Cuts to Stoke-on-Trent's free nursery classes to save £1.7m
CUTS to free nursery classes for families in Stoke-on-Trent will be offset by specially designed child development programmes.
Stoke-on-Trent City Council is overhauling the way it runs education for three-year-olds to save £1.7 million from its £11.5 million early years budget.
The move is also designed to dramatically improve pupil performance in the early years of school, which is currently ranked the worst in the country.
It will mean less free nursery time and a major shift towards schemes which target the most vulnerable children.
The council is one of only two in the country to offer free full-time nursery places of 30 hours a week in primary schools and authority-run nurseries – compared to 15 hours' funding for families who choose private or independent nurseries.
Consultant Eleni Ioannides, chairman of an independent panel set up to review key stage one results, said: "The status quo is not an option. Current provision, while excellent for some children, is inequitable, inflexible and unaffordable."
The council says many families currently lean on full-time nursery places as a form of childcare – limiting their children's access to schemes which could improve their development.
Under new plans, the council will work with schools and the NHS to develop programmes based on the specific needs of families in each area.
The council believes diverting children from obligatory free nursery places to courses which meet specific needs will improve children's academic performance by the time they reach school, as well as increasing the use of children's centres to justify their continued funding.
It will also review what access each area has to children's centres and other support courses, which could mean some areas are offered more free nursery hours than others.
Struggling families, low income households and children with development problems, such as poor speech, will still receive a 'full-time offer'.
But the 30 hours could be split between the legal minimum of 15 hours free nursery provision and 'early intervention' placements in parenting programmes, family support classes or speech therapy sessions.
Those services are currently offered by independent groups and at council-run children's centres but are under-used.
Council leader Mohammed Pervez said: "We have been over-providing free nursery provision for years but our results are very poor. We need a complete change. We want to get to the hard-to-reach communities and make sure problems are picked up at an early stage to help drive up our overall attainment in key stage one."
Continuing to provide free full-time nursery places would mean further cuts to children's centres and the 'early intervention' courses.
Families who still want 30-hour nursery places in council nurseries will be able to pay for the extra 15 hours themselves.
A £1.1 million underspend in Government funding for schools will be used to defer most changes until September 2014 – ending an imminent threat of redundancies and allowing the council a year of 'leeway' to finalise its new system.
The changes follow a review of the city's early years service by an independent panel.
Melissa Beydilli, pictured below, founder of the Save Our Children's Centres campaign group, advised the panel on behalf of city parents.
She said: "I know parents will find this difficult initially because they are used to having that 30 hours available.
"But this is about utilising everything that's available in the community for children. Parents who use 30 hours now will have to use other services, including children's centres, toddlers groups and early years sessions. At the moment those services are not used well enough."
The panel concluded the current system is failing and limits parental choice because it is heavily skewed towards council-funded nursery places.
It also found that many schools are receiving funding for full-time nursery provision even though parents are not using the full 30 hours.
At least 10 per cent of the city's three-year-olds, many of them among the most vulnerable, are not in nursery at all – compared to two per cent nationally.
National changes will mean the council also has to begin providing free nursery places for the most deprived two-year-olds in the country from September. Mother-of-two Xiang Guan, has a son who attends nursery at St Mark's Primary School, in Shelton.
The 29-year-old, of Repington Road, Sneyd Green, who is mum to Zi Bih Wang, aged five, and three-year-old Zi Kai Wang, said: "I don't want this. My children really enjoy coming to the nursery and if the number of free hours got cut then I could struggle because I don't work."