Exit for nurseries?

According to children’s minister Beverley Hughes, the government’s Childcare Bill will mean “real child care choice offered to all parents”. According to many in the independent day nursery sector, it will mean nurseries closing and staff being laid off. The reason: worries that councils will not work with independent providers, and will focus exclusively on developing school-based children’s centres that will suck up all the money and staff.

The Childcare Bill consultation says local authorities will have a duty to provide enough child care to meet the needs of working parents. It also says they must do this by working with the private and voluntary sectors.

However, Pre-school Learning Alliance chief executive Steve Alexander says this could be a real problem: “There is a significant minority of local authorities that show a flagrant disregard for voluntary partnership, and the private and voluntary sector is under threat in some areas.”

Tricia Pritchard, senior professional officer at the Professional Association of Nursery Nurses, believes the changes ahead could well mean nurseries closing and staff being sacked as new children’s centres are set up. The government wants to see 2,500 children’s centres by 2008, and 3,500 – or one in every community – by 2010.

“We are not sure we are going to have a level playing field. Funding is to be given to the local authorities and they are going to be responsible for how it is spent,” Pritchard says. “Nurseries will close, because it is difficult to see how they will survive if money is going into new provision.”

National Day Nurseries Association chief executive Purnima Tanuku says there is a real threat. She says the answer is clear guidance to councils about partnership working and the role of independent nurseries in the child care market.

The government’s process for assessing the competence of councils must also include a target on how they are involving the private and voluntary sector, she adds, in the same way that the NHS will now be checked to ensure 15 per cent of hospital operations are by the private sector.

But Anne Longfield, chief executive of 4Children, urges caution about the extent of the threat: “There are not going to be that many children’s centres,” she says. “The increased use of schools may be an issue, but we don’t think most schools will do this. If there are good local providers who are providing good quality, affordable provision that is community-based, all the encouragement necessary will be given.”

But concerns about the future of nurseries do not end here. There are two other key issues raising blood pressure: the plan to make day care providers pay the cost of Criminal Records Bureau checks on all new staff, and the proposal to remove the requirement for day care providers caring for six- and seven-year-olds to register with and be inspected by Ofsted while all other providers will continue to do so.

On the first, the NDNA has called on the government to keep the CRB checks free for child care providers. Pritchard warns that there is a real risk that unscrupulous nurseries will “cut corners” if they are not. On the second, Alexander warns of the creation of a two-tier system. “It is a regressive step to start suggesting certain age groups and certain providers will have a secondary quality.” On this point at least, the child care sector is united in telling the government it must listen.

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.