Nurseries feel the pressure as local authority support takes a tumble

Janaki Mahadevan
Monday, January 9, 2012

The foundation years have become a focal point for the government, with the recognition that a child's journey from birth to five is critical to successful development in later life.

Reviews into the Early Years Foundation Stage, early education workforce and free childcare entitlement aim to support the government’s commitment to "give all children a fair start in life".

But despite the rhetoric, the latest survey by membership organisation the National Day Nurseries Association has revealed a significant change in the support being offered to nurseries in the private, voluntary and independent (PVI) sector.

Thirty-four per cent of settings said their local authority was either "not very supportive" or "not supportive at all" compared to just 19 per cent in the survey in September 2010.

Claire Gopoulos, owner of the Bright Stars group of nurseries in Enfield, says she is not surprised.
Although Gopoulos admits the relationship between the local authority and the PVI sector has always had its difficulties, she says that support has fallen since the establishment of the unringfenced early intervention grant.

"There is no doubt that there is less support available from the local authority than there was before," she says. "While we felt that previously training was not always well targeted, we used to have training provided free of charge in the standard things like first aid, child protection and food hygiene – now that is not free."

Bright Stars does not seem to be alone, with 44 per cent of the survey’s 108 respondents agreeing that training offered by their council had significantly reduced. In Enfield and the surrounding areas, this has forced different providers to come together in networks to provide their own training, which, according to Gopoulos, ensures higher quality and a more cost-effective solution, but one that is not without challenge.

"The pressure from parents to keep fees low is tremendous. But there have also been additional training costs, staff costs, the VAT rise, and our rent has increased by 40 per cent in one of our settings," she explains. "That has to be passed on to parents and that is difficult."

The previous Labour administration’s target of having a graduate-level early years professional in every setting by 2015 has been dropped. However, children’s minister Sarah Teather has been keen to stress that a highly skilled workforce is essential to improve social mobility and reduce inequality. The ongoing review of training and development for early years practitioners led by Professor Cathy Nutbrown is attempting to examine how the skills, knowledge and experience of early years professionals can be improved.

But 39 per cent of respondents to NDNA’s survey reported that they have experienced a significant cut in funding to support salaries for early years professionals.

Without subsidies to boost the salaries of staff who undertake graduate-level training, Gopoulos says settings will be unable to retain these people. "You get the funding and support through the training, but you can’t pay them because the subsidies that were there are gone. We are not in a position to meet those salaries now, so they move on and do something else."

Purnima Tanuku, NDNA chief executive, says the government can help by disseminating best practice to improve dialogue with the PVI sector. "There is a fine balance between meeting local needs and ensuring there is consistency across the country for children and families," she says.

"However, the government has a role in setting the tone for local authorities and highlighting best practice to encourage effective communication and engagement with the PVI sector.

"One of the main issues our members report is having nowhere to turn when things go wrong or communication breaks down with their local authority. We would like to see clear processes put in place for providers to challenge these decisions when local resolution cannot be found."

She adds: "At a time of stretched resources, good partnership working can support us all to deliver for children and families."

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