Which part of the English school system is graded by Ofsted as being the most successful? And which sector is being closed down at the fastest rate?
Strangely enough the answer to both questions is the same: Maintained Nursery Schools. Half have been graded as being outstanding by Ofsted since the new inspection framework was introduced. A tenth of them have been closed down since 1997.
A depressing story of muddle, of good intentions gone wrong, has led us here. Back in 1997, Britain had its first ever government with a strong commitment to developing services for children under five and their families. At that time, the nursery school sector was in a pretty bad way. Buildings were falling down. When it rained, great rows of buckets would be lined up to catch at least the majority of the water pouring through roofs. Even the most minor repair, like a small strip of linoleum in the toilets, would require several months of correspondence with the local authority before it could happen. I remember a depressing shuffle to the Houses of Parliament to protest against the introduction of nursery vouchers in the last days of the Conservative government. Hardly anyone seemed to care. As a nursery teacher, I felt as punctured as the roof of my classroom.
The New Labour government promised to do it all so much better. Lots of money was allocated to the early years. But the government was not clear what it wanted. Was it more childcare, so that more women could go out and work? Or more early childhood education, to benefit those children growing up in the most disadvantaged areas?
The question was never really answered. Instead, all sorts of experimental lines of policy were developed. A small number of nursery schools were plucked from their previous obscurity and termed "Early Excellence Centres". They were supposed to answer both questions at once, by showing how early education could best be combined with childcare. The rest of the nursery schools were promised that there was a "presumption against closure". But the figures speak for themselves: in the decade before 1997, 14 nursery schools were closed. The decade after, 87 were shut. The "presumption against closure" was nothing more than rhetoric. Saying is not the same as doing.
The "Early Excellence" experiment was still going strong when two new policy fads were introduced to early education. The government developed “neighbourhood nurseries” in poor communities with inadequate funding limited to just three years. At the start, the nurseries were planned to have only half the staff qualified (and this half at the minimal level of NVQ2) and the after three years they were supposed to sustain themselves with just the fees paid by families living in some of the poorest parts of England. At the same time as the Early Excellence Centres were supposed to be exploring whether nursery education and childcare would benefit children if there was a strong emphasis on quality (highly trained staff, including specialist nursery teachers and nursery nurses). As a result of these simultaneous initiatives, the Early Excellence Centres started to look too expensive, compared to the Neighbourhood Nurseries. At around the same time, the Neighbourhood Nurseries started to run out of money once their three years of funding was up, and were not able to show evidence that they had provided much benefit to the children who attended.
The second policy fad, also around the same time, was Sure Start. This is still the biggest of various attempts to develop policy and practice around the new ideas of "localism". Local communities were given very large sums of money to develop pretty much any approach to services for young children and their families. In some cases good practice evolved; in the rest, huge amounts of money were squandered. A local authority early years officer I know was visited by some of the Young Turks from the Sure Start Unit who told him that his authority needed more "blue sky thinking". It was time to dispense with the old solutions - having a single local plan, for example, made by locally elected councillors. Instead, they suggested an array of local boards, some supported by the health authority, some by education, some by social services and others by the voluntary sector. It was assumed that this type of diversity would lead to success.
Whilst these various cultural revolutions in the early years played themselves out, the nursery schools were seen as both rather expensive, and also rather old fashioned. Sure Start Programmes inevitably disliked them. Whatever the reason - culture clashes, competition for resources, elitism - it is pointless to try to blame this person, or that Sure Start local board, or those schools, for the chaos which resulted. National policy was a mess.
Finally, taking stock of the failure of Sure Start local programmes and the Neighbourhood Nursery Initiative, the government at last put together a single, coherent plan for the future: the Children’s Centre programme. The idea was to provide all the different services – nursery education with childcare, family support, community development and health services – from a single, integrated organization. My own view is that this is still a sensible and coherent policy. But it is, sadly, haunted by aspects of past policy. The desire to do things too quickly is unabated, so instead of piloting a few Children’s Centres and evaluating them, the government has developed thousands in just a few years. Quality still hardly features in the thinking: Children’s Centres are, for example, encouraged to consider “contracting out” the childcare element. The best value bid for the contract, may not lead to the best provision for the children. There have been disasters, to be sure. But beyond these, the cost of the nursery schools – who provide the best early education and care – rules many of them out of the programme. They get sidelined. Then they get closed down.
The latest blow for the nursery schools has been the order issued to local authorities that they must be "brokers" for "childcare" rather than commissioning it themselves. Whilst there seem to be many different ways of reading this part of the Act, it is hardly encouraging local authorities to maintain and support their nursery schools and other early years centres. It promotes, instead, the notion that the local authority should set up the necessary systems for private and voluntary groups to run nurseries, and withdraw to monitor what happens.
Which takes me back to Ofsted. We know that nursery schools provide the best environment for the care, development and learning of young children. 49% of them are judged to be outstanding - compared to 13% of primary and secondary schools. It is an enviable record. Other research, most notably the government-sponsored EPPE project, shows the same thing. Nursery schools are proven to help young children growing up in disadvantaged circumstances to "narrow the gap" on their more advantaged peers. In other words, they start compulsory education with as good a chance as anyone else of doing well at school.
Whilst this policy shambles continues, nursery schools are being closed down all over the country. Once they are gone - they're gone. And with them goes one of the best chances we have of helping disadvantaged young children and their families.
I obtained statistics on the numbers of nursery schools from 1963 to the present date through a Freedom of Information request to the Department for Children, Schools and Families.
Nursery School numbers from 1963 to 1997
Nursery School numbers from 1998 to 2007
For a recent summary of the effectiveness of nursery schools and teacher involvement in nursery educations, see Nurseries Need Teachers by the Daycare Trust.