cover their costs.

The move could see a string of providers forced to withdraw from the free entitlement scheme in order to sustain their businesses and lead to a shortfall in free nursery places for many.

Shirley Hayman, the proprietor and founder of Riverbanks Nursery School in Harpenden, warned that the measure would limit the amount of choice parents currently had and affect the quality of care and education provided.

Shirley, who opened Riverbanks over 20 years ago, charges �9.50 per hour per child and provides a service that Ofsted recognises as outstanding.

But if Hertfordshire County Council enforces the government’s code of practice on the provision of free nursery places for three and four year olds, she will only receive �3.80 per hour per child and be unable to charge any more unless the parents want more than 15 hours of care per week which she says will not go anywhere near to covering the running costs of the nursery.

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Many local authorities have already implemented the changes and the effects have been devastating with many providers forced to leave the free entitlement scheme or go into liquidation. The pressure on the Government to take action has mounted considerably over the last few months and yesterday (Wednesday) they announced they would review the code of practice.

On Friday (February 18), Shirley joined 27 other providers from across Hertfordshire and together they met with the Director of Children’s Services for Hertfordshire, John Harris, the county’s Executive Member for Education, Richard Thake, and Anne Main MP, to discuss the situation and possible implications of the changes. They estimated that if just 28 providers present at the meeting withdrew from the free places scheme, the county would lose 1,500 nursery places.

Shirley said: “We told them that the impending reality was that we would be forced to withdraw from the scheme and this would affect the county’s ability to provide free places and one suggestion they had was that they could always look to childminders to pick up the slack, which is just ridiculous.

“I support the idea of free child places but in reality the current level of government funding can only be a subsidy around our area of Hertfordshire. It is us, the owners of the various pre-schools who are funding the remaining costs of the children’s sessions so that it can be free to the parents. We want realistic funding for those places.

“They want to offer education to all but they will create a two-tier system that runs against that ethos. Wealthy parents will choose to pay the cost that private providers charge and those who cannot afford this will have to take what the state offers and so an abyss emerges between the two.”

If Riverbanks was to remain in the scheme, Shirley says it would be impossible to attract the highly qualified and experienced staff she currently has because of the low wages she would be forced to offer them. If the nursery were forced to close, 16 people would lose their job.

The issues were all raised at the meeting last Friday which ended with the county council reassuring the providers that they would be looking into the issue and get back to them within 28 days.

Cllr Thake said they had been made aware that other authorities had taken a different stance on the issue and if they were found to be acting in a way that was within the law and viable for Hertfordshire to mirror, it could be possible that they would be able to review the situation. He added: “The thought of losing these providers who are such an integral part of the services we offer, makes me uncomfortable.”

The announcement yesterday that the government would review the situation is encouraging for Shirley and the many campaigners across the district, but it is far from conclusive and the changes could still be enforced across Hertfordshire at Easter.