Cutting nurseries is a recipe for social segregation

Matt Mahon's picture
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In June, the government announced a 22 percent cut in early years spending. At the time, the effect that was most widely discussed was the closure of SureStart centres, but now the direct impact on state schools and primary education is also becoming clear. Another ‘saving’ announced at the time was a cut in free nursery places, from 25 to 15 hours a week per child. It’s important to highlight this particular cut now because school governors are currently working on strategies to deal with the cuts in time for the September 2012 intake.

Although the cut was presented as a reduction in hours, local authorities are also able to implement the saving by offering fewer full-time places. In one typical North London primary (not named for obvious reasons), the number of funded full-time nursery places will fall from around 50 to around 30. There is currently a waiting list for places at the nursery, and all projections point to no decline in demand next year. Yet in Camden, there will be a reduction in nursery places from 1450 to 800 in 2012.

Camden council decided in July to allow schools to offer full-time nursery places above the government allocation at a cost to the parents. One community governor I’ve spoken to has put the cost of a full-time place in a nursery at £80 to £90 a week. Allocation of the free places is hierarchical – children with a statement of special educational need come first, followed by children with welfare concerns, children of low-income families, and children on free school meals.

Given that there’s provision for families in low income, you might wonder why I take issue with charging those who can potentially afford to pay for their childcare. But there’s a serious isssue here, and not just for the ‘squeezed middle’, as bad as it is for them. Rather, I’m worried about the effect of this cut on those families who are able to afford a nursery place for their child. These changes effectively move a large constituency of parents into a position where they must make an economic decision about where they send their children, and that’s an arena in which state schools will inevitably lose out.

Imagine a family who are capable of absorbing the extra £90 a week, and might be able to put a bit more money into their child’s day care. They may not have considered the possibility of paid childcare previously, but now that they have to, a range of options is open to them. Why send your child to the local comp, with its larger class sizes, when you could send them to a private nursery? Or if that’s a little far-fetched, why send them to your local school if you’re now a paying customer who can demand better? What about the one down the road? Once consumer choice is introduced, forcibly in this case, it has a tendency to trump other considerations, especially those to do with the community that surrounds a local school. At the very least, the cut in places will exacerbate the inequalities between so-called ‘sink schools’ and their better neighbours.

The prioritisation of lower-income families is the least we could hope for from local authorities, in that the vast majority of families who attend local schools in inner cities don’t have the odd £90 a week knocking around to cover costs. But these measures will force middle-income parents into a commercial relationship with their local school from the earliest stage. The outcome of the government’s decision to cut spending in early years will be the creeping segregation of schools into some for those who can afford to choose and others for those who can’t.

This article was originally published on October 15, 2011.
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