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Maintained Nursery Schools Funding

Volume 620: debated on Wednesday 1 February 2017

Order. Only a few hon. Members have put down their names to speak, but there are rather a lot present. Interventions are welcome, but I will not tolerate their being used as an opportunity to make a speech.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered funding for maintained nursery schools.

It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. It may help if I say at the outset that I do not intend to speak for long and will take only a few interventions; otherwise I shall be unfair to colleagues, many of whom want to make speeches.

We are here because we fear for the future of maintained nursery schools—the jewel in the crown of early years education. Maintained nursery schools have an outstanding record of providing for the very youngest children; 60% of them are rated outstanding by Ofsted, and 39% as good. That record of excellence is equalled nowhere else in the education sector. It is not anything like equalled even in the early years sector, where only 17% of other nurseries and preschools, and 13% of childminders, are rated outstanding. One would think that any Government would want to preserve and even expand a system that achieves such a degree of excellence, but unfortunately the reverse is true. The Prime Minister told me last week that she wants

“good-quality education at every…stage”.—[Official Report, 25 January 2017; Vol. 620, c. 285.]

However, when the Government started their consultation on early years funding, it is fair to say that it caused panic in the maintained nursery sector.

The response to the consultation has done little to allay the feeling of panic, because the Government want to fund all providers equally. They tell us that the average amount paid per hour for three and four-year-olds will rise from £4.56 to £4.94, and that no council will receive less than £4.30 an hour, so that providers can be paid at least £4. That would sound extremely reasonable if all providers had to abide by the same rules and do the same things, but they do not. That is the real problem. Even with the transitional funding that the Government have promised, one in 10 nursery schools still think they will have to close by July and 67% believe they will have to close by the end of the transitional funding.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. Warwick Nursery School and Whitnash Nursery School in my constituency will face a funding decrease under the proposals. Does she agree that the Government should revisit those proposals, so that such nurseries are not placed under a disadvantage or, worse still, forced to close?

I agree absolutely, for reasons that I hope to set out. Having just seen that every school in my area will lose money under the Government’s so-called fair funding formula, even though we were already one of the lowest-funded authorities in the country, I think that we should treat everything with a fair degree of scepticism until we see the basis on which all the funding is allocated.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely debate. We have a similar problem at the Hillfields nursery in Coventry, whose funding is similarly under threat. It has an excellent achievement record; Ofsted has affirmed that. More importantly, I agree that what is happening is disproportionate through the country.

I agree with my hon. Friend. The real problem is demonstrated in the foreword by the Secretary of State to the Government’s consultation response. It displays astonishing ignorance for someone holding her office, because she talks continually about childcare. Childcare is not the same thing as early years education, and Ministers must stop confusing and conflating the two. Maintained nursery schools provide early years education. They are schools and must employ qualified teachers. They must have a qualified head. Indeed, many of the headteachers in the sector are highly qualified. More than 80% are qualified at master’s degree level or above, because their job is highly skilled.

Unlike schools, they are not allowed to academise, for example, or to form unions of different schools that would allow them a centre of gravity that might just enable them to get through the difficulty.

That is an interesting point, but not one that I have heard from maintained nurseries, which value their independence and their different way of working, and want to keep that special atmosphere. The problem, of course, is that they are funded not as schools but through the early years formula, which has been consistently cut by the Government. Its various incarnations have had various names, but the Library has produced figures showing that the predecessor grants that were originally rolled up into it would have been worth £2.79 billion in 2010. There was an immediate cut to £2.48 billion and continued decreases and, based on our indicative figures, the sum will be £1 billion by 2019-20.

The problem is that at the same time, the Government have changed the way they fund local authorities. Those authorities have the power to fund nursery schools on a different basis from other providers, but they do not have an obligation to do so. They face a double whammy, because most maintained nursery places—65% of them—are in the most deprived areas. It is councils in those areas that have faced enormous cuts in their budgets, so that some are struggling even to fund statutory services. It is no surprise that there is pressure on maintained nurseries to close or amalgamate.

Maintained nursery schools provide outreach to families, support to other providers, and initial teacher training places. Nowhere else in the sector does all that. Yet they achieve enormous success with children from the most deprived families in the country. Sandy Lane Nursery and Forest School in my constituency serves, mostly, two wards, Orford and Poplars and Hulme, although it takes children from a wider area too. Those wards are among the most deprived 30% in the country. In Orford 33.7% of children are growing up in workless families. In Poplars and Hulme the figure is 32.9%. The fact that the nursery is rated outstanding in those circumstances is a tribute to the skill and expertise of the staff, but that is by no means unusual. The Government should pay heed to the words of a former chief inspector of schools, who said:

“The only early education provision that is at least as strong, or even stronger, in deprived areas compared with wealthier areas is nursery schools”.

The hon. Lady is making a very good speech. The evidence is certainly there, from health visitors who see children at an early age, that targeted interventions for deprived families, single mothers and people in other situations that may interfere with a child’s life chances make a real difference. That is actually investing to save later on, because of the reduced rates of family breakdown and the improvement in a child’s life chances.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is interesting that there is a fair degree of consensus on that across the House. The evidence is there: if the Prime Minister really wants to improve social mobility, she will stop fixating on grammar schools and start investing in maintained nursery schools. Even if I believed that there was a test that could measure the innate ability of 11-year-olds—I certainly do not—as opposed to them being tutored for that test, 11 is too late for many children. They need intervention earlier on.

For example, the Ofsted report on Sandy Lane Nursery and Forest School in my constituency is clear that most children come to the school with skills well below the level expected of their age group. However, by the time they go on to reception, the vast majority are achieving at the right level for their age. Furthermore—one of the teachers has tracked children’s progress through primary school—they maintain those gains in future years.

The fact that the school achieves that, while at the same time catering for children with disabilities and other special needs, and while—unusually for Warrington, which is largely white, British and monoglot—they have children speaking eight different languages, is amazing. On a recent visit there, I saw that all the children learn to sign; they all learn Makaton, because there are children there with communication difficulties and the staff want them all to be included.

Like most nursery schools, my local nursery also caters for children with special needs and disabilities. Some 49% of maintained nurseries are attended by children with the most severe degree of disabilities, 69% are attended by children with moderate disabilities and 72% are attended by children with mild disabilities. They get more referrals from councils than other providers, because they have the expertise. If nurseries close, the Minister has to tell us where those children will go. We already know that 42% of parents of children with disabilities find difficulty in accessing the early years provision that they are entitled to.

Maintained nurseries actually do more than simply cater for children with disabilities and special needs—they also provide advice to other providers. For example, a teacher at my local nursery co-ordinates provision for nought to five-year-olds with disabilities and special needs throughout the borough. Again, that is common: 46% of our maintained nurseries provide disability and special needs support to the local authority; 43% provide it to other maintained settings; and 47% provide it to private and voluntary sector settings as well. That outreach work, not only to families but to others in the sector, is a vital part of maintained nursery schools’ work.

Since the coalition Government took what I think was the retrograde step of not requiring children’s centres to employ a trained teacher, that expertise is largely in maintained nurseries. Some 71% of maintained nurseries support their local children’s centre and 60% of them support private and voluntary settings. In fact, in my area, the maintained nursery, the children’s centre and the private nursery were all built on the same site, precisely to facilitate that exchange of expertise. Because there is a real need to raise standards across the early years sector, we ought to cherish and facilitate that sharing of expertise.

My hon. Friend is making a truly outstanding speech in support of maintained nursery schools. We heard reassurances from the Minister at the recent meeting of the all-party group on nursery schools and nursery classes, but my hon. Friend will be aware that those assurances are insufficient given the imminence of the threat to our maintained nursery schools. Of the more than 400 nursery schools, 67 think they will close by the summer. We need urgent action, not just warm words for the future.

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. The lack of urgency from the Government worries all of us who support the continuance of our maintained nurseries.

Maintained nurseries do a lot more than I have already described. They have regular contact with families. Because they are trusted by families, they can refer those in difficulty to other services, such as domestic violence services or English as a second language services for those who do not speak English. That is vital in ensuring that a child’s life chances are not damaged early on.

This is a timely and tremendous debate, because my constituents are really worried. On the comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell), does my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) agree that despite the Government’s wish to appear to be supporting working families and caring for the quality of early years education, they are trying to do that on the cheap? That decimates any remaining credibility they have on the issue. We need them to do the right thing.

I agree with my hon. Friend; I said in a previous debate that there can be good early years provision or there can be cheap early years provision—there cannot be good, cheap early years provision. It requires high ratios of staff to children and properly trained staff. What sort of Government would want to put such a high-achieving sector, with such a wealth of expertise and such a record in promoting social mobility, in jeopardy? This Government, apparently. The Prime Minister’s repeated assertions about social mobility will ring hollow if maintained nurseries, which are the best engine of social mobility, as proven by study after study, start to close.

The Government need to look at this urgently. They need to ensure that they get a grip, to stop closures from coming this summer and to ensure the future of our maintained nurseries. They need to review the funding arrangements, and to recognise the interaction with other council funding; so far, they have not managed to do that. They cannot cut and cut and expect the same services. They also need to commit not only to interim funding, but to properly funding our maintained nursery schools.

Maintained nursery schools have far greater duties and obligations than other providers in the sector, and are supporting many of those other providers. What has consistently bedevilled early years provision in this country is that we do not have enough trained staff; most of the properly trained staff we have are in maintained nursery schools, and we would be very foolish to lose them. I can never make up my mind whether Ministers simply do not understand the difference between early education and childcare, or whether they are trying to disguise the fact that they have not properly funded their decisions and commitments on childcare, and so are taking money away from maintained nurseries. That needs to stop now.

The Government need to take this seriously. If they do not, the life chances of a whole generation of children will be damaged in a way that cannot be made up for later. The hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) was right: every teacher will agree that, with early intervention, money is saved and problems are avoided later on in the education system. The Government need to understand that and do the best they can for our youngest children. That, after all, is the mark of a civilised society. The Minister needs to make some commitments to that in this debate.

What a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) on securing this important debate and on her speech; she made some very important and relevant points, many of which I have a considerable amount of sympathy for. As a Government Member, rather than an Opposition Member—I understand how the system works—I do not agree with some of her points. I would like to pick up one point immediately. I thought that her comments on my hon. Friend the Minister were a little unfair. My hon. Friend is totally committed to this area and is doing a tremendous amount of work, as I experienced at the all-party group meeting last week, to find a satisfactory solution to the situation.

The basic point of the hon. Lady’s speech was the importance of maintained nurseries in our constituencies. I could not disagree with that at all; she is absolutely right. They play a critical role, and some other nursery and primary schools do not have the same focus. In my constituency of Chelmsford we have two excellent maintained nurseries: Tanglewood and Woodcroft. I was fortunate to be invited to Tanglewood a few weeks ago to see for myself the fantastic work done there. The Minister will be as familiar as the hon. Lady with the commitment and dedication of staff and what they seek to achieve. As the hon. Lady rightly said, more often than not they are dealing with some very challenging and deprived families in difficult circumstances. It is a joy to see the commitment of staff and the help they give to children who would not otherwise have such a start in life.

Maybe I am naive, but I was told in no uncertain terms that there are children at that nursery who have no concept of what play is. I imagine most hon. Members in this Chamber take it for granted that every child knows how to play and that it comes naturally, but for some it does not, because their parents were not taught how to play or have no concept of it. We get a full appreciation of the challenges those children face when starting from that base. These schools are so crucial because of the help and the start in life they can offer children who would not otherwise benefit.

The other thing I was particularly impressed by on my visit—this certainly did not happen at my school—was the number of members of staff who were parents of children who had been at the school. They were so impressed by what was going on that they wanted to become involved. Rather than just looking on from the outside, they wanted to actually play a part. They started their training and are now working there with the next generation of children, providing help with the benefit of the experience and knowledge they have as parents of children who attended the school. It is so important that we ensure that tradition continues.

I suspect that all of us, in our different ways, have had contact with my hon. Friend the Minister on these issues. We live in difficult times, and we have to be careful that we get value for money and do not waste taxpayers’ money. It is not an enviable job, but it has to be done regardless of who is in government. I have been impressed by my hon. Friend’s commitment. It is quite clear that she accepts and understands the role of these schools and wants to find a meaningful solution that will hopefully continue to provide a solution beyond 2020, so that these schools can continue to flourish and survive.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his generosity in giving way. He is making a heart-warming speech about the emotional impact that nursery schools can have. May I reiterate the point he makes? The Minister came to our all-party group meeting last week, and I want to put on the record that her responses and the speech she gave at that meeting were very well received by the hundreds of nursery schools we had there. This debate is a good follow-on to that meeting.

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady and particularly pleased that I gave way to her. All too often, partisan issues blur a debate, but for her to be so fair in her assessment of that meeting and her dealings with the Minister is a refreshing reflection of her chairmanship of that all-party group.

Basically, we are all together in trying to find a positive solution. My hon. Friend the Minister has secured funding up until 2020, which I believe is an important step forward as a short-term measure to try to allay the fear of some of these schools that they may face closure, the deadline for which is, more often than not, July 2017. What my hon. Friend has done should ensure that that does not happen. I am also confident that as she continues the consultations and assessments, a longer term solution will be found, so that we do not have to keep coming back to this issue or see the closure of schools that provide such a vital service in all our constituencies, whether they suffer from severe deprivation across the board or, like my own, are more fortunate. Constituencies such as mine do not have deprivation across the board but still have areas where there is a vital role to play and job to be done by these schools, to help give every child the best possible start in life.

These schools fill a gap in the provision of nursery care and education for a targeted group who so badly need help and who disproportionately benefit. As the hon. Member for Warrington North said in her compelling remarks at the beginning, giving a child the best start in their early years is a far better investment than any amount of money thrown at an issue. They then get experience, confidence building and everything associated with that to be able to move forward in life. It encourages and enhances their learning development, social skills and interactive skills, which are so crucial.

I am more confident that the Minister is committed to ensuring that we come up with relevant solutions. It is quite clear—from not only the all-party group meeting, but the way in which she has made herself available to all hon. Members who want to feed in their concerns and viewpoints—that she is prepared to listen and work to find a solution that is beneficial to all. I am pleased that we have this opportunity to share yet again with the Minister our different experiences in the variety of constituencies represented in the Chamber today. I believe that this will be of invaluable help to her as she continues her work to find a resolution to the concerns and worries bedevilling many people quite genuinely.

I am very happy to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I want to make a small contribution to this very important debate, because I passionately believe that nursery schools are a vital contributor to social mobility in this country. There is ample evidence to show that maintained nursery schools that offer high-quality early education can have profound impacts on the start of children’s lives. That is why it is not surprising that nursery schools have been described as the “jewel in the crown” of the education system. However, the current Government are allowing the crown to be tarnished by going down a route that will place all nursery schools under threat. That is especially true for children in some of the most deprived communities in the country.

As was said at the last meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on nursery schools and nursery classes, which my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) so excellently chairs, it was estimated in 2011 that 80% of three-year-olds from the most deprived areas attended a setting with a qualified early years professional compared with just 50% in more affluent areas. That was surely a good thing.

In my own constituency, Washington and Sunderland West, there are four maintained nurseries: Hylton Red House, Usworth Colliery, Oxclose and Pennywell Early Years Centre. I understand that I am lucky because there are four good maintained nursery schools in my constituency, but that also shows the demographics of my constituency. It must be pointed out that Sunderland has one of the highest numbers of these nurseries within our local authority area—a total of nine.

The Government have partially redeemed themselves with transitional arrangements. That is welcome, as it will help to mitigate any problems that nursery schools face due to the cuts in their funding. However, it must be said that funding will still be reduced and the transitional subsidy may not continue—the Minister may tell us otherwise this morning—after the two years are up.

In Sunderland, the baseline funding rate for three and four-year-olds for 2016-17 stood at £5.38 per hour, but through the early years national funding formula that will decrease to £5.11 per hour. That might not sound like much of a decrease, but it is per hour and it is the difference between survival and closure. As the Social Mobility Commission has stated:

“It would be a travesty if funding reforms mean that over time we lose more of the remaining high-quality, maintained nursery schools.”

I could not agree with that more, and I hope that the Minister agrees with it, too.

The concerns expressed have been echoed by staff and parents at my local nursery schools—they have all been in touch with me. Claire Nicholson, the local headteacher of Pennywell Early Years Centre, has told me that

“such a big percentage is going to be lost, that it won’t allow us to be viable”.

Also, nearly 100 parents at Pennywell Early Years Centre, in a letter they sent to me, have described their disbelief and dismay at the policy and the direction in which the Government are taking early years education.

These schools are a proven and vital part of our country’s strategy for improving social mobility, which is something we desperately need to be doing more of, not less. It is important that the Government do all they can to give children the best start in life. That is why many of us in this House, and specifically in this Chamber today, got into politics, and we will hold Ministers to account every step of the way on this matter. I urge the Minister not to squander the life chances of any of the children in this country, especially those in the most deprived communities. Our young constituents do not deserve this, and I hope that the Minister will reconsider for their sake.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) on securing this important debate. During her comments, she drew an important distinction between childcare and nursery education.

I fully support the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Sir Simon Burns), who summed up very well the value of these schools. He also pointed out, rightly, that our hon. Friend the Minister is a supporter of nursery education. I am not here to seek to criticise her, because I know that she is supportive, but I want to refer to one particular school that serves my constituency and is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn)—Scartho Nursery School. I will speak specifically about that school, but my comments also relate to many schools across the country. I am here to support the hon. Lady, who will no doubt also highlight other issues.

Scartho Nursery School was actually under attack when I was a councillor for Scartho ward. The hon. Lady’s predecessor, Austin Mitchell, and I fought a campaign to ensure that it stayed open. We had the help of my now noble Friend Lord Willetts, who visited the school—were the Minister to speak to him, I am sure that he would remember, although it was 17 or 18 years ago. He was very impressed by the school at the time.

The headteacher, Liz Jeffrey, who is a constituent of mine, in a letter that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby will also have received, opens by saying: “We need your help!” She rightly points out that Scartho Nursery School

“has been a beacon for Early Years Education”.

Indeed, the Grimsby Telegraph, on 26 April 2013, had the headline “It’s another cracking Ofsted for Scartho Nursery School”. That was the fourth inspection in a row from which it had received the “excellent” accolade.

The question is how we ensure that funding continues, and not just for Scartho nursery, but for similar schools up and down the country. We need a clear statement. From my earlier remarks, the Minister knows that I recognise her support for this sort of school. However, it would be helpful if, in summing up of the debate, she made it clear that the Government do indeed to support maintained nursery schools. If that is the case, a funding formula to allow them to continue is clearly essential.

May I refer again to the comments from the headteacher of Scartho Nursery School? Liz Jeffrey says that, like many similar schools, it

“prides itself on the fact that it caters only for nursery aged children, providing them with the best possible start to their education.”

It is that “best possible start” that we would want for our children and the children in our constituencies. As Mrs Jeffrey points out,

“It is a specialist setting”.

I have visited the school on many occasions and I recognise its importance to people. I recognise how the community values it and, most particularly, how the parents value it. Generations of families continue to go to that school, which is a recommendation in itself.

Liz Jeffrey asks whether the Government are

“willing to risk losing the four hundred nursery schools that have been referred to as ‘the jewel in the education crown’.”

She says:

“We should be celebrating because at least 90% of nursery schools have been judged by OFSTED to be outstanding or good”.

As I said, Scartho itself has received the “excellent” accolade on a number of occasions.

I want to tease out from the Minister an absolute commitment to the continuation of maintained nursery schools. Will she also meet the hon. Member for Great Grimsby and me, so that we can speak specifically about Scartho? The hon. Lady will also speak about Great Coates Village Nursery School, which also serves a number of my constituents. If the Minister would do that, it would be very helpful. With that, I will conclude and look forward to hearing a positive reply from the Minister.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) on securing this debate and excellently setting out the case in her thoughtful comments. I run a great risk of repeating some of them, so I will be careful not to steal her thunder too much. There is such a danger that serious and important domestic matters that will have a significant effect on my constituents and their children will be lost in the noise of Brexit. I therefore welcome this debate and ask the Minister to make sure that this important issue is not ignored and that close attention is paid to the impact of the implementation of the restructured funding.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, 97% of state-maintained nurseries are rated as good or outstanding by Ofsted. Despite that amazing rating, which many sectors would give their eye teeth for, some 67% of such nurseries say that they will be unsustainable once transitional funding provided by the Government finishes at the end of this Parliament. As mentioned by the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), two of those 67% are in my constituency—Scartho Nursery School and Great Coates Village Nursery School.

I visited Scartho Nursery School last week and met its headteacher and governors, the headteacher of Great Coates, teachers, early years practitioners, special educational needs staff and, of course, the children. Some of the children had been in that setting for only two or three weeks but they were settled, happy, polite and engaged in their learning through play. They all understood the routine of the day such as when it was snack time and when it was story time—the important parts of the day—and were comfortable and confident within that space. They were making friends and were secure with the staff.

It was not that long ago, in April 2016, that a debate was held—some of the Members in this room attended it—secured by the late Jo Cox, on educational attainment in Yorkshire and the Humber. I was keen to contribute to the debate because of the significant detriment in our region experienced by our children. The links to poverty and attainment were laid bare and commitments were made to take this seriously. Yet we now know that in two years’ time transitional funding for one of the most indicative changers of attainment and social mobility in deprived areas will end. If, in the case of my two nurseries, they are unable to raise the £100,000-plus shortfall per annum, these essential facilities in our communities will be lost. They will be lost forever and the only ones who will suffer will be our kids.

In Great Grimsby if we lose this provision, which has around 200 children enrolled across the two sites, we will experience a double whammy of loss of provision and support. Over the past few years we have seen the closure of Sure Start centres at the heart of communities in favour of more centralised family hubs. That is okay, we might think, as private nurseries still offer excellent nursery provision. Yes, there are many in my constituency of Great Grimsby that parents love and that also provide happy, safe environments. It is great that parents have a choice of provision, whether they choose a childminder, private nursery or state nursery. However, through my discussions last week, I discovered that some of those nurseries have already decided that they will not offer the additional hours up to 30. That is due to the £4.30 per pupil per hour cost allocated for those additional hours under the free childcare pledge; the private nursery hourly rates are in excess of that and they are not allowed to charge a top-up so they will lose money. The headteacher of Great Coates Nursery Village School told me that she has already been approached by many parents wanting to take up the 30-hours offer. If private nurseries recognise that they are not able to provide a service for that figure and it is not sustainable, how do the Government expect the state-maintained nurseries to do it?

As mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North, it is important to raise the issue of the hidden costs for state-maintained nurseries, so I will repeat them. Nurseries remain within the early years funding bracket and yet legislation dictates that they operate within a schools framework in terms of having to have a headteacher and teachers including a staff member with expertise in special educational needs. The school I visited has children who will be eligible for free school meals by the time they enter infant school. Those two schools have a significant percentage of children who will be eligible, but they are not funded for free school meals. The proposal for the extension of the 15-hour offer to 30 hours will not see any change to that, despite some children then possibly being there for six hours a day for five days a week. The guidance issued by the Pre-School Learning Alliance is explicit that funding is only for education or care provision, not meals or drinks.

Some children at the nursery had evident special educational needs, from suspected autism to noticeable delays in speech development. Additional funding is available to support those children, but the length of time it takes for the children to achieve a diagnosis means that the nurseries are not receiving that much-needed funding and are providing the additional support through the good will of dedicated staff. What can the Minister do to ensure that the referral of children for SEN assessments at ages three and four is sped up?

I am beyond worried that those two excellent facilities that are much loved in the community and have served multiple generations of families, some of whom have gone on—this is exactly the same situation as the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Sir Simon Burns), who is no longer in his place, mentioned—to work in those establishments where their children were educated because they love them so much, will be lost. That will leave those with the greatest need without the right support. I fundamentally disagree with the idea that those learning establishments for our children who are at the most exciting and rich period of development in their lives should have to turn their attention away from those children in order to fundraise to cover substantial financial losses.

I have heard some excellent speeches today but I want to give particular credit to my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for her excellent speech.

Halton is the 27th most deprived borough in the country, and its maintained nursery schools are important not only to the general population but for the difference they make for children from deprived and poorer backgrounds. They can identify at a very early age children who will struggle all the way through school and the rest of their lives. They are particularly good at that. My constituency has three maintained nursery schools: Birchfield Nursery School, Warrington Road Nursery School and Ditton Nursery School. All of them have been in existence in Widnes for 75 to 80 years to support children’s early education and parents value them greatly. The headteachers have told me that they are extremely worried that the schools may not exist for much longer if the national early years funding formula goes ahead as planned. Early Education forecasts that 67% of nurseries will be unsustainable after transitional funding finishes.

The evidence is clear that the quality of early education makes the most difference in raising achievement for the most disadvantaged children. That justifies such large Government investment in early intervention. Quality is determined by the qualifications of early years staff and teachers. Nursery schools in Halton employ well-qualified and highly experienced headteachers and assistant headteachers, as well as taking on and mentoring newly qualified teachers who work with them as early years specialists. They also have a number of staff members with early years degrees, a qualified early years teacher and special educational needs co-ordinators who are qualified and experienced teachers who have offered support across other settings and enabled transitions and planning to take place to support the most vulnerable children. Again, early intervention is crucial.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for taking an intervention and apologise, Ms Dorries, for not being here at the start of the debate. My constituency is very different to my hon. Friend’s, but it has the Fields Children’s Centre, which I have visited over many years. Does he agree that the work being done in this area is about far more than just childcare?

My hon. Friend is right. A whole sphere of things can make a difference. I will come back to that later in my speech, but he makes a very good point.

Halton is one of the 25% of councils that will lose money for early years in the revised formula. At present, early years is a priority for Halton and we feel there should be funding to support it—early years has always been a priority in Halton. The 2015 Ofsted early years report endorses the consistent evidence of other national research that the most effective early education is provided by such nursery schools. Over the past five years maintained nursery schools in Halton have annually increased the average points progress made by children in all settings. We can demonstrate outstanding progress for children with special educational needs and disabilities, English as an additional language and those children entering our schools with low levels of personal, social and emotional development—that is really important—communication and speech.

The headteachers in my constituency believe strongly that nursery schools are in jeopardy all over the country because the qualifications of staff and the leadership of headteachers mean that they cost more than any other sort of nursery. The current system of funding early education, or what seems to be now called childcare, assumes that what every nursery offers is broadly the same, but it is not. They cannot be funded in the same way because maintained and private provision have completely different structures. I hope the Government will understand and address that.

Nursery schools lead to the kind of outstanding early years education we want for every child in our country. They play a key role in supporting training in the early years sector including work placements, initial teacher training, qualified teacher status and postgraduate certificate in education placements. Nursery headteachers and staff want to be supported to operate as system leaders for the future to ensure that early years professionals continue to have quality training and development and are able to have a positive impact on young children’s learning.

The recent consultation showed no awareness of the reality of the funding crisis for maintained nursery schools, or of their remit and impact. Proposals should be founded upon research and a commitment to developing early years leadership. One headteacher told me:

“The consultation largely ignored social return on investment and places no weighting on rewarding those organisations mainly schools who have a statutory and moral imperative to support their communities.”

The proposed funding reform would effectively eradicate such nurseries, losing knowledge specialism and damaging the life chances of our most vulnerable children. Nurseries want reassurances from the Minister that the transitional funding mentioned in the consultation will get through to nursery schools and will be sufficient to keep them running while we move towards a new system and leadership model.

I recently asked my local authority, Halton Borough Council, about its view of the situation. People there told me that they will not know the final figures until they receive the census information in February. However, previous estimates based on this year’s funding show that the three nursery schools—even after applying the higher base rate for the maintained nursery schools—will face a shortfall for 2017-18. That takes into consideration the additional protection that nursery schools will receive. Halton Borough Council can only provide the higher base rate for one year, so the shortfall could rise in 2018-19 to £130,000. When the transitional protection is removed in two years, the shortfall could increase to between £160,000 and £190,000. Although the council is working with nursery schools on models and options to reduce the cost, it will struggle to save £130,000-plus, which might mean that it can no longer afford to retain our nursery provision. That is how serious the situation is in Halton, where securing good-quality early years provision is a particular challenge. If Halton ends up having to look at closure, it will be a considerable loss.

Before I conclude, I want to quote the headteacher at Ditton Nursery School, who told me:

“We have a higher base rate for next year (18-19) plus transitional funding for the following year. When this finishes we will have seen our individual budgets cut by between £50,000-60,000 but we have already cut staffing down to a minimum and although looking at a federated model are not sure we will be sustainable when additional funding finishes…Nursery schools drive high quality pedagogy across the sector. We provide outstanding support for Special Educational needs and disadvantaged children thus supporting their learning chances later in education. We offer partnership, innovation and system leadership within the sector, and also support Initial Teacher Training for Early Years. This would all be lost if we closed. We need to ensure that we retain high quality Early years staff to work with our children—they deserve the best.”

I stress that—they deserve the best. The headteacher continued:

“This is difficult when facing such uncertainty. We want to retain quality staff to ensure the best outcomes for our children.”

I recently visited Birchfield Nursery School and talked to the headteacher there. I was so impressed by what was going on; there was a range of support for young people in education and play, and so on. The right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Sir Simon Burns) made a very important point. Nurseries have seen an increase in the number of children who not only do not know how to play, but perhaps more surprisingly, are not able to speak at the age at which they should be able to start speaking. All the headteachers I spoke to said that. Even more surprisingly, that is the situation not just among poorer children, but across the sphere when it comes to talking and play. They said that children are told, “Get on and play with that,” and although most parents are still fantastic at helping their children to talk and at developing their education, a growing number of parents are not. The lack of parents talking and playing with their children is becoming a major problem for some schools. Dealing with that requires extra money and extra effort, and the schools are then making the difference, not some of the parents. Obviously they try and encourage parents to play with and speak to the children more—to have more conversations with them—but it is sometimes an uphill struggle. That is partly because of the nature of the society we live in, but in this respect nurseries are making a real difference to our children, particularly in deprived areas. That intervention is so crucial to helping children’s life chances. Maintained nursery schools have that impact because of the nature of teachers’ qualifications and experience, and because of how they work together.

I therefore urge the Minister to reconsider the plans. The real problem is that the Government are cutting education and funding, and they need to rethink that. She shakes her head, but she should talk to the headteachers. They tell me what is going on in their schools. This is not me making a political point; it is what headteachers tell me, so the Government need to think again about funding. At the end of the day we cannot lose these fantastic maintained nurseries—we must do all that we can to keep them.

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.

Does the hon. Lady agree that an advantage of maintained nurseries, such as Surbiton Children’s Centre Nursery—the only one in my constituency—is that they have the security that private nurseries, often run by private tenants, do not have if the landlord decides that they do not want them to continue there, or if the rent goes up?

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.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) on securing this important debate. She said in her passionate and informed opening speech that the record of excellence for maintained nurseries has been achieved nowhere else in the education system and should be maintained.

The Government’s proposed changes and the loss of transitional funding will affect nurseries throughout England, which will be a great loss to local communities. Maintained nurseries make the difference between early years education and early years caring very prominent. There is a real difference—I know that from my experience as a local authority councillor in Scotland. Nursery education is the crème de la crème. Children need looking after in their early years, but just looking after them is not enough. If our economy is to grow and thrive, we will need people who are able to grow and thrive and to overcome their disadvantaged backgrounds. The message that I have heard clearly today is that it is maintained nurseries that best make that happen.

The right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Sir Simon Burns) did not really disagree much with the hon. Member for Warrington North. He, too, was very supportive of maintained nurseries, although he was trying to support his Government at the same time.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I speak as an English MP about English maintained nursery schools, and I support my hon. Friend the Minister because of her commitment and the work she does to navigate around the problem and find a meaningful solution.

I take refuge in my international observer status, which I frequently refer to on the Select Committee on Education. I look at things from a different perspective, but I passionately want children throughout the UK to have the best possible start.

The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) spoke about maintained nurseries as the jewel in the crown of the education system. She also made the point, which was echoed throughout the Chamber, that there are more maintained nurseries in deprived areas. That is undoubtedly a good thing, because that is where they are needed. If the United Kingdom is to move forward, we need to encourage and help those who are most deprived. Some of us here will not recognise the shocking statistics about parents not reading to their children or even talking to them, but there are such parents, and they and their children are the ones who need most help. That is why early years education is so important.

The hon. Lady said that the end of the two-year transitional arrangement could lead to a quite significant number of closures of maintained nurseries. She spoke about a drop in funding from £5.38 to £5.11 per hour—a huge drop that could lead to closures that I am sure no one in the Chamber wants.

The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) reinforced the difference between childcare and early years education. He spoke eloquently and passionately about Scartho Nursery School, which typifies most maintained nursery schools. In fact, it would be difficult to name any hon. Member who has contributed to the debate without speaking passionately about the need to maintain these nurseries.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) said that she did not want this debate to be lost in the Brexit fog that has now descended on the main Chamber. I could not agree more. At times like this, we have to keep raising these issues and pushing the Minister to listen carefully, change her proposals and make a difference. Some nurseries will not even be offering an additional 30 hours of free provision because of the cost of implementation.

The hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), too, was passionate about the excellent nurseries in his constituency. He described the devastating impact of the removal of transitional funding: the expertise that has been built up in the maintained nurseries in his area in supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities could be lost—and once these services are lost, it is very difficult to get them back.

The hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) said that nurseries are the part of the education system that has the least gap between children. The evidence on the subject, which the Scottish Government have based a lot of their measures on, shows that if we can get children into nurseries and give them proper education early on, we can carry it forward—the right hon. Member for Chelmsford also mentioned that. I cannot overstate the need for maintained nurseries with excellently educated staff who reach out across the whole sector.

This is not my debate or my area, but it is quite useful to turn briefly to what is happening in Scotland, as I do quite often. The political will in Scotland is different. The First Minister has made it her main priority to close the attainment gap, and the Scottish Government believe that the best way to do that is through transforming early years education and giving all children the best start in life.

Yes. Let me just say that, as a former councillor, I know how partnership nurseries work in Scotland—the local authorities help to fund and give their expertise to privately funded nurseries—and perhaps the Minister would like to think about that. What is needed is political will. I urge her to take on board what she has heard this morning and make the changes necessary to retain maintained nurseries in England.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) on introducing the debate. I never fail to be impressed by the passion she brings to her speeches or by her campaigning zeal—I have campaigned with her since before I became a Member.

We know that this debate is of great importance; that is why we have had such a high turnout of Members and such a high-quality debate. I join the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Sir Simon Burns) in praising nursery staff throughout the country for their commitment. He spoke more articulately than I can about all the work that goes on.

The Minister will be aware that Members here know the importance of maintained nurseries for sure, and the role they play in our early years system. They are invaluable. In fact, they are absolutely irreplaceable. The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) spoke about Scartho Nursery School with such passion, because he knows that that sort of provision cannot be replaced in any constituency up and down the land if it is lost.

Maintained nurseries operate overwhelmingly in disadvantaged areas and, as has been pointed out, 98% of them are rated “good” or “outstanding” by Ofsted. If 98% of them are rated so highly, why do we feel that they are suddenly being so undervalued by the Government, and why do they face this funding crisis? We are at the point now where there is no turning back.

Research by the all-party parliamentary group on nursery schools and nursery classes, which is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell), who is no longer in her place but does astonishingly good work in this area, shows that dozens of nursery schools—I think she said 67—look like they will be forced to close by July this year. That is more than one in 10 nursery schools.

Almost 60% of those nurseries say that they will be unsustainable once the Government withdraw transitional funding support at the end of this Parliament, as my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) pointed out. She talked about educational attainment across the north and referred to the debate that Jo Cox secured about Yorkshire and the Humber. However, we should remember that in London 55% of kids on free school meals get five good GCSEs. If we take the area from the Mersey estuary to the Humber estuary, that figure for kids on free school meals declines to 34%. The Government produced the Nick Weller report about educational attainment in the north, but unfortunately it is now just gathering dust on a shelf somewhere—there is no evidence that any of its recommendations have been implemented.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and I apologise for not being able to be here for the whole debate, because of a prior engagement. However, I just feel so strongly about this issue that I want to put on the record how well Ganneys Meadow Nursery School in my constituency is doing. It is located in one of the 20% most deprived lower-level super output areas in the UK, but it received three “outstanding” judgments in its last three Ofsted reports. Nevertheless, it is really struggling financially and anything that the Minister can do to mitigate that situation would be hugely appreciated.

My hon. Friend makes a fantastic point, as she defends the maintained nursery in her constituency. It has three “outstanding” judgments, yet it is under all that pressure. What sort of society are we living in when that is happening to professional staff, as well as to parents and their young children?

With so many nursery schools likely to rely on the transitional funding, this debate is of huge importance. In her eloquent speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) said that the order of the day at the moment is survival or closure for most of these operations. So can the Minister tell us how the transitional funding will be awarded, which nursery schools will benefit, and how will she ensure that it is used in a way that supports our nursery schools up and down the land? I ask these questions because providing transitional funding is not the same as providing certainty. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) also pointed that out. We need long-term sustainability.

Right now, nursery schools across the country support some of our most disadvantaged communities and they are highly valued by parents, as my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) said. He was also absolutely bang on the money about the quality of training provided in these nursery schools. I remember being a PGCE—postgraduate certificate in education—student and spending two, three or four weeks at a nursery school, and I understood that those nursery teachers knew with 95% accuracy what the kids at that nursery would attain at their key stage 1 standard assessment tests and at their key stage 2 SATs, because they knew that what they could do was make the most important intervention in a child’s life.

The Minister and her colleague, the Secretary of State for Education, have said—rather frequently—that the Government are investing a record £6 billion in early years and childcare; we will see if she comes to that figure today. However, that assessment does not tell us the whole story. For instance, it does nothing to consider the impact of changes in the early years funding formula, and nor does it consider the impact of the savage cuts to local government funding that the Minister’s party has pursued for nearly seven years in government.

I will just turn to the situation in Scotland. The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) said, “Nursery education is the crème de la crème”, and I agree with her that nursery education is the best start in life. However, the Scottish National party Government are taking £150 million a year out of Glasgow City Council’s budget. How do we think that will impact on nursery schools in Scotland? And that is after Glasgow Labour had rebuilt every new school of the campus at £600 million over the last 15 years. What do we think those sorts of cuts will do for disadvantaged children in Glasgow? Let us also be absolutely clear that the SNP Government are failing to inspect nursery schools, with inspection ratios going up to years and years before the equivalent of Ofsted goes in and inspects those schools. I am afraid that the SNP Government have a record of failure in Scotland.

That might be the case, as the hon. Lady suggests by chuntering from a sedentary position, but we now face a party that is like the Liberal Democrats of this Parliament—everybody else is to blame, except themselves. Having said that, we are to blame—all Members—for this situation, because we are not doing our research on what is actually going on north of the border.

Many families are supported by nursery schools that are supported by the Government. However, the Government’s policy of tax-free childcare will do nothing for many working parents. The total benefit of tax-free childcare is £2,000, but that is only available to a family that spends £10,000 a year on childcare. It is quite a regressive tax and it does not really do much for those in the most disadvantaged communities, who rely on the maintained nursery sector.

The Government have to come up with a plan to protect some of the most valuable nursery schools in our country. The Minister has seen the passion that hon. Members across the Chamber have shown today, and we know that we get the biggest bang for our buck, educationally speaking, when it is spent on nursery education. However, I fear that unless the Minister comes up with a plan, her curriculum vitae will show that many maintained nurseries closed on her watch. I know personally that she does not want that to happen. Nevertheless, the risks are clear, and if she and the Government fail to act, a generation of children will really lose out.

It is an enormous pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) on securing this important debate, and indeed all the hon. Members from different parties who have taken part; they have spoken with great passion about their own experience of maintained nursery schools. It has been great to hear the support from across the House for these valuable educational providers.

The issue of maintained nursery schools is of huge importance. I am pleased to have the opportunity to set out very clearly the Government’s position on the valuable contribution that they can make, not only to the lives of disadvantaged children, but to the wider early years sector. I want to make it very clear that the Government are committed to exploring all options to address the issues that nursery schools face, and we remain committed to ensuring that nursery schools have a bright future and can continue to meet the needs of the communities they serve.

Nursery schools do indeed have an impressive history. Central to the development of the very early nurseries was the recognition that disadvantaged children could thrive and overcome their circumstances by attending nursery settings that blended both care and education. Today that approach is backed up by robust research. We know that the first few years of a child’s life are critical to shaping their future development. We also know that high-quality pre-school education reduces the effects of multiple disadvantage on later attainment and progress in primary school. In addition, we know that many maintained nursery schools go beyond the bounds of their immediate communities, using their pedagogical expertise to help other providers improve the quality of their provision.

In short, although maintained nursery schools are attended by only 2.8% of the two, three and four-year-old children who benefit from funded early education places, they nevertheless make a huge contribution to disadvantaged children and to the early years sector as a whole. Like other Members, I have seen that in my own constituency.

If, as the Minister says, she understands and values the contributions that maintained nursery schools make, why did the Government create this problem by going for a flat funding formula? She says she is trying to put it right, but the problem is entirely of the Government’s own making, is it not?

I think that the hon. Lady is being a little narrow-minded. I was a mother under the previous Labour Government and both my children were in childcare. That Government presided over some of the most expensive childcare in Europe. I was literally working to pay for my childcare under her stewardship. We can all talk about past mistakes.

I put it on record that I want to preserve and promote the quality and expertise of maintained nursery schools. Social mobility is a high priority for the Government. That includes committing to the task of spreading existing best practice in high-quality early years provision across the whole system. We want all children, whatever their background and individual needs, to access the high-quality early education they deserve, wherever they come from. Nursery schools can play a valuable role in spreading that quality throughout the early years system, and many already do. I recently visited Sheringham Nursery School in Newham and saw at first hand the high-quality teaching and excellent system leadership it was providing to nurseries, private and voluntary providers and childminders across the local area. Many Members have already mentioned that issue.

Since I was appointed as Minister for early years in July, I have had many positive—but some challenging—conversations with nursery head teachers, staff and other early years professionals from across the country in an attempt to understand the issues these schools face. I have had a healthy flow of emails and letters from head teachers, governors and MPs on the subject of nursery schools. I really do understand the challenges they face. I have a very valuable one in my constituency, and I recognise the impressive support such schools have in their communities.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Sir Simon Burns) and the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell), who is no longer here, have mentioned, I spoke to the all-party parliamentary group on nursery schools and nursery classes last week. I was concerned by suggestions, as misquoted by the Opposition spokesperson, that 45 maintained nursery schools thought they faced closure. As a result, I asked my officials in the Department for Education to contact Pen Green, which is the maintained nursery that conducted the survey. Because the survey was confidential, Pen Green has gone to the relevant maintained nursery schools to ask whether it can pass us their names. I urge Members and those in the sector to speak to us. I would like my officials to speak to every single one of those 45 nurseries that think they face imminent closure so that we can get to the bottom of the issues.

It is clear that one of the key issues facing nursery schools is funding, which is related to the introduction of the early years national funding formula. I want to be quite robust about this: the Government are not making any cuts to early years funding. In fact, we are spending more money on this than any Government. By the end of this Parliament, we will be spending £6 billion a year on childcare. [Interruption.] We all know that some of our Labour friends and colleagues live in a fluffy bunny world of economics, where money grows on trees and we can all spend what we want, but £6 billion a year of taxpayers’ money is more than any Government have ever spent on this area. It includes more than £300 million a year for a significant uplift to our funding rates. For example, Warrington is seeing a 19% increase, Great Grimsby is seeing a 17% uplift and Manchester Central is seeing an 18% increase. [Interruption.]

Order. I do not ever tolerate in my debates chunnering from the Back Benchers when anyone is speaking. Please desist.

Thank you, Ms Dorries. Members will also know that I have committed supplementary funding for maintained nursery schools of £55 million a year. That is not for two years, as the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) misquoted, but until at least the end of this Parliament, so that current funding rates can be maintained. It will be £56 million this year. I cannot remember who it was, but one Opposition Member said that we need to spend more money and that we are doing it on the cheap. I would like to take a moment to think about that figure: £6 billion a year is a huge amount and is taxpayers’ money, but it is the right amount and it reflects the Government’s commitment to providing the high-quality, affordable childcare that hard-working parents need.

I am intrigued by the Minister’s view on funding. Why do head teachers write to me saying that they have real concerns about massive funding cuts to their budgets?

I am more than happy to speak to the hon. Gentleman and any concerned providers in his constituency. We took a view to try to make the funding fairer across the country. We have also set in place a 95% pass-through rate, so that 95% of the money that local authorities get will go on to providers, and that will help. In some cases, local authorities were keeping back up to 30% of the funding.

I need to make some progress. We know that for historical reasons there were clearly unfair and unjustifiable funding differences between areas and between different types of providers. That is why we introduced the fair funding formula which maximises the amount passed on to providers while ensuring that all local authorities are adequately funded to secure sufficient early education, including that provided by maintained nursery schools. I recognise that nursery schools have costs over and above other providers because of their structures and because of the nature of the communities they serve. That is exactly why I announced the additional £55 million a year for local authorities to allow them to maintain existing levels of maintained nursery school funding at least until the end of this Parliament. The Opposition spokesperson asked me how that money will be distributed. It will go to the local authorities, with the presumption that 100% of it will be passed on to the maintained nursery schools. It will not be part of the 95%.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) asked about SEND funding. In our early years national funding formula response, we said that through legislation we are requiring local authorities to set up a SEN inclusion fund and publish the eligibility criteria and value of that fund at the start of the year. It will be a local decision on eligibility, but it will be made in consultation with the local early years provider. It should be focused on low levels and emerging SEN, so that we do not have the issues with having to wait so long to prove that children are eligible.

Looking ahead, Members have asked me to share what I see as my future priorities for nursery schools. Those have developed out of the conversations and discussions I have had with head teachers, staff and early years experts, and they build on examples of innovation and partnership working that many, but not all, nursery schools currently demonstrate. Nursery schools should focus on the needs of disadvantaged children and children with special educational needs and disabilities, but all of them can drive early years system improvement by providing pedagogical leadership. We can work in partnership with other local childcare providers, including childminders, to deliver better quality and practice. We can maximise the use of their skills, experience and resources to become more sustainable.

As Members know, we have committed to consulting openly on the future sustainability of nursery schools. That is the right approach. Nursery schools operate within a changing world and it is important to recognise that it might not be the case that nursery schools should provide more of the same, and in the same way. We need to ensure that they are focused on where they can have the greatest impact. The landscape for the delivery of children’s services is evolving. Partnership working is the norm in many areas, but practice is variable. Some local authorities, but not all, make full use of their nursery schools by commissioning services and asking them to co-ordinate or deliver quality improvement for their areas. System leadership of that sort makes very good use of nursery schools’ expertise and experience, and I want to encourage more of that.

However, some local authorities hardly engage with their nursery schools, leaving them isolated rather than drawing on the expertise and specialist resources they offer. The schools landscape is changing as more secondary and primary schools opt to convert to academy status and join multi-academy trusts. Moreover, all public bodies, including schools, are grappling with tight budgets. That will mean looking at how to deliver better value for money and getting the balance right.

We have a lot to bear in mind as we consider the future, but I think that we are coming from a strong starting point, given the tremendous track record nursery schools have in delivering rich learning experiences and high-quality early education to disadvantaged children, including those with special educational needs and disabilities. Our consultation will explore the vision in more detail, including the best ways to bring it about. I hope that those in the sector will take part and share their experience, wisdom and views with us once the consultation is launched. They certainly have not been shy in sharing those views with me so far. I appreciate it, and I sincerely hope they will continue to be honest and frank with me as we move forward together. The steps I have outlined will ensure the continuation of the important contribution that nursery schools make to the early years sector and the future opportunities of young children in deprived areas.

I would. Briefly, I thank my colleagues for their contributions to this debate. I am far from reassured by what the Minister has said. She offered no certainty to nursery schools and clearly does not understand the problem.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered funding for maintained nursery schools.