Sunday, 13 July 2008

Whatever happened to neighbourhood nurseries?

Does anyone still remember the Neighbourhood Nurseries scheme? The idea was that the government would encourage nurseries to be set up in poor neighbourhoods, with a (substantial) three-year grant. At the end of the three years, the grant would end and the nursery would sustain its existence through fees from parents.

I had to work with this scheme, but never understood the assumption behind it: that poor neighbourhoods would sustain nurseries solely through fees being paid by parents. I could not find any precedent, anywhere in the world, for childcare and nursery facilities in poor areas without a direct grant from the state or charitable source. Back in 2003, I wrote that "cashflow projections are slapped on to neighbourhood nurseries like the emperor’s new clothes - everyone knows that they are a fiction, but nobody is telling" (you can read that piece here).

In the same year, I had the chance to do a short presentation in front of the then Minister for Children and Families, Margaret Hodge. I thought I had a pretty clever ending, and going off-Powerpoint I read from Lorna Sage's memoir, Bad Blood. Sage remembers that, to her mother, vegetables were “dangerous and difficult to subdue. They had to be cooked all morning, particularly green ones like sprouts, which got very salty and stuck to the pan as their water boiled away, and came out in a yellow mush. Potatoes got the same treatment and her ritual Sunday lunchtime cry, as she lifted the saucepan lid – ‘They’ve gone to nothing!’ – became a family joke … But no, there was a grey sludge left at the bottom of the pan (we never needed to mash our potatoes) which had after all to be spooned resignedly on to our plates.”

I suggested that the Neighbourhood Nurseries might go the way of Ms Sage Snr's potatoes. It was clever-clever, and in any case when I had looked across the front row of the audience after Slide 1, I had discovered that the minister had gone.

This week, Nursery World wonders whether neighbourhood nurseries were "doomed from the start by their very nature", reporting that Wakefield, Bournemouth and other councils are wondering where they will find the money from to keep theirs open. Many others have gone under already. Business plans projected 91% occupancy: it turned out to be nearer 30%. Those plans would have lasted about five minutes in Dragon's Den.

It is easy, obvious, to say that the whole idea was poorly thought-out and never looked likely to work. The money could have been much better-used, too. Lots of nursery schools have closed in the last five years, despite being recognised as the best form of early childhood education (by Ofsted and others). Just a small portion of the neighbourhood nurseries money would have kept them all open.

And how about the cost in terms of effort, and the unhappiness amongst local councillors, nursery practitioners, parents and others when they discovered it was all for nothing? Parents in poor communities have experienced yet another here-today, done-tomorrow scheme that hardly even got going.