31 January 2019
Nadhim Zahawi replies to a debate on state maintained nursery schools

Nadhim Zahawi replies to a debate on state maintained nursery schools and support for children with SEND in the early years.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Nadhim Zahawi)

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 also 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 better understand them. I want to thank the maintained nursery schools, local authorities and others who participated in that research, and we will be publishing it very soon.

Theresa Villiers

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.

Nadhim Zahawi

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.

Tracy Brabin

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.

Nadhim Zahawi

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.

Stephen Timms

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?

Nadhim Zahawi

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 to be 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.