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Maintained Nursery Schools

Volume 653: debated on Thursday 31 January 2019

I beg to move,

That this House notes that state maintained nursery schools are at the forefront of tackling low social mobility with 63 per cent graded outstanding by Ofsted, and 35 per cent good; further notes that two thirds of maintained nursery schools are located in the 30 per cent most deprived areas in England; notes that maintained nursery schools are recognised as being centres of excellence for supporting children with SEND in the early years; notes that the whole early years sector benefits from the expertise of maintained nursery schools acting as catalysts to raise standards in their locality through supporting schools and early years settings to work together to improve their quality; notes that despite welcome transitional funding the future viability of maintained nursery schools is under threat with 12 closing since 2016; notes the loss of transitional funding is equivalent to a 31 per cent cut in funding; and calls on the Government to safeguard the future of these vital early years institutions by guaranteeing transitional funding after 2020 as soon as possible whilst a long term plan to ensure their future viability is found by the Comprehensive Spending Review.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this important debate, and thank right hon. and hon. Members who have supported it, especially those who serve on the all-party parliamentary group with me as officers—the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson) and my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) and for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips). I also thank the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who could not be here today because he has a ministerial visit in his constituency. He is another primary sponsor of the debate.

I would also like to put on record my thanks to the Minister who will be responding to the debate and the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin), both of whom have engaged thoughtfully and in a committed way with the APPG on nursery schools. I know that both of them share my commitment to the viability and sustainability of schools.

I want to put the Government and the Treasury on notice that we now need the warm words and commitment of the Department for Education backed up with the commitment of some real cash, which we need urgently. Our maintained nursery schools are some of the most excellent institutions in our education system. They transform lives, especially for the most vulnerable. They are what I often describe as the jewel in the crown of social mobility. Ofsted has judged 63% of them as outstanding, and the remaining 35% as good. That is nearly three times the number of private and voluntary nurseries rated as such.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on collating the petitions from various parts of the country. In Coventry the headteacher at Hill Fields nursery, Mrs Brinson, is always concerned about the inadequacy of funding, but more importantly about the fact that there are no guarantees beyond 2020. Does my hon. Friend hope, like me, that the Minister will rectify that when he winds up?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is right. This is the key issue. It is about by when we need this funding commitment. I hope that the Minister will get a strong signal from the House that he can take back to the Treasury and get the commitment that we need.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on having secured this important debate about the sustainability of maintained nursery schools. More than 1,500 very concerned Slough constituents have signed petitions on this very issue from Slough Centre, Cippenham, Chalvey, Baylis Court and Lea nurseries. Does my hon. Friend agree that if we are to ensure the brightest possible future for our young children, we need to invest properly in their education from an early years nursery stage?

My hon. Friend has made a very good point. We will be handing in a number of petitions in the House next week. We know that the single biggest indicator of how well children will do in their GCSEs is their developmental level at the age of five. That is why the critical early years are so important.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and the all-party parliamentary group on the excellent work that they have done so far. The figure of 64% is striking in this context: 64% of nursery schools are in the most deprived parts of the country, and 64% of nursery schools face a deficit unless the Government change course. Do those two identical percentages not indicate that nursery schools need a fairer funding settlement?

I fully agree with my hon. Friend. He has, in fact, summarised my entire speech in one sentence, so perhaps I will cut it down a bit.

Let me return to the value of our maintained nursery schools, and explain why they are the jewel in the crown. Their admissions policies prioritise children with the greatest need: they have a strong track record of boosting early development for all children, but especially the most vulnerable. As my hon. Friend has just said, they are located in some of the most deprived parts of the country. We are always seeking to ensure that the highest-quality education is provided in the areas of most need, and we have achieved that with our maintained nursery schools. They have a unique pool of expertise in supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities—about one in five children in maintained nursery schools has special educational needs—but they also apply their expertise to many other aspects of provision. They have a network of teaching school alliances, and work holistically with other services in their areas. They are family hubs in all but name.

Why, then, are we worried about the sustainability of these schools? As the Minister knows, we have had similar debates before. Because of the campaigning that we did a few years ago, the Government committed themselves to transitional funding of £60 million for three years to keep the schools going, but that money is about to run out. Decisions are being made now about future staffing and place provision, and, unfortunately, they are having to be made in the context of not knowing whether the funding will continue.

There are three outstanding maintained nursery schools in my constituency, as my hon. Friend knows. She has visited one of them. Each of them is telling me that three-year budget planning, which is a requirement, is impossible when they do not know how much money will be provided. They cannot wait for the spending review, whose date might slip.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have indeed visited one of the schools in his constituency, and it is an exemplar of what is so good about the sector.

It is a false economy to allow maintained nursery schools to close. A report published recently by Yorkshire and Lincolnshire local authorities about the “hidden benefits” of maintained nursery schools showed that if they were not there, it would cost other services more than £1.2 million a year, which is considerably more than the budget of those schools.

Why have we reached the point at which we have these funding problems? Unfortunately, a perfect storm is facing our maintained nursery schools. Because of the recently introduced changes in the early years funding formula, local authorities no longer have the additional discretion to subsidise high-quality nursery schools. The 30-hours funding formula has put extra pressure on the schools, because they do not get all the funding back for taking children for 30 hours. Because maintained nursery schools are schools, they have the overheads of schools, including the costs of headteachers, special educational needs co-ordinators and others, but that is often not recognised in their funding formula.

Another factor in the perfect storm is the dramatic cut in local authorities’ funding. If, as proposed, deprivation will no longer be taken into account in the local authority funding formula, the sector will be decimated. We are already seeing the impact of that perfect storm, and we are nearing the transitional funding cliff edge. New figures confirmed by the House of Commons Library, which I have published today, show that nursery schools will lose nearly a third of their funding in 2020 if supplementary funding is not continued. We are now seeing the dire situation in which many nursery schools find themselves. More than a fifth of them are in the red, and the figure has risen significantly over the last few years.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. Does she agree that it is pretty shocking that nursery schools are having to decide now about admissions in September without knowing what their budget for the whole of the next academic year will be?

As always, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is probably a consequence of Brexit—among other things—that the spending review has been pushed back and pushed back without people realising the impact that that is having on organisations that have been waiting for funding decisions, and especially on maintained nursery schools.

I have taken a number of interventions, so I will cut out some of what I had been going to say.

The hon. Lady is being terribly generous. It took us only nine minutes to get to Brexit, but let us get back because this is the subject that we need to talk about.

There is an outstanding nursery school in my constituency, Boundstone in Lancing, which is in a deprived area and does a fantastic job. Because of cuts, it is now having to curtail the number of children under two whom it takes for day care. It is co-located with a children’s centre. Does the hon. Lady agree that we need to look at the bigger picture? The impact—the knock-on effect—of not offering that care, which is respite care in some cases, on the safeguarding, social care and disability support offered by the local authority will be serious. It may well be a false economy, financially let alone socially, preventing the advancement of children who benefit from an excellent service in many nursery schools.

I could not agree more. As I said earlier, it would indeed be a false economy. Very few maintained nursery schools are merely providers of early education, high-quality though that is. Nearly all of them provide holistic support services for families in the early years. I believe that that is the direction of travel of Government policy, given a new review by the Leader of the House, and I know that the Minister and the Secretary of State are very committed to this agenda and have made a number of interventions recently. It would be a crying shame for the main institutions that support this work in some of our most deprived communities to be lost by stealth and through inaction rather than as a result of a deliberate strategy.

I do not want to pre-empt the Minister, but I know what he is likely to say today, because we have had this conversation many times. I am sure he will want to emphasise to local authorities that he does not want them to close nursery schools, but we must be honest: local authorities do not have the slack in their budgets. They are facing huge cuts themselves, especially in many of the areas where these schools operate, and further cuts are coming up the track. It really is the Government’s responsibility—as they have recognised in the past with their transitional funding arrangement—to ensure that the funds are there and secure for the long term. The Local Government Association has found that 61% of local authorities fear that maintained nursery schools will close unless the Government provide additional funding, and that fear is echoed in a report by London councils. I sent both reports to the Minister before Christmas.

We have heard time and again that Ministers are committed to keeping maintained nursery schools open, but those schools cannot wait for decisions that now look like not being made until the autumn. They need certainty this financial year. In the grand scheme of things, £60 million a year, for what these nursery schools offer, is a very small amount of money. I know the Minister agrees it would be social vandalism of the worst kind to let them go by default, even though we do not want them to go, simply because we cannot find the pot of money to keep them open.

The Minister has my full support in taking this case to the Treasury. I am sure that every speaker today will support him in making the strongest possible case to the Treasury. If he wants to come back to the House and ask for more support, I am sure we will give it to him. I hope he will take away today the very strong message that the transitional funding, which is about to run out, needs to be replaced this financial year.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell). I thank her for securing the debate and for the wonderful work she does as chair of the all-party group on nursery schools, nursery and reception classes.

I am grateful for the opportunity to make a small contribution to this debate, and I will start by drawing attention to the brilliant work that staff and support teams at maintained nursery schools do to provide some of the best early years education to our young children. It is no coincidence that almost 98% of maintained nursery schools are rated as good or outstanding by Ofsted. They are key drivers of social mobility and provide exceptional services and resources to children in their care. They offer superb support networks for children and their families, and deliver an excellent education that allows for greater personal development.

Chichester Nursery School in my constituency is a brilliant example. When I visited recently, I was impressed by the wonderful facilities and workshop areas, and I was not surprised to find it had been rated as outstanding in its latest Ofsted report. It is first rate. It was clear that the children were fully engaged with a wide range of enriching activities, both inside and outside the classroom, from crafts, technology and painting, to dressing up and woodwork—three-year-olds were filing, cutting and sawing wood, cooking in mud kitchens, and participating in a variety of educational activities to rival any household in the country. It was wonderful to see, especially since many of them might not have had all that at home. They might not have been learning to ride a bike aged two or three if not for this nursery school.

The staff were eager to tailor educational experiences to the needs of their pupils. It is that level of care and support that gives the children the best start in life, and the personalised care offered is certainly helped by the fact that all the teachers need a level 3 teaching qualification, but having highly qualified staff naturally means higher operating costs. In that regard, I was recently contacted by Ruth Campbell, the new headteacher at the nursery school, who raised with me the concerns mentioned today about the future of maintained school funding.

The announcement in 2017 that the Government would sustain funding for maintained schools through to 2020 was warmly welcomed. The amount is just over £60 million per year. At the time, it provided certainty to headteachers such as Ruth, enabling them to produce medium-term plans for staffing allocations and to calculate what resources and equipment their school could afford in each academic year. However, the current uncertainty over funding arrangements beyond 2020 means that maintained nursery schools cannot adequately plan ahead, and we all need to be able to plan.

For this academic year, Chichester Nursery School has already had to make tough decisions about how to proceed with its budget and has said goodbye to some very valued members of staff. For any job to remain safe, guarantees that payroll demands can be met are essential. Teachers such as those at Chichester Nursery School are essential in providing for and influencing the minds and experiences of our young children, so I hope that the Department for Education can clarify funding arrangements as soon as possible.

Maintained nursery schools need to plan, and teachers and staff need to have their minds put at rest. Ruth has warned me that if this does not happen, she will be unable to meet the costs of her current staff, and that the equivalent of a full-time teacher, a nursery nurse and a full-time nursery assistant will be lost for the 2020-21 academic year, which would affect the number of pupils the school can care for. It would need to reduce its intake by 52 children, which would be a devastating loss to the local community.

Maintained nursery schools are important in helping some of the most disadvantaged children in the country and improving social mobility. Some 64% of them are based in the 30% of England that is most deprived. They are life changing. They provide a unique range of expertise, and the Government have a good record of supporting them so far, whether through the fairer early years national funding formula or the requirement for local education authorities to pass on 95% of received funding directly to providers.

We all understand the need for value for money in our public services, but getting the early years right for children is the most important investment we can make, as I am sure that everybody in the Chamber would agree. In helping young children to develop and in supporting families in their busy lives, maintained nurseries play an essential role in our communities. I hope that, as we near the end of the guaranteed funding, the Government will offer a meaningful long-term funding arrangement to keep this jewel in the crown of early years development.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan). She and my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) demonstrate the powerful cross-party support for the motion.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate and her tireless work in giving a voice to the nursery school sector in this country. I also pay tribute to the fantastic work of the all-party group on nursery schools, nursery and reception classes in promoting high-quality early childhood education.

I am proud to have two maintained nursery schools in my constituency: East Prescot Road and Ellergreen. Like most nursery schools, both are rated as outstanding by Ofsted. Children receive an outstanding education at both schools, and I want to quote from their respective Ofsted reports. Of East Prescot Road, Ofsted said:

“Children blossom in this outstanding school. Irrespective of their starting points, children thrive and make exceptional progress in their early learning. The achievement of the most able children and those with special educational needs is outstanding because of high-quality support and challenge.”

Of Ellergreen, it said:

“It is an excellent and improving school. It is a wonderful place to send your child, to look for support or to work. The outstanding quality of teaching helps children to make great strides forward in their learning. The school motto ‘broadening horizons, brightening futures' shapes much of what the school does each day.”

Under the leadership of Jane Rogers and Colette Bentley, both schools do wonderful work in areas of my constituency with high social and economic need, and help to transform the life chances of children and families. Both headteachers place great emphasis, in particular, on ensuring that children who start with lower-than-average development are ready when they go to school, and I am grateful to the Minister for agreeing to meet them and me in two weeks. Both schools have outstanding reputations with their feeder schools for how school-ready their children are, and I think that is testament to the hard work of the staff of the two schools in providing the groundwork for a smooth transition to reception classes.

In Liverpool, we have five maintained nursery schools—three outstanding and two good. I am delighted that my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden), who is in the shadow Cabinet and therefore unable to participate today, is in the Chamber, because I know he has worked very closely, since his election two years ago, with the outstanding Everton Nursery School, which serves one of the areas of greatest social and economic deprivation in our city. Everton’s head, Lesley Curtis, is a very powerful voice for nursery schools in Liverpool and also in the national debate.

Nursery schools are the very best of quality early years education. Not only do they directly benefit the children and families who attend the schools, but they have a much wider benefit across the early years sector, with the expertise of maintained nursery schools acting as a catalyst to raise standards and supporting early years settings to work together to improve their quality.

Does my hon. Friend agree that maintained nursery schools have a unique pool of expertise in supporting children with special educational needs, which is particularly pertinent and important for places such as my Slough constituency? Without such expertise, they simply would not be able to cater effectively for so many children with special educational needs.

My hon. Friend makes an important and powerful point on behalf of his constituents, and he anticipates the next part of my speech.

In Liverpool—this is happening in other parts of the country—there has been a significant increase in the number of children going into primary schools with very complex needs. The expertise of the qualified teachers who work in nursery schools has become even more important for identifying and addressing those needs at the earliest stage. As my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central said, we know from all of the evidence, from here and internationally, that the earlier we intervene, the more likely we are to make a real difference in the life chances and educational opportunities of our children.

As my hon. Friend said, two thirds of maintained nursery schools are in the third of England that is the most deprived, and because of the quality of education they offer, they are often at the forefront of tackling inequality and poverty, driving social mobility and closing the attainment gap. Indeed, the Government’s own social mobility strategy declared in 2011:

“Children’s life chances are most heavily influenced by their development in the first five years of life. By the time children start at school there are already wide variations in ability between children from different backgrounds”.

I think that that is the case in general, but it is especially the case in cities such as Liverpool that have been hit hardest by austerity and have some of the highest levels of child and family poverty in the country.

In addition to providing high-quality education, the outstanding nursery schools in Liverpool work tirelessly to engage with parents and carers. From before the child has even started at nursery school, staff will work collaboratively with families to seek to provide the best outcomes for their children. For example, at East Prescot Road, parents are welcomed to the school and very much encouraged to feel part of the learning environment. It runs “Stay and Read” sessions, as well as practical workshops to help parents to support their children in early reading and mathematics, and to enable parents to have the confidence to support their children’s learning at home, as well as at school. The current data for East Prescot Road shows that its emphasis on supporting children with speech, language and communication needs is having a significant impact on reducing the gap between children with special needs and their peers.

At Ellergreen Nursery School, the staff go above and beyond. For example, last Christmas, as universal credit was rolled out in Liverpool, the staff donated presents and hampers to vulnerable families. Support is also provided to help families with problems such as housing and debt. Each morning, the nursery school provides all the children with breakfast, and it ensures that they take home a piece of fruit at the end of the school day.

If we are to tackle the multiple challenges of poverty, inequality and social mobility that we face in this country, we need to ensure that the best possible support is in place for children and families right from the very beginning. Early years education is at the heart of that, which is why it is so concerning that there is any question mark over the sustainability of our nursery schools.

As has already been said, maintained nursery schools meet higher standards than other providers—they employ a headteacher and they employ qualified teachers—so it is welcome that the Government recognise that the early years national funding formula did not adequately provide for nursery schools. As my hon. Friend set out, the Government have rightly committed to providing supplementary funding until April next year. However, we have no guarantee beyond then and, for the reasons that colleagues have set out, that poses serious challenges for nursery schools as they plan for the year ahead.

Liverpool’s annual supplement equates to £1.5 million. Without the protection of that funding, Liverpool’s maintained nursery schools, based on current staffing and expenditure, might not be financially sustainable. As Ellergreen Nursery School put it to me:

“What will happen to these vulnerable children and their families if the nursery schools are closed? All our years of developing high quality early years provision and our expertise will just be lost”.

That is clearly a very serious concern across Liverpool and across the country. Without a sustainable funding solution, we risk reversing the real progress that has been achieved in developing nursery schools as a beacon of early years education. I urge the Minister to listen to those concerns and, when he responds to the debate, to reassure our nursery schools that they have the opportunity for sustainable funding in the long term. They need to know that they can offer places in good faith, confident that their funding will not be cut next April. If that happens, it will make a real difference to the communities that I and other Members represent.

We need to work together on a cross-party basis to say to the Department for Education and to the Treasury, as my hon. Friend rightly said, that we do need a sustainable funding settlement that acknowledges that nursery schools have a special status in early years because they are schools, meaning that they have higher costs and play a distinct role in the early years sector. Most importantly, they are drivers of social mobility, and key players in tackling poverty and inequality. That is why there is such strong cross-party support for the motion and for the principle that nursery schools must be sustained for the long term.

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg). Given that we are on opposite sides of the House there are many issues on which we disagree, but I very much endorse his comments on the importance of early years education. Like him, I point out that the research is very clear that those who fall behind in the first five years of life find it very difficult to catch up. Ensuring we have the best possible quality early years education is, as many hon. Members have stated, a hugely important engine of social mobility. That is at the heart of what we are discussing this afternoon: how we as a society ensure that we provide a good start in life, which comes with really high quality early years education.

Like other hon. Members, I would like to commend some of the maintained nursery schools in my constituency: Hampden Way, St Margaret’s and Brookhill. They have come together through the Barnet Early Years Alliance, or BEYA as it is known. They are given inspirational leadership by the headteacher Caron Rudge and huge support from their boards of governors, including the chair of governors, Liz Pearson. I would like to thank Mrs Pearson and Mrs Rudge for their briefing and their work on this crucial issue of finding a sustainable future for the maintained sector and ensuring that BEYA and its component schools have a secure future. I thank all my constituents who signed the petitions to save the maintained nursery sector, particularly those wonderful schools in my Chipping Barnet community. I look forward to presenting them formally alongside other colleagues next week.

It is very clear that the maintained nursery sector has particular strength in relation to the most vulnerable children in our society, those with special education needs and disabilities. They have a hugely valuable pool of experience and expertise. Losing such experience and expertise would have significant knock-on effects, both financial and social. Like others, I would like to emphasise that in coming together to find a sustainable future for the maintained nursery sector, support for children with special educational needs and disabilities must be at the heart of that.

My right hon. Friend is making some very clear points about the support that nursery schools in her constituency give, especially to those with special educational needs. In my constituency, I also have two excellent maintained nursery schools. I want to mention the Tanglewood Nursery School, which specialises in young children with speech and language challenges. It helps not only the children in its own school, but with other pre-school organisations right across Essex. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we lost that support in our maintained nursery schools, it would risk knock-on impacts for others in other pre-school environments nearby?

My hon. Friend makes a very fair point. I was going to come to that in my speech. We must find a long-term, sustainable role for the maintained nursery schools in the constituencies of everybody who has spoken. They are potentially beacons of excellence, centres of training and places that have an impact on the whole locality, in terms of raising standards in the pre-school sector. That is an important part of the solution.

We all recognise that there are limits to what the taxpayer can afford, and it is vital that we take care when deploying taxpayers’ funding. We must ensure it is used appropriately. One of the most difficult things for a Government to do is to assess which priorities can be funded and which cannot. As others have said, the funding situation for the maintained sector is becoming very grave, so we must find a solution that saves those schools. Local authorities simply cannot fill the gap, as their funding is under pressure, too, because of the continuing consequences of the very serious deficit that we inherited from the previous Labour Government. Although many local authorities across the country, including my own in Barnet, are doing their best to find ways of supporting the maintained sector, that will not be a solution on its own.

The right hon. Lady just referred to a deficit left by the previous Government, but does she agree that funding nursery schools should be a higher priority than giving wealthy people tax cuts?

Of course, funding for nursery schools should be a priority, and I am here to make the case for that. We also need a competitive tax system, and reductions in corporation tax, for example, have led to increased revenue. There is a balance to be struck. We need a competitive economy that attracts investment, and reasonable levels of business taxation are an important part of that. They help to generate the revenue that funds our schools. I do not agree with the sentiment of all of what the hon. Lady said.

BEYA has not stood still and failed to take action. It has gone to great lengths to carve out a new role for itself and has looked for other sources of funding. It is working with children’s centres and on training programmes, but it is still in great difficulty. Frankly, a crunch is coming for its funding and that of other maintained nursery schools. If nothing is done, the threat of closure will become greater and greater. That is why I am here today to appeal to the Minister.

My understanding is that, when the transitional funding was announced a few years ago—I am grateful that the Government chose to do that—it was supposed to give the maintained sector a breathing space, during which time the Government would work with it to develop a new, sustainable role for it. Essentially, as I have already adverted to, nursery schools would become centres of excellence, beacons for the surrounding area and centres of training. That would ensure that they play an outstanding role in the wider early years sector and provide support across the whole range of early years providers. The idea was to provide temporary transitional funding until that new role was settled to put the maintained sector on a sustainable footing for the future.

Time is now running out, and, like others, I appeal to the Minister for an extension of that transitional funding for settlement of that new role to secure the long-term future of the maintained sector and the children whose lives it transforms, and to ensure that in the spending review there is space to save these wonderful schools that so many Members have talked about this evening with such warmth and praise. I believe that this is the important next step to take: first, an extension of the transitional funding; secondly, an agreement on the long-term role of the nursery sector; and, thirdly, a recognition in the spending review that we need to fund these schools for the long term.

It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) on securing the debate through the Backbench Business Committee. It has been a well-tempered discussion so far, but I have to say that I am pretty angry about what is happening so I may introduce one or two notes of rancour I am afraid.

In my area there are four maintained nursery schools: Brunswick, the Fields, Homerton and the Colleges. I know all of them well, and whenever I visit I am struck, as other Members have said of their nurseries, by the genuine care and dedication of the staff, who provide an excellent start. I am particularly struck by the support and engagement of parents and I am always struck by the messy play, but unfortunately I am also struck by the real sense of worry about the future because of the threat that future funding will not be secured.

As we have heard, the costs that these nurseries incur are higher, and in a high cost area such as Cambridge it is particularly expensive to hire staff so they are under huge pressure. That of course applies to all nurseries across the sector in Cambridge, but as we have heard the maintained nurseries have particular extra costs, because they are providing something different, because they are schools. Sometimes I do wonder whether the Government entirely grasp this point.

To say that funding streams and accountability within this sector are opaque barely does justice to the complexity. As we all know, this Government have, as usual, made promises on things such as 30 hours and then failed to provide the resources, so passing the buck to local councils who then all too frequently get the blame. As a result, providers within the sector all too easily end up pitted one against another when what we really need is everyone working together to achieve a shared goal: good quality, universal early-years provision with properly trained, well rewarded staff.

Sadly, we are a long way from that. In Cambridgeshire, providers are paid just £4.04 an hour to provide care. The Department for Education has confirmed that it will not provide an uplift in the hourly funding rate from 2019-20, so our nurseries will only receive a 1p rise, to £4.05 an hour. And as we have heard, after April 2020 there has been no guarantee that any supplementary funding will be received for maintained nurseries: no word from the Government about future funding. So these excellent providers, so loved by parents and children, struggle on with a sword of Damocles hanging over them as they battle to cover the high costs of running a service in an expensive city, and now are given no certainty over their futures. This affects hundreds of children, hundreds of families, and of course, many staff.

Sadly, this anxiety surrounding the plight of our nurseries’ funding is not a recent phenomenon; it has almost become a way of life. Very early on in my time in this House I was at the Fields nursery, working with anxious staff and parents over how their future would be secured. In 2017 I delivered a petition on this very subject in this Chamber, and over the years I have repeatedly asked Ministers about this and warned of the approaching cliff edge; time and again I have been told, “It’s all in hand and there isn’t a problem,” but that really is not true in Cambridge and, what is worse, staff have had to go on working week after week, month after month, year after year without any certainty. Frankly, it is a disgrace: the Government should hang their head in shame at the stress and distress their dereliction of responsibility has caused so many people. Austerity might have been a nice parlour game for Osborne and Cameron—a nice bit of political triangulation—but it has caused untold damage and harm, tearing at the fabric of society, and the maintained nursery sector is a particular victim. Frankly, no one should ever forgive the Conservatives for these self-obsessions. Just as it is with the European Union, so it is with austerity: it is always about internal ideological battles and never about the public good.

In the latest round of this long-running saga, the most recent Minister has said that nurseries and local authorities should hold off from making decisions until after the spending review. Well, great. In the current chaos, without any certainty about when the spending review will even take place, that is frankly hopeless.

I should like to declare an interest, in that about 10 years ago, prior to coming to this place, I chaired a pre-school just outside the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. The pre-schools that are not maintained nursery schools receive less funding per head than the maintained nurseries. How does he justify to parents that their child who attends one of those excellent pre-schools is getting less Government funding per head than a child in a maintained nursery school?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that point. As I said earlier, the funding mechanisms for this sector are extremely complicated, which can create the danger of setting one provider against another. The answer to her question is clear, and it is astonishing that Conservative Members do not get this simple point. Maintained nurseries are schools; they are different, they have extra costs and they are often located in the poorest areas. I would hope that, taking a cross-party approach, we can try to find a way of maintaining both, because there is a range of providers that are doing an excellent job.

It should absolutely not be. The one thing we can all probably agree on is that we would like all these providers to have a sustainable future. I have every sympathy for the other providers, who are also struggling with an underfunded system.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his answer, but I would also like to make it absolutely clear for the record that I am not in any way suggesting a race to the bottom.

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s clarification, but I have to say that, from where some of us are sitting, on this side of the House, that looks exactly like what this Government are intending, in a far wider range of sectors than just the early years sector.

I shall return to the spending review. It is expected in the autumn but, as we have heard, that will be too late for many people. Businesses, local authorities and families need to plan, and they need costed commitments, not empty promises. It is wholly irresponsible to continue to drag out this uncertainty regarding supplementary funding. The Local Government Association tells us that 61% of local authorities with maintained nursery schools fear that their nursery schools will close if their funding is not protected, and 52% say that the loss of that funding will reduce the support available for children with special educational needs; and let us not even start on the crisis affecting that group. Pretending that the current funding is sustainable is an utter fantasy, which is perhaps no surprise from a Government who seem every day to demonstrate that they live in a fantasy world of unicorns. That is fine for nursery stories, but a hopeless way how not to run a country.

This week I was handed a petition, as others have been, from thousands of concerned parents across Cambridge who are calling for better funding and stability for our maintained nurseries. Many of them added extra comments, and they make heart-warming reading. Both the Brunswick and the Colleges Nursery Schools in Cambridge were recently rated outstanding across the board by Ofsted, with comments reflecting on the nurseries’ “high quality care”, “inspirational leadership” and “strong teaching”. Parents commented that their nursery had been a

“fundamental fixed point in our lives”,

and “extremely supportive” to special educational needs and English as an additional language needs, and that it had helped their children to grow in

“confidence, understanding and care for others”.

Are these really the kinds of services that this Government want to destroy?

Under the current funding agreement, nurseries will struggle to stay in business, according to the Department for Education’s own figures. When I visited one of the nurseries recently I was told that, without extra help, it will hit the buffers next April. How depressing, when we know that for every £1 spent on early years, £13 are saved down the line. The Chancellor has announced that his spring statement will take place in March, and I and others will be very disappointed if the Minister here today does not use the next few weeks to make serious representations on this matter, ahead of those announcements. I have had angry words for the Government today, and frankly I think they are deserved. Our maintained nurseries deserve better, and I hope that the Minister will prove me wrong and show that the Government have some sense after all.

I start by declaring an interest and by congratulating the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) on securing this debate. I supported the application and will certainly be supporting the petitions next week, with one from the nursery school in my constituency that I mentioned earlier.

Thursday afternoons are becoming like a “children’s hour” session, which is fantastic. I said two weeks ago when I opened the debate on children’s social care that we do not have enough time in this place to talk about important issues such as those facing children. We have a lot of childish debates on other topics, but we should be doing more on children and young people. A few Thursdays ago, we had an important, well-informed, emotional debate on baby loss. These are the issues that resonate with and are important to our constituents and their children on a day-to-day basis. It is to be applauded that we have strong interest in this afternoon’s debate and that we have a degree of consensus.

I am disappointed, however, with the politicisation in some Opposition Members’ speeches, because the Government want quality education for all. We can only pay for that quality education by having a strong economy and taxpayers who are in a position to pay tax. Hounding some out of the country does not provide resources to invest in education at any level and we need to balance that. Trying to make this into a political issue or to suggest that there is some ulterior motive—

I will not. Trying to suggest that the Government have some ulterior motive to run down what we all absolutely acknowledge is an essential part of the education system does not help anyone, frankly. I want to carry on with a more consensual approach about how to find a solution to the looming problem of sustainability of funding for these excellent nursery schools, which is the subject of this debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) and I each have a maintained nursery school in our constituencies. West Sussex only has four, so we have 50% of the county’s maintained nursery schools between us. What the schools share is quality and engagement with the local community. Boundstone Nursery School, which has been in existence for many years in one of the more deprived parts of my constituency and is run by an inspirational, exceedingly hard-working, determined headteacher in Jim Brannan, is co-located with other children’s centre services. The services have recently been rationalised into a new single service that provides an aged zero-to-25 prevention and early help service, integrating specialist county council teams with health visitors, school nurses and others. The site provides a one-stop shop for many of the services wanted by my constituents who use and need a maintained nursery school. Long may that continue.

I pay tribute to West Sussex County Council. We have many arguments about how many children’s centres have closed, but no children and family centres in West Sussex have closed. However, this is not a numbers game. This is about the quality of the services that are offered in children’s centres, the success of the level of engagement with the people who most need it, and the outcomes for those children and the families who engage with such services.

We still have many children’s centres that are often closed for too much of the week. The most successful centres, whether they are co-located with nurseries or whatever, need to be open in the evenings and at weekends. They need to be more father-friendly, and we had a debate on a similar topic in Westminster Hall yesterday. We need to make centres more welcoming, flexible and amenable so that, wherever possible, fathers can bring their kids to the nurses and engage with them, the support services and extracurricular activities that are on offer just as much as mums can. This is not about quantity, but quality, the extent of the engagement and the level of the outcomes. We need to make centres busier. In West Sussex we have also integrated them with what we call “Think Family,” which is one of the country’s best versions of the troubled families programme. The Minister has a strong interest in these areas, and he appreciates the importance of getting it right, so I re-emphasise the need to make sure that the Treasury rolls over the funding for the troubled families programme, which comes to an end in 2020. The programme has been a template for how joined-up, sensible preventive thinking prevents an awful lot of problems later on.

Maintained nurseries are an important part of the jigsaw at an important and impressionable stage of a child’s life and a new parent’s life. This can be a lonely and daunting time, and a nursery can be part of a new parent’s support network. I pay tribute to the immense amount of work and investment the Government have put into the free childcare offer, although not without problem; not enough fully to remunerate the cost of this in the independent sector. We are seeing the impact in the maintained sector, too.

Maintained nurseries are the gold standard, which is why so many more of them are rated outstanding, including the Boundstone nursery in my constituency. That is not to undermine the independent sector, but the standards of maintained nurseries are consistently higher. Maintained nurseries have to invest in provision for special educational needs and disability support because, as many hon. Members have mentioned, they are effectively schools, and they take on many of the kids who cannot be adequately catered for in alternative provision elsewhere. Maintained nurseries are doing a more universal job than many other high-quality players in the sector are able to perform.

I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on conception to age two—the first 1,001 days. I am also the chairman of trustees at Parent Infant Partnership UK, and we run professional services in children and family centres across the country to work with new parents, often single parents, who have attachment problems with their children. Those first 1,001 days from conception to age two are where we can have the maximum bang for our buck in giving the support that has not come, for whatever reason, between a parent/carer and his or her child.

The more we can do to get it right then, the bigger the savings financially and, much more importantly, socially in how that child will consequently become a contributing, balanced, stable member of society later in life. That work is crucial, and it is a false economy not to do it. The cost of getting perinatal mental health wrong is estimated at more than £8 billion a year, and the cost of child neglect is estimated at £15 billion a year. That is one hell of a bill for getting it wrong. Maintained nurseries are part of the solution and can prevent some of those children from ending up in those other ancillary services.

That is why I asked whether a proper audit has been done. If we reduce the places or the quality available in maintained nurseries, because some of them might have to consider their future if the funding is not confirmed and maintained, there will be a knock-on effect on safeguarding services. Maintained nurseries can act as an early-warning system where there are safeguarding problems or parenting problems within a family. Good nurseries are not just for the children who attend each day; they support the parents as well. Nurseries reduce the costs for health, wellbeing and disability services.

As I mentioned earlier, nurseries offer respite for parents looking after profoundly disabled children. Those parents can be confident that their children will be safe and properly looked after, and the nurseries provide a strong respite facility that may be the difference in whether a child is able to stay in the family home.

Madam Deputy Speaker, you are looking at me with concern, so I finish by saying that we need to do our best to make sure that these maintained nurseries continue as they are. For that, we have to give them certainty. When this protected funding comes to an end in 2019-20, some difficult decisions will have to be made if that funding has not been guaranteed, and we need to get that indication sooner rather than later. We need urgent clarification from the Treasury about the funding outcomes for these schools in pretty short order, otherwise they will be making these difficult decisions early, and what has been described as a beacon of early years education will be burning a little less brightly because we have not got it right. We will be reaping the consequences of that in years to come and those children will be reaping the consequences of the false economy that not doing that represents.

Order. Just before I call the next speaker, I am anxious to ensure that everybody has a good time slot and so I urge hon. Members to take 10 minutes and no more. In that way, we will be able to get everybody in and they will be able to have an equal amount of time.

Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) on leading this debate, and I am pleased to be following the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who has a distinguished record in this area. I do not agree with him that we ought not to be criticising the Government, because it is a shocking state of affairs that schools are having to make decisions about which children they will offer places to in September, the start of the next school year, and they do not know what their budget is going to be for next year. That may not be the fault of the Minister on the Front Bench today, but it certainly is the fault of the Government and it is absolutely right for Parliament to point that out.

In 1984, I become a councillor in the Little Ilford ward in my constituency, and I became a governor of Sheringham Nursery School—Sheringham Nursery School and Children’s Centre, as it now is—in that ward. I have known the school for 35 years, in which time it has had two headteachers. Maureen Haynes was the young head there when I became a governor, and she carried on until her retirement, with her successor being Dr Julian Grenier. The school has done a fantastic job throughout that time. Of course, it benefited immensely from the investment by the Government from 1997 to 2010, when early years was a high priority. Sheringham was expanded, for example, from one storey to two. These days, I regularly hold surgeries there, and it is clear that it is more than a school; as my hon. Friend described at the start, it is a hub for the community, where people can look for support with parenting and with other challenges they are facing.

Sheringham has lots of admirers, as is the case with most maintained nursery schools, as we have been reminded. Ofsted designated it as outstanding five years ago. Three months ago, Ofsted carried out a short inspection, and I just want to read the opening of the subsequent letter sent to the headteacher about what the inspection team found. I apologise for the sense of pride I feel about the support that is being provided in my constituency. Ofsted said this:

“The leadership team has maintained the outstanding quality of education in the school since the last inspection.

You and your staff have ensured that the nursery provision continues to be of exceptionally high quality. Leaders are extremely knowledgeable and passionate about early years education. All staff are well trained and have a thorough understanding of how young children learn and develop. The nursery is a calm, orderly and well-organised environment. Children’s behaviour is outstanding. Children learn how to share resources, join in activities and make decisions. The safe learning environment and an excellent range of resources stimulate, as well as extend, children’s experiences. Activities are extremely well matched to their needs.”

It continued:

“Your role as a national teaching school enables you to share the expertise in early years education with other local providers. Leaders and staff have forged strong links with private nursery settings and local primary schools to deliver professional development for their staff.”

Those last couple of sentences highlight how Sheringham supports private nurseries in the nurseries in the area as well, so that the number of children and families who benefit is much greater than the number who attend that school. It is a Greater London Authority early years hub and it supports more than 100 private and voluntary nurseries. That is an important point to underline. The hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) asked the pertinent question: why do these schools cost more? The fact that they support others is an important part of the reason why.

Let me read one more paragraph from that Ofsted letter:

“Children are encouraged to be independent learners. Adults intervene skilfully when needed to support their learning but do not interfere unnecessarily. The levels of interaction between adults and children is exceptionally high. As a result…two-year-olds make very strong progress from low starting points. This exceptional start gives them an excellent foundation for the next stage of their education and beyond.”

All that is now under threat because of the uncertainty over funding. Decisions must be made soon about which children to admit to Sheringham next September, and throughout London to the other 79 maintained nursery schools in 24 of the 33 London boroughs. Nursery schools cannot make those decisions until they know whether the current funding will last until the summer term of 2020. At the moment, they do not have a clue.

As the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) said in her speech, the supplementary funding was supposed to be just a stopgap until a long-term solution was put in place, but there is still not even a proposal for a long-term solution. Schools are making admissions decisions now without knowing whether they will still be funded beyond halfway through the next school years. Those that are in deficit cannot adopt deficit reduction plans because they do not know what their income is going to be in 2020.

It is of course the case that maintained nursery schools are more costly than other provision. That is partly because the law requires them, as schools, to have several specified postholders, and it is partly because, like Sheringham, they support other private and voluntary nurseries as well, but it is also because they disproportionately support children with special educational needs and disability. Sheringham has 68 children with SEND—more than a third of the total roll—including 10 children with high needs. Other settings simply could not support those children. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham was absolutely right to make the point about these nursery schools being a safe place for children like that to go. The loss of that support for those children would be catastrophic.

London Councils points out that as well as employing specialist teachers who can recognise SEND early and develop plans to ensure that children with SEND are supported and ready for school when the time comes, maintained nursery schools play a crucial role in social mobility. They prioritise working with the most disadvantaged children and provide high-quality teaching and support that helps to narrow the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers. I think we all recognise how important that is. London Councils reports that maintained nursery schools in more than a third of the London boroughs may be threatened with closure if the ring-fenced funding that has supported them for the past three years is not maintained beyond next March. The majority of headteachers interviewed for research that was published by London Councils in September said that they would have to start turning away pupils with more complex needs unless more funding was secured.

The Minister has recognised publicly and sincerely the value of the contribution made by maintained nursery schools. If he needs any further convincing, a visit to Sheringham in my constituency, just 45 minutes away, would certainly do the trick. I am sure he recognises the importance of confirming that funding will continue and I urge him to make sure that it does.

I often say that Erdington is rich in talent, but it is one of the poorest constituencies in the country. Here is a stark statistic that brings alive the awful problems associated with deprivation and poverty: if a man gets on the train at Grand Central—New Street—and gets off at either Gravelly Hill or Erdington station, he is likely to live seven years less than a man who continues on but two miles to Four Oaks in Sutton. The deeply ingrained patterns of inequality and poverty are fundamentally wrong. The key to tackling them is social mobility, giving every child the best possible start in life, and the key to giving every child the best possible start in life is our 400 nursery schools up and down the country.

I suspect that all of us here have heard both the heart-breaking and the heart-warming stories. I remember a weeping mother who came to see me in my surgery with her sad and silent child. He was struggling and she was desperate, saying, “Where do I turn? Where do I turn?” I remember also the heart-warming stories. At Osborne Nursery School, I will never forget the grandfather who told me a story. He said, “Jack, he wouldn’t string two words together. He was silent. He sat in a corner. He went to the nursery school and, a year later, we can’t shut him up.”

Let me tell another story, which, for me, brings the whole matter alive. Sally Leese, the headteacher of Castle Vale Nursery School, told me that, with increasingly little support available, partly as a consequence of the closure of children’s centres, more and more health visitors are coming to nursery schools asking them to accept children no one else will take. She told me this story: “A health visitor called me before Christmas about two little boys, aged four and two. They had been on a child protection plan since they were born. Neither could speak and both were still in nappies. The health visitor said that they were the saddest little boys she had ever seen, and when I met them, I agreed. We took the boys in and gave them unfunded full-time places and undertook many nurture sessions. The health visitor came to the school the other day to thank me as she had just done a home visit and said that the change in them was incredible. She said that she had worked with them for more than a year, but that this was the first time they had spoken to her, smiled and laughed. She cried when she told me. Who else would have taken these boys for no money?” She told me of the health visitors and the social workers who keep phoning to say, “You never say no to a child, no matter what the situation is.”

I pay tribute to those four remarkable nursery schools in Erdington: Osborne with its headteacher, Sharon Eeles; Castle Vale with its headteacher, Sally Leese; Featherstone with its headteacher, Elaine Dupree; and Marsh Hill with its headteacher, Helen Masaun. The job they do in an area of high poverty is nothing short of remarkable—they transform lives.

Three years ago, we had a funding crisis. There was a nationwide campaign, with nursery schools, parents and grandparents all coming together. Ultimately, that led to the formation of the all-party group, which is brilliantly led by the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell). It is very much an all-party group. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for the role that he plays. Different parties have come together to speak as one in support of our nursery schools. We have made real progress.

I never forget that the first meeting of the all-party group was so big that it had to take place in Central Hall, Westminster. Six hundred people were present. The average attendance of the APPG is 300. It meets regularly, hearing, on the one hand, heart-warming stories of progress made, and, on the other, heart-breaking stories of the growing concern of our nursery schools about the future.

Transitional funding of £59 million was won, and that was very welcome indeed, but now nursery schools seeking to plan ahead are in limbo. I know that nobody here needs to be convinced about why our nursery schools matter, but let me simply say this: they do indeed transform lives, with 64% of them in the most deprived parts of our country; they are overwhelmingly rated outstanding by Ofsted; and they prioritise those in the greatest need, and, with their unique pool of expertise, they help children with SEND. Everyone benefits, because one of the characteristics of the 27 nursery schools in Birmingham is that they work with private voluntary and independent nurseries, raising standards across the whole sector. Yes, they cost more, but they are worth every penny. In the immortal words of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), they are schools, not babysitting. They are schools in the best sense of the word.

I was struck by the very good contribution of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who said that were that money, which is not much in the great scheme of things, not to be there—were there to be potential catastrophe for our nursery schools—the downstream costs to the public purse would be massive and the downstream costs to struggling families would be incalculable.

We cannot wait for the comprehensive spending review, because who knows when it will take place? Right now, nursery schools are having to plan ahead when it comes to thinking about how many places they can offer, setting budgets, and maintaining vital facilities and expertise. Indeed, there have already been some closures. Delay risks many more, and a failure to respond properly and on an adequate scale could mean a tidal wave of closures throughout the country. That would be utterly tragic.

I know that the Minister gets it. When the four heads to whom I referred met him, they were impressed by his sympathy, but it was not just about the sympathy—not just a cup of hot tea and biscuits. The Minister’s commitment came over to them and it was very welcome. The problem is not the Minister sitting here today; the problem lies in Downing Street, and Downing Street has to hear this message loud and clear. These nurseries are a great part of our national heritage, many of them dating back to the second world war. They are an essential part of tackling poverty and deprivation, and ensuring social mobility. A decision has to be made quickly, otherwise I fear for the future of the jewels in the crown of early years provision.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey). Like him, I have met the headteacher of the maintained nursery school in my constituency, and she also praised the Minister for his openness and willingness to listen. I hope that the Minister takes heed of those remarks. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) for securing the debate, and for her expertise and hard work on this subject.

In my constituency of Heywood and Middleton, there is just one maintained nursery school left: Sunny Brow Nursery School in Middleton. I just want to say that my praise of the great work done by Sunny Brow Nursery should in no way be taken as a criticism of the other nursery providers in my constituency. I know how important childcare provision is and how valuable the service is to parents, employers and families. I would like to see all nursery provision being valued and an end brought to the minimum wage culture. We trust all nursery nurses with the care of our children. It is an important and responsible job, and should be remunerated as such.

Last week, I met Janet Cook, the headteacher of Sunny Brow Nursery, as well as the governors and parents, to discuss the dire funding situation facing the nursery. We also talked about the huge educational contribution and fantastic start in life that Sunny Brow has given to the children who attend it. The parents talked about how their previously shy and withdrawn children had blossomed in the atmosphere of Sunny Brow. One parent was guardian to a child who, sadly, suffered from foetal alcohol syndrome. She talked about how much the expert teaching at Sunny Brow had helped this child to prepare for primary school, in stark contrast to his two siblings with the same syndrome who had not had the benefit of attending a maintained nursery school and both struggled when they entered mainstream schooling, with many breaks and problems in their subsequent school careers that could and should have been addressed in the early years—the most important years in anyone’s education.

Sunny Brow employs graduate class teachers to provide the excellent care and education from which these children benefit and on which they thrive. Yet the future of the nursery is uncertain due to the lack of clarity over what will happen when the Government top-up fund comes to an end in April 2020. The headteacher told me that unless another source of funding becomes available, Sunny Brow, which has provided early years education in Middleton since the second world war, will no longer be able to operate and will be forced to close. We cannot allow this to happen. We know how important early years education is. This is supported by the Government’s own studies, which show that those from poorer backgrounds are likely to benefit more from education and care from the age of two.

The 30 hours’ childcare costs have helped to put extra pressure on maintained nursery schools’ budgets, as they do not get all the funding back for the 30 hours. This is an additional pressure for Sunny Brow, coupled with the uncertainty of its future post April 2020.

Sunny Brow serves a catchment area of pupils that includes many with specialist needs and disadvantaged backgrounds. With my constituency only 395th out of 533 parliamentary constituencies in the recently published “Social Mobility Index”, it is vital that we are able to maintain the high-quality early years provision provided at Sunny Brow Nursery. We should be celebrating the achievements of nurseries such as Sunny Brow, and their contribution to social mobility and closing the attainment gap, rather than letting them simply wither on the vine due to a lack of funding. Any Government who are serious about improving social mobility—I do believe that the Minister is serious about doing that—should be promoting the expansion of maintained nursery schools, especially into deprived areas like mine, not joining in a race to the bottom. I wish the Minister the best of luck in putting pressure on the Treasury to release funding for this vital service. He can rely on support from Labour Members in so doing.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) on securing this important debate and her committed work on such a vital issue. It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes).

I am a proud advocate for nursery schools in Lincoln. I have been contacted by two maintained nurseries in Lincoln, St Giles and Kingsdown, about the precarious position of their funding after April 2020. Currently, nursery schools are unable to plan and budget for the future, and headteachers and families are deeply concerned. A couple of weeks ago, I met the headteacher of St Giles. She had previously written to me, with the support of the parents, the staff and the surrounding local community, to express their fears about the supplementary funding settlement post 2020. We talked for an hour and a half, and I could really see her concern—she is very worried about what they might lose. This problem is not restricted to Lincoln, as Members on both sides of the House have raised concerns regarding nurseries in their own constituencies.

Let us not overlook the immediate threat. Nurseries are already struggling to set budgets, as even before the end of supplementary funding, 64% expect to be in budget deficit. This is very worrying, as last year the LGA found that 61% of local authorities with maintained nursery schools fear that their schools will close if funding is not protected after 2020, with 52% saying that a loss of funding would reduce the support available for children with SEND.

Maintained nursery schools genuinely advance social mobility—that has been said again and again. The evidence is overwhelming. We know that 64% of maintained nurseries are in the 30% most deprived areas. The two in Lincoln are both in areas of marked social deprivation—Birchwood and St Giles. Regardless of one’s upbringing, we all deserve a good education, and their admission process prioritises children who are in greatest need. In a society with so much inequality, we must protect services that support vulnerable people and give them the opportunity to excel in later education. The Government have even accepted that maintained nurseries cost more, as they provide a range of early years provision.

Any planned cuts to funding of maintained nurseries presents an extremely short-term view of educational funding, and it is a false economy. A report by a group of seven maintained nurseries in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, where I am from, estimates that the cost to public sector services of those nurseries closing would be £216,000 to health and wellbeing services, £278,000 to special educational needs and disability services, £256,000 to social care safeguarding services and £480,000 to supplementing extended entitlement services.

The benefits of these nurseries are clear. Maintained nursery schools provide vital support to our local communities, yet the Government failed to address nurseries’ financial insecurity in the last Budget, and the forecasted review in autumn 2019 is far too late. An issue that requires urgency is seemingly being responded to with complacency—and I do not include the Minister in that statement. I promised nurseries, teaching staff and parents in my constituency that I would be their voice in Parliament. They are not expecting anything out of the ordinary, but they do expect and deserve a sustainable financial future for maintained nursery schools, which will protect jobs and the opportunities of children in their communities.

Will the Minister explain to the House how he expects nursery schools to offer places in the spring of 2019 or the following school year when they know full well that no funding arrangement has been decided upon? I, too, understand that the Minister is sympathetic to the plight of our nurseries—his commitment is not doubted for a minute—but with the risk of closures on the horizon, how can the Government expect nurseries to continue in good faith without a forward-looking, secure financial plan?

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karen Lee). I want to associate myself with a number of the comments made by Opposition Members and some Government Members. This excellent debate has highlighted the huge social value of nursery education.

I see the Minister nodding. I am grateful for his interest in this subject, and we all wish him well in his battle with the Treasury to secure the needed funds.

Many Members have talked about the significant social value and budgets of these nurseries. We have heard emotional descriptions of the value of nursery education. I realise that time is pressing, so I will draw the Minister’s attention to the three maintained nursery schools in Reading East and, on behalf of the hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), the two in Reading West. They are all outstanding maintained nursery schools.

The three nurseries in Reading East—Caversham, New Bridge and Blagdon—have all been rated as outstanding in their Ofsted reports. I would like to describe to the Minister what it is like to walk into those nurseries. What we find is a calm, ordered and pleasant environment where very young children are starting to learn, often through play. It is incredibly positive, upbeat and supportive, and these are some of the most disadvantaged children in our local community. I know well the Amersham estate, which serves Caversham Nursery. New Bridge Nursery serves an area nearby, and Blagdon serves an area in south Reading. There are considerable challenges for many families in those areas, and Members have described those challenges.

I would like to warn the Minister in a supportive way of what could happen in Reading if funding is not sorted out for these three nursery schools. We have already seen severe financial pressure affecting the three nursery schools in Reading East and the two in the western side of the town. My concern is that, if the issues are not addressed, we may see serious challenges as a result of continuing financial pressure. One possible way of solving the financial pressures that has been suggested to me is further joint working of the management team. Given that these schools are across quite a wide area, in a borough with severe traffic problems and a great deal of congestion, it would be extremely difficult for one leader, however able, to lead all five nursery schools.

I wish to pass on to the Minister the practical challenges in our borough, which is a small unitary authority. It has a number of other educational challenges, which I will come on to later. It will face challenges if the nursery schools have to go down this route. As I am sure he is only too aware, Ofsted has pointed out for many years the overwhelming importance of strong leadership in turning round underperformance in educational institutions, whether they are nursery schools, schools or other institutions, and taking them forward to achieve the highest results and most outstanding education. I raise that as a serious local concern. I know the headteacher of one of the nursery schools well. She, like her colleagues, is an outstanding public servant. I wish them well, and I want to see that team enhanced and developing, and the ordinary staff retained.

I want to give some of the context for Reading because it helps us to understand the particular pressure caused by the combination of deprivation and a high-cost area. It can be a very worrying combination for nursery schools and other parts of the public sector. As the Minister may know, in the Thames Valley and other high-cost areas—I do not dispute that many other parts of England, Wales and the rest of the UK face the same challenge—we have significant challenges in recruiting and retaining public sector professionals. In education, that is particularly felt. We also have a large growth in the school-age population. In the part of the borough of Reading that I represent, in the last few years, two new primary and two new secondary schools have been established. A further new secondary school will be established in the near future.

So the basic need is high, and the pressure and difficulty of retaining skilled staff is high. We also face the additional challenge that we are not within London or the outer London weighting area, so a teacher might work just down the road in Bracknell or Slough, which also have real social challenges, yet the housing costs there are much lower than in Reading or indeed Oxford. I should like to draw that to the Minister’s attention and meet him to have a thorough discussion about these long-term pressures, as would some of my colleagues. I would appreciate the Minister’s allowing me to address him directly on this issue.

Today’s debate should have a real impact, based on the Minister’s reaction, which I acknowledge. As we have heard, our nursery schools are a vital asset to our community. I urge the Minister to do everything that he can to raise this point with the Treasury. Is it possible to have a meeting to discuss the particular issues affecting certain parts of the country that are outside areas where there is additional funding for recruitment and retention?

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda). Like others, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) on securing this debate and chairing the excellent all-party parliamentary group, which I know many people from Bristol have come here to engage with. While I can, before the summing up, I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin), who on the Front Bench has been a consistent champion for us on the Back Benches on this issue.

As a new Member of Parliament, I have spent the majority of my time talking about Brexit. This debate reminds that one of the reasons I wanted to become an MP in the first place was not to debate the jurisprudence of the European Court of Justice but to help tackle the issues of poverty and help people from my constituency have the best chances in life. I am sure that every hon. Member, but especially Labour Members, came into politics to help tackle the root causes of poverty, and we know that early education plays a significant role in increasing social mobility for the people we represent.

Indeed, one of the Labour legacies—which include the national minimum wage, lifting 900,000 children out of poverty, and, much too late in our time in office sadly, the introduction of children’s centres—of which I am most proud as a Labour Member is that under the Blair and Brown Governments higher education was opened up for people like me from families in which no one had never been to university before. That had such an impact on the life chances of many people with whom I grew up and now represent in my constituency of Bristol North West. That is why I am so proud of what my Labour colleagues in Bristol City Council are doing today. Under the excellent leadership of Councillor Helen Godwin, the cabinet member for children, women and young people, and lead member for children’s services, they have worked hard, in difficult financial circumstances, not only to fund and maintain nursery schools, but to keep every children’s centre open. They have been innovative in bringing children’s centres on site together with nursery schools to provide a range of comprehensive early years provision for families who require different levels of support and different access. The centres can then be funnelled into the maintained nursery school system to help those young people as they progress to primary schools.

I should say on behalf of my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) and for Bristol South (Karin Smyth)—all of whom I know wanted to be here today—that we are united in our support and praise for the members of Bristol City Council, and in our desire to champion their case here in Westminster.

Bristol has a fine legacy of maintained nursery schools. I should declare my interest: I benefited from going to one—Bluebell Valley in Lawrence Weston, which is where I was born and which is in my constituency. Sadly, Lawrence Weston is still one of the most deprived communities in the country in respect of education, training and skills, so this is an emotional as well as a professional issue for me. I still see so many young people who deserve a better chance in life. That is at the heart of all this, which is why we are all so passionate about securing sustainable funding for maintained nursery schools and for early provision more generally: we know the difference that it will make.

We have already heard, in all the excellent contributions to the debate, the detailed requests and comments on policy that the Minister has been asked to convey to the Treasury, so I will not go through them again. Let me, however, mention Jackie McGregor, the headteacher of the excellent Filton Avenue nursery school in Lockleaze, in my constituency. I have met her on a number of occasions, and she is clearly practised in trying to keep the whole thing together in the face of cuts and changes—changes in policy, and organisational change. However, she and Sally Jaeckle, the Bristol City Council’s head of early years services, feel that this may be the last straw. They do not know whether they can keep the school going without a commitment from the Treasury for sustainable funding after 2020. It really rings alarm bells when people who are so well versed in having to maintain excellent provision in the face of local funding cuts say to me, “Darren, we think that this is just one step too far: it is just going to be too hard.”

Before my election, I was the chair of governors at the primary school that I had attended a few decades earlier, which is now called Nova primary school. I saw at first hand the huge job that primary schools have to do in trying to bring young people up to the average by the time they reach year 6 if, owing to their backgrounds and environments, they enter the reception class with below-average basic skills. Often, when children go to secondary school and there is less support per pupil, they start to fall back. That is one of the structural challenges in the inequality of educational outcomes, but it can be sorted out fundamentally by maintained nursery school provision. Hard work needs to be done before children enter the reception class. I know from my first-hand experience as a governor about the need to go through all the progress charts and figures and track every pupil in a primary school. I know about the impact on not only those young people but their families, now and in the future.

Let me end my reiterating the request that has been made. I thank the Minister for corresponding with me on this issue regularly, and in a very positive manner. I know that he is with us in this cause, but I add my voice—and those of my hon. Friends across Bristol—to the increasing list of supporters for his request to the Treasury for sustainable funding for our maintained nursery schools. Many Members have mentioned the petition. In Bristol it has been signed by parents, teachers and members of the community who are very concerned about this issue, and it will be presented next week. I wish the Minister Godspeed, and, as others have said, if there is anything that we can do to help him to sort out the funding, we are here with him.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) on setting the scene so well. As always, I want to introduce a Northern Ireland perspective. I know that the title of the debate covers maintained nursery schools in the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but those who have spoken so far have spoken specifically about England and about their own knowledge. I want to speak about my knowledge of Northern Ireland, and also to speak as a father of three boys who went to nursery schools. I want to talk about the benefits that that experience brought them. That, I think, is in the spirit of the debate, and of what we are trying to prove to the Minister, if we need to do so. I think he is already on our side anyway, and I think he understands the importance of the issue.

The provision of nursery care is essential to the development of children, and also to the sustainability of working families. Without nursery care, maintained or otherwise, many parents would not both be able to work, and so they help to sustain working families, as has come out in this debate. Employers for Childcare, in the findings of its ninth annual childcare costs survey, has revealed that the average cost of a full-time childcare place in Northern Ireland is £166 per week, which is a massive amount of money for anyone and underlines the issue. I am sure it is as much of an issue in other hon. Members’ constituencies, and probably in some cases even more of an issue, although the difference in Northern Ireland is that wages are lower and therefore the cost in percentage terms is greater.

The survey revealed a slight decrease on the previous year, reflecting the fact that many childcare providers sought not to increase their fees, knowing that if they did many people would drift away. That said, affordability remains a critical issue. For two thirds of families, the childcare bill is the biggest or second biggest monthly outgoing, and so maintained nursery schools are critical.

I recently heard two mothers chatting about childcare at an event. One said to the other, “Well, it changes when they get to nursery, so hold on for another two years”. For many families struggling through this time of paying childcare while working the knowledge that they get a paid place for a morning or an afternoon makes a difference. We must ensure this continues in the maintained nursery sector.

The cost of childcare is a concern for many parents. All three to four-year-olds are now entitled to 30 hours of free childcare per week. This free education can take place in nurseries, playgroups, pre-schools or with childminders. The 30 hours are free for 38 weeks in the year—in line with term time—and are essential for families to survive.

Much of what hon. Members have said today resonates with me. The hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) referred to the things that happen in nursery schools. They build character and personality. It is imperative that children get the benefit of this time with trained professionals and others with an ability to interact positively with children. Nursery helps to build relationships, not only with children but with adults other than family members, and teaches children to play together and form strong relationships and friendships with other children. Where I live, it enables two communities to move closer together through their children and ultimately to build better relations between adults. I can see important benefits at that level.

Nursery instils social and communication skills and helps with other things such as learning to share and making friends, which go hand in hand. I recommend that hand-in-hand process as a reason for keeping them maintained. Children can begin to understand what sharing is and how to deal with situations by communicating and experiencing those new feelings. As fathers and mothers, we know how children sometimes fight over things they want. Nursery teaches them to share. From an early age, it can implant that thought in a child’s mind.

Research shows that spending time in pre-school or nursery education enhances a child’s development and stands them in good stead for starting school. My three boys attended nursery, and the friendships they built there continued into primary and second school and into their working lives. They are young men now—30, 28 and 25—and two of them are married. The youngest is not. I said to him one day, “Any young girls on the horizon?”, and he responded, “No, not at the moment”. I replied, “If you leave it as long as your dad, you’ve got another seven years until you get married”. He is 25, so hon. Members can work out how old I was when I got married.

Nursery plays an important role in building relationships and friendships that last from the age of three or four right through to the age of my eldest boy, who is 30. All early years education providers follow the early years foundation stage framework, which sets the standards they must meet to ensure children learn and develop well and are kept healthy and safe. Starting this framework in nursery or pre-school helps the next stage of learning when starting school. The EYFS is followed through into primary school and gives children the knowledge and skills needed to be ready for school and to progress through school life.

The benefits of nursery—others have said this, and I am going to say it as well—dictate that we as parliamentarians should prioritise it. There must be funding to secure places for every child in this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and to ensure that every family has a nursery school at a reasonable distance to give their child a level playing field for starting school. I believe that we must also send the message to working parents that we want to help them to see the benefit of their hard hours of work. This is not just about the children alone; it is about the parents and about building family life as well. I see that as an important part of what I would like to see across the whole of the United Kingdom.

I support the hon. Member for Manchester Central and right hon. and hon. Members in retaining maintained nursery schools, the importance of which cannot be underlined enough. I very much look forward to the Minister’s response.

This is my first time winding up a debate, and what an important debate it has been.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell), who is such an extraordinary supporter of maintained nursery schools and the early years sector more widely. Her campaigning and stewardship of the all-party group on nursery schools, nursery and reception classes so often leads the way—keeping us all informed, connected and up to date on the plight of maintained nursery schools. I have to say that some of the biggest meetings I have ever attended have been meetings that she has organised with campaigners from far and wide across the country.

My hon. Friend’s contribution raised some extraordinary and well-made points, but a couple stood out for me. One was her passion for change. She also said that this was

“social vandalism of the worst kind”,

that we must support the holistic approach delivered by the maintained nurseries sector and that it would be a “crying shame” to see it disappear.

We also heard from some passionate and dedicated MPs about their own communities, and about the sense of pride they felt when they visit and witness what goes on in maintained nurseries in their constituencies. The hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) talked about risk taking, creativity and art, and how they build resilience in young people, but also about how the potential loss of staff is deeply concerning. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) talked about “Stay and Read”, the food that children take home and the work on speech and language. The right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) mentioned that the situation is very grave.

My hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) had great pride in seeing how children have blossomed. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) mentioned local links, the development of professionals and PVIs locally. A passionate speech was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), who was, rightly, very angry. He highlighted the staffing pressures, given that the current rate is £4.04 per hour, and the uplift of 1p an hour seems derisory.

I really enjoyed the contribution of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), the former children’s Minister. He talked about attachment and how important it is, the support for the troubled families programme and the work he does on fathers. I have also been working on fathers—trying to get more men into the early years sector, to bring men into nurseries and to get more involved with their families.

As always, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) gave an extremely passionate and emotional speech, which moved a number of us to tears. He talked about a desperate mother with her two little boys getting support from the maintained nursery sector. He has done extraordinary work with campaigners and their fantastic petition. I know it has been sent to lots of Members, who I hope are sharing it. I also want quickly to mention my hon. Friends the Members for Lincoln (Karen Lee) and for Reading East (Matt Rodda), who both talked about the need for sustainability and the educational challenges. I thank all Members who made short interventions.

One thing that really stands out across the whole House is the strength of feeling about and our faith and belief in the maintained nursery sector. It has been a pretty consensual debate, but I accept that Members feel deeply passionate and angry about the situation— for good reason, I would say. Since becoming shadow early years Minister, I have been lucky to visit many places, including in Greenwich and Bradford. I know the Minister also makes many trips around the country to look at nurseries, including maintained nurseries. I am continually impressed by the passion, vision and leadership of the educators, the diversity of the pupils, and the quantifiable impact the nurseries have on children, primarily on those who have special needs and those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

Maintained nursery schools are not the only section of the early years sector to do tremendous work—PVIs and childminders up and down the country also do fantastic work—but we are here today to discuss maintained nursery schools, so it is worth reiterating their many merits. They are often viewed as the crème de la crème of early years and many Members have said exactly that in this debate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central said, 63% of the schools are rated outstanding by Ofsted and the rest are good. The majority of maintained nursery schools are in the 30% most deprived areas in England. Their pupil selection policies support those in greatest need and tend to work hand in hand with local authorities, an element that has become more important as other services funded by local authorities have declined and local authority budgets have been slashed to the bone. In Kirklees alone, we have lost 60% of our funding since 2010.

That has an impact on SEND provision, which is becoming a greater challenge for the early years sector. Maintained nursery schools employ SENCOs, which mean they can provide for children what other settings simply do not have the resources or expertise to provide. A report by seven local authorities in Yorkshire and Humber found that each school supports as many as 15 children with SEND, with many requiring education and healthcare plans. The same report found that the schools are increasingly accommodating children with complex life-affecting conditions who would usually attend a specialist setting. When maintained nursery schools become good at that, they find themselves supporting clusters of children with those particular needs, as well as those with extra needs. In short, where communities have maintained nursery schools, the quality of provision is improved either directly or through training networks. There are genuine hidden benefits that ease the pressures on other costly public services. Indeed, it is disappointing that so many communities are without these support networks. I would like to see more, but sadly at the moment it is more common to see a school under threat than it is to see a new school open.

Since 2010, we have lost about one in 10 maintained nursery schools; the number has fallen from 428 down to 394. To repeat what my hon. Friends have said, it is a crying shame that we are losing maintained nursery schools across the country. That is a loss to communities which impacts on other public services. I would be interested to hear from the Minister when he is on his feet whether any assessment has been made of the cost to the public purse when a maintained school closes its doors. Many of the benefits these settings deliver are hidden benefits. For example, one case from East Riding of Yorkshire found that closing four maintained nursery schools would mean four additional social workers would be needed to provide the equivalent preventive work alone.

The crux of what we are discussing today is the funding of maintained nursery schools. I would call it a funding crisis, because brilliant provision comes at a cost: wonderful premises; education for free; risk taking; work on communication, literacy and language; support for parents and children; qualified teachers in the classroom; work that goes beyond the walls of the maintained nursery into the community; providing food after school for children whose parents are struggling; children with additional needs supported; and parents helped with their parenting skills. None of that comes cheap. We have seen 1,000 Sure Start centres across the country close, and the maintained nursery sector is picking up a substantial amount of that slack. I know that the Department for Education and the Minister have acknowledged that. They understand the crisis in maintained nurseries and they provided the supplementary funding block to help these nurseries stay afloat. I am adding my voice to those of the hon. Members who have spoken today. To refuse to give a funding commitment until the spending review later this year—until after the schools will need to set their budget for the coming years—is a disaster waiting to happen.

The Minister has said a number of times elsewhere and in this place that local authorities should not make premature decisions about the future of maintained nursery schools. That is welcome, but the sector is being asked to wait for the spending review, without a date or a commitment about whether it will be for one, three or five years. With Brexit looming, it is no surprise that the sector is deeply worried. How can he reasonably expect schools to commit to paying staff and to promising families that they will educate their children if they literally do not know whether they will be able to afford to meet that commitment, as funding could be cut mid-year? Should we not put this piecemeal approach to funding to one side? Should we not sit down with the maintained nursery schools and come up with a package that gives them financial confidence, not just for the next 12 months but for the next 12 years?

We are not talking about some sort of hypothetical financial calamity in the future. Maintained nursery schools are already struggling. In 2010, 3.5% of schools were in deficit to the total amount of just under £600,000. Since then, 34 schools have closed their doors and 20.3% of schools are now in deficit to the total amount of £4.8 million. More concerning still is the fact that 64% of them expect to be in deficit by 2020, even before the current funding settlement runs out. Sadly, the Government’s current report card says, “Plummeting numbers and soaring deficits.”

Be in no doubt that the threat to these schools is serious. The culture of disregard has been felt across the whole of the early years sector in recent years. Since the introduction of the 30 hours of so-called free childcare, all types of settings have been continually warning of financial difficulties. The Government’s own figures show that 53% of private nurseries in England have put up their fees since the introduction of the policy. Early years settings are trying to make do with less, but costs are rising all the time. It feels like they are often left standing against an oncoming tide. We cannot forget, either, that the minimum wage is rising again this year. We all support that, but early years is a low-paid profession and this rise affects it disproportionately. So I encourage the Minister to review the funding settlement, please. We want quality early years staff, but to get quality we need to pay them properly. Something has to change.

This debate has been informative, enjoyable, passionate and moving in parts. I and many Members in the Chamber look forward to what the Minister has to say. In conclusion, let me be clear: what we need and expect today is a clear funding plan. There has been praise for these services and schools, the things they provide for our communities, and encouragement of local authorities not to make premature decisions. It is good but it is not good enough. We need a commitment. These families and children are relying on the Minister to do the right thing. We need to fund the schools properly and give them certainty.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) on securing this important debate. We have had 13 excellent speeches from the Back Benches, including from my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan), the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), and the hon. Members for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), for Lincoln (Karen Lee), for Reading East (Matt Rodda), for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon).

The common thread among all of them is that MPs from all walks of life have real knowledge of their maintained nursery schools; I totted it up, and they must have spoken about at least 25 maintained nursery schools, in itself a pretty robust sample if anyone ever needed one. What today’s debate has highlighted is Parliament at its best, coming together on an important issue.

The hon. Member for Manchester Central and I have corresponded on these matters on several occasions. I have obviously visited a number of maintained nursery schools and have met the kind of headteachers that many colleagues have spoken about, and so have seen the leadership, passion and commitment that headteachers deliver in maintained nursery schools. She will know that I absolutely understand and support the role of maintained nursery schools in giving some of our most disadvantaged children the best possible start in life. It has been heartening to hear the overwhelming support today for these wonderful institutions, which in many cases have been working at the heart of their communities for decades—certainly well before this rookie MP and Minister got to this place. I also want to thank the hon. Lady for her work in leading the all-party group that has done so much to raise the profile of maintained nursery schools and the challenges they face. I am pleased that we are having this debate today.

This Government’s ambition is to provide equality of opportunity for every child, regardless of background or where they live. High-quality early education is the cornerstone of social mobility, and the evidence shows that it particularly benefits the most disadvantaged.

I am proud of what this Government are doing on early years. We have extended free childcare for three and four-year olds in working families to 30 hours a week. We are providing 15 hours of free early education for the most disadvantaged two-year-olds; since its introduction in 2013 over 700,000 have benefited from that entitlement. We have also introduced tax-free childcare, and by 2020 will be spending around £6 billion a year on childcare support. We have also made good progress on the take-up of early years entitlements, with 71% of eligible two-year-olds, 93% of three-year-olds and 96% of four-year-olds benefiting from some funded early education.

Childcare providers have done a fantastic job in responding to our ambitions and helping us to deliver our reforms. Thanks to the dedication of early years practitioners up and down the country, 95% of early years providers are now rated by Ofsted as either good or outstanding, and the percentage of children achieving a “good level of development” has improved every year since 2013. Over that same period, the gap between children in receipt of free school meals and their peers in terms of outcomes aged five has narrowed by 1.7%. However, too many children still fall behind in early years, and it is hard to close the gaps that emerge in that period. Some 28% of children still finish their reception year without the early communication and reading skills they need to thrive. That is why we set a bold ambition to halve that number by 2028.

Maintained nursery schools have played an important role, and their part in this is not to be underestimated in helping to achieve this ambition, not only in giving direct support to children but in sharing their skills and expertise for the benefit of the wider early years system; we heard that from many colleagues who described how they operate in their local community. They are a small, but important, part of that system. They currently provide around 4% of the universal entitlement hours for three and four-year-olds, and the best of them punch way above their weight in other areas as well. We know, for example, that they take greater proportions of children with all levels of special educational needs than any other providers; that, again, was highlighted in today’s debate. I have seen for myself the great work they do, including at the Lanterns nursery in Hampshire and the Rothesay nursery school in Luton. The dedication and passion of their staff are truly inspiring.

I know that there is uncertainty over the future—we heard that loud and clear today. The current arrangements that protect maintained nursery school funding, which provide nearly £60 million of additional funding a year, are due to end in March 2020. This supplementary funding was a temporary arrangement to ensure that maintained nursery schools did not miss out when we introduced the early years national funding formula, and we need to decide what should happen once that supplementary funding ends. Our intention has been to look across the evidence and to resolve this question as part of the spending review negotiations. No maintained school yet knows its funding after March 2020—a fact that came across loud and clear from many colleagues today, including the right hon. Member for East Ham. That is a difficult place for the schools to be; I am aware that, on average, the supplementary funding for maintained nursery schools accounts for about a third of their budget. Their anxiety is understandable, and funding for the summer term of the 2019-20 academic year is clearly focusing minds.

In resolving questions of future policy, this Government are committed to making evidence-based decisions. This has always been a challenge in regard to maintained nursery schools because there are fewer than 400 of them and they have a wide range of delivery models, so it is difficult to include them in broader early years studies. There is research on quality in the early years, including stand-alone local studies of outcomes and national data about the children who use nursery schools, but together they do not definitively demonstrate the value that maintained nursery schools offer. The methods used in local studies vary, and many studies do not take account of other factors that have a crucial influence on a child’s outcomes, such as the home learning environment.

To fill some of these evidence gaps and improve our understanding of maintained nursery schools, we commissioned further research last year to explore their services, costs and quality, compared with other providers. We wanted to look for the first time across the entirety of the services they offer in order to understand them better. I want to thank the maintained nursery schools, local authorities and others who participated in that research; we will be publishing it very soon.

I warmly welcome the research that the Minister is talking about, but I am afraid that the clock is ticking. We need to plug the funding gap soon, otherwise more of these schools are going to start closing down.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention. That message has come across loud and clear today, and this is something that we are very cognisant of.

I would like to steer the Minister towards some fantastic research—if he has not seen it already—from the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire maintained nurseries. It contains empirical evidence about the value to local authorities of maintained nurseries and the impact of their closure. It provides clear evidence that we need to solve this funding crisis today.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that. As I have said, we will be publishing our own research very soon. I know that this is later than we had originally hoped, and I apologise for that, but it is a complex piece of work and it is important that the researchers take the time to ensure that the findings are as robust as possible. If we are going to make those arguments, we are going to need that data. It will be a helpful contribution to the discussion, and I am prepared to look at any data points that colleagues can offer.

I think that that research will be useful, but can the Minister at least give an assurance today that maintained nursery schools will know by the end of the current financial year what their future funding is going to be?

I am pushing as hard as I can to ensure that we are able to go back to the sector with a position as soon as possible. As I said earlier in relation to the urgency over admissions and the lack of clarity over the budget, I hope I can reassure colleagues that this is at the top of my to-do list in the Department.

We already know that there is significant variation both in the services that maintained nursery schools provide and the cohorts of children that they work for. Maintained nursery schools were originally set up over a century ago to serve the poorest communities. It is clear, as many colleagues said earlier, that the gentrification of certain areas means that some of them may be working with a different profile of community or that that has added to the pressure, and I look forward to meeting colleagues who want to discuss that further. While many nurseries take higher proportions of children with special educational needs and disabilities, and children in receipt of the early years pupil premium, there are others that, on the surface, do not look all that different from other providers. We will need to think carefully about how we respond to any disparities as we consider long-term solutions.

That said, I am conscious of the position in which local authorities find themselves. Many colleagues have made clear the urgency of addressing the financial crunch. Local authorities are already planning for 2019-20 and want to know how to treat their maintained nursery schools. I want everyone in the Chamber to know that I absolutely understand that. However, local authorities will also understand that the next spending review, which will set funding after March 2020, has not yet been announced. Owing to uncertainty over the exact date of the spending review, we are considering how best to handle transitional arrangements for several areas, including maintained nursery schools.

Despite such uncertainties, I am luckily not aware of closure processes starting under the local authorities to which I have spoken. That is an important point, showing that they are taking a sensible wait-and-see approach. I am grateful to them for their patience, and, as I have said elsewhere, I urge them to wait for the outcome of the process we have embarked upon before making decisions.

I want to take the opportunity again to thank the hon. Member for Manchester Central for her unstinting work in this area. She mentioned the deficit, and concern is increasing that maintained nursery schools are struggling to keep the books balanced, as many colleagues from around the country have said. A recent survey by the all-party parliamentary group on nursery schools, nursery and reception classes made a valuable contribution to the discussion. I think around 20% of maintained nursery schools were in deficit in 2017-18, which is slightly lower than the figure in the APPG’s survey, but that does not mean that we should be complacent. It is possible that some of the difference reflects the anxiety within the maintained nursery school sector in the same way that another APPG survey from two years ago suggested that around 60 schools may be under threat of immediate closure, and I am pleased that that number of closures did not happen over the subsequent two years. I hope that we can find a long-term solution, and that is my message to the APPG before the number of schools in deficit rises.

The message that I give to the House and take from the House is that we want to find a long-term solution for maintained nursery schools. In doing so, we will need to ensure that the high-quality specialist services that many of them provide in some of our poorest communities continue is safeguarded for the benefit of the children in their care. We also need to ensure that how we spend money across the childcare sector as a whole is structured to give all children the best possible start, so that they can go on to fulfil their potential. That, ultimately, is our shared ambition.

I thank the 13 Back Benchers who have contributed to this debate and the many more who have intervened, which sends a powerful cross-party message to all parts of the Government, not just the Minister present today, that we want to see this issue solved, and solved quickly, on behalf of the maintained nursery schools in our constituencies.

The debate reflects the fact that there is a lot of evidence that maintained nursery schools are more than just childcare. They are high-quality early education in our most deprived areas, they support a large number of children with extra needs and they do a great deal more, as the Minister outlined, than simply providing nursery provision. That needs to be acknowledged.

The Minister talks about deficits and closures, but 2018 had the highest number of maintained nursery school closures in 10 years. This is already happening, and it is the tip of the iceberg. I appreciate his personal commitment, but as others have said, the cliff edge is fast approaching. Decisions are being made now for the next academic year, when the supplementary funding runs out.

I did not mention the two nursery schools in my constituency, Collyhurst and Martenscroft. I recently took the Secretary of State for Education to Martenscroft, and he could not believe what he saw. He was deeply impressed, and towards the end of the visit he asked me, “Who pays for this?” I leave the Minister with that.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House notes that state maintained nursery schools are at the forefront of tackling low social mobility with 63 per cent graded outstanding by Ofsted, and 35 per cent good; further notes that two thirds of maintained nursery schools are located in the 30 per cent most deprived areas in England; notes that maintained nursery schools are recognised as being centres of excellence for supporting children with SEND in the early years; notes that the whole early years sector benefits from the expertise of maintained nursery schools acting as catalysts to raise standards in their locality through supporting schools and early years settings to work together to improve their quality; notes that despite welcome transitional funding the future viability of maintained nursery schools is under threat with 12 closing since 2016; notes the loss of transitional funding is equivalent to a 31 per cent cut in funding; and calls on the Government to safeguard the future of these vital early years institutions by guaranteeing transitional funding after 2020 as soon as possible whilst a long term plan to ensure their future viability is found by the Comprehensive Spending Review.

Business of the House


That at the sitting on Tuesday 5 February, notwithstanding the provisions of Standing Order No. 16 (Proceedings under an Act or on European Union documents), the Speaker shall put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on—

(1) the Motion in the name of Secretary Sajid Javid relating to Police Grant Report not later than three hours after the commencement of proceedings on that Motion, and

(2) the Motions in the name of Secretary James Brokenshire relating to Local Government Finance not later than three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the first such Motion or six hours after the commencement of proceedings relating to Police Grant Report, whichever is the later; proceedings on those Motions may continue, though opposed, after the moment of interruption; and Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply.—(Amanda Milling.)