Lancashire nursery schools consultation to launch

A consultation into the future of Lancashire’s nursery schools is set to start next month – a year after it was first expected to take place.

Lancashire County Council had planned to assess the financial viability of its pre-school facilities at the beginning of last year, but the process was postponed after the pandemic struck.

The authority had initially indicated that it would consult on four out of its 24 maintained nursery schools which were deemed to be “financially unviable” – or in need of major changes to prevent them from falling into that category.

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A further ten were classed as “financially vulnerable” – and it was suggested that they may have to draw up recovery plans, potentially to reduce staffing costs or increase pupil numbers.

There are 24 county council-run nursery schools in Lancashire

As the Local Democracy Reporting Service revealed at the time, the schools coming under those categories were not publicly named – and the authority later said that it intended to hold a consultation into all 24 sites on the basis of the latest financial and pupil data.

County Hall warned that all of the institutions were likely to become financially unsustainable anyhow if the government did not commit to continuing a top-up grant to local authorities, which helped Lancashire County Council to plug a £1m hole in its nursery schools’ finances, and was due to end in March 2021.

Ministers have since said that the supplementary funding will now roll on during 2021/22 – but payments from September 2021 onwards are subject to change and should be considered “unconfirmed”.

Cabinet member for schools Phillippa Williamson said of the forthcoming consultation: “Work on the review of Lancashire’s maintained nursery schools has been put on hold due to the ongoing pandemic, as we address other, more immediate, issues relating to children and young people’s education.

“However, we are now at a stage where we are aiming to begin the consultation process next month.

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“We welcome the government’s increase in the hourly funding rate for early years and this will be considered as part of the consultation analysis and review.

“The maintained nursery schools and all early years providers throughout Lancashire are doing a tremendous job in difficult circumstances throughout the coronavirus pandemic,” added County Cllr Williamson, who last year said that the authority was “committed” to its nurseries,

Lancashire’s schools forum agreed earlier this month to transfer £2m of financial “headroom” in the county’s overall schools budget into the early years sector, which includes funding for free childcare entitlements.

The county’s early years funding for the coming financial year was already set to be approximately £2m higher than the equivalent level for 2020/21, due to the increased hourly rates for two, three and four year olds.