Lancashire County Council began a consultation with the 24 pre-school facilities that it runs back in May.
A recent meeting of the authority’s education and children’s services scrutiny committee heard that a series of recommendations were subsequently made to the sector about how it operates.
Information about the finances of individual institutions was also factored in, focusing on their income and expenditure, any expected deficits within the current financial year and their levels of longstanding debt.
County Hall’s interim head of early years is nearing the end of a run of meetings with each of the schools to explore their next steps. Andrew Cadman told committee members that the chats had, “in the main….been positive”.
He added: “They have been challenging conversations, as one would expect, because we are talking about their futures and what we can do differently – what are the risks and what are our opportunities?
“In light of everything we are doing at the moment through this autumn term, we might find ourselves [at the] end of December [or] early January where there may be one or two of our maintained nurseries where we have to ask some different questions around what their futures look like – despite all the work we’re doing.
“It’s just about being clear and transparent that we want to keep 24 maintained nursery schools thriving and operating – and to do that we need to make sure we support them accordingly. But also there may be some more challenging and difficult questions moving forward,” Mr. Cadman added.
He also told the committee that he did not believe that the government’s “supplementary funding” for nursery schools – payments made in acknowledgement of the greater costs incurred by the facilities compared to other types of early years provision – would suddenly stop, because so few of the 400 institutions across the country could survive without it.
The funding had been due to end in March this year – but was later extended until March 2022.
Committee member Samara Barnes warned that such uncertainty made it difficult for nursery school leaders to plan and “be able to offer good quality long contracts, which enable them to get the very best staff that the children and young people…deserve”.
She also said that a nursery headteacher she knows of is forced to work on the “business” needs of the school at 6am – because she is teaching throughout the day.
Mr. Cadman said that the consultation had shown that there was a need for more business support “across the board” for the county’s nursery schools – and raised the possibility of groups of schools “clustering” together in order to lighten the load.
Cllr Sobia Malik said she was “deeply dismayed” at the lack of data arising from the consultation that had been presented to the committee.
She also sought reassurance that the impact of the pandemic had been considered when assessing the fortunes of individual nurseries – with their pre and post-Covid positions compared “in order to do them justice and recognise that, perhaps, if it looks a but bleak, that was not the picture…before this pandemic”.
Mr. Cadman said that where nursery schools had been doing well before Covid struck, but their progress had been “thwarted”, the county council would have to consider how much time would be allowed for them to get back on track. The committee heard that responses to the pandemic had actually put some facilities in a stronger position.
He also said that a much fuller report assessing the county’s nursery schools has been produced and could be forwarded to the committee.
Meanwhile, committee member and Fleetwood West and Cleveleys West county councillor Stephen Clarke said that “deprived” towns like his should be considered for new nursery school provision.
“I think if [anywhere] deserves a maintained [nursery] school, it is an area like Fleetwood,” he said.
However, the meeting heard that nursery schools were an “historical” provision – but Mr. Cadman did commit to assess the quality of all early years facilities in the town.
Nineteen out of Lancashire’s 24 nursery schools are located in the east of the county - including seven in Burnley and five in Pendle. There are also two in Chorley (Duke Street and Highfield), one in Preston (Stoneygate), one in Ribble Valley (Clitheroe) and another in Ormskirk.