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Labour’s nursery idea is a good start – but faces challenges

Labour’s proposal to house new nursery classes in under-utilised school spaces poses some challenges but warrants cautious optimism.

Labour is acknowledging two things that we know all too well:

First, some communities have become childcare deserts where there are three or more children for every available place. Even more troubling, there is a stark correlation between levels of deprivation and access to early years education.

Secondly, it is precisely the children that need it most that have been missing out on a high-quality early education experience.

Nursery must be about more than just offering childcare and enabling parents to work. Sutton Trust research has shown that accessing at least 20 hours of high-quality early years education would help to close attainment and development gaps between children from low- and higher-income households.  NEF analysis last year also showed that there would be significant economic returns from increasing access to early years education for children from low-income households. 

Currently, schools are picking up the pieces of failures in early years support. We developed the Ark Start model in partnership with our primary school network precisely because we were grappling with these twin challenges: a shortage of flexible, affordable childcare and a growing achievement gap among children joining our Reception classes.

This effect is particularly acute among children eligible for the pupil premium who make up nearly half (42 per cent) of students across our schools. We launched in 2020 in the middle of the pandemic and we now run two settings from Ark schools in south London, with plans to open two more this autumn and more to follow.

The vision behind Labour’s policy is evidence-informed. However, as with so much, the devil truly will be in the detail.

Ark Start is a ‘MAT-governed but independently managed’ nursery group classed as private, voluntary and independent (PVI). We are legally independent and separately registered with Ofsted but work in close partnership with our host schools.

Where will the extra staff come from to run these nursery classes?

Developing our work in partnership with schools has been vital but we have emphatically not taken over the running of our schools’ nursery classes. On the contrary, this collaborative approach has led many of our schools to broaden and extend their own work in early years.

We support the Ark Schools early years network with specialist training and knowledge. At the same time, Ark Start is able to keep its operating costs down by making use of the Ark Schools infrastructure and back-office support such as HR and finance. 

Our first three nurseries are on our school sites, but we will be opening our first non-Ark nursery in a voluntary-aided primary school later this year.

Using the space in schools and integrating nursery provision is sensible. All children in nurseries will eventually end up in schools and building our nurseries on school sites makes for strong transitions and deep relationships with families.

But challenges remain: Where will the extra staff come from to run these nursery classes? And how can we avoid placing additional burden on already over-stretched schools?

Nevertheless, we have to be willing to consider new models and ideas if we are going to offer every child the quality early years experience they deserve.  

Critically, new provision needs to put high-quality education at its heart if it is to deliver on the ambitions that Labour has set out.

There has been a significant funding commitment both from the current government in terms of extending entitlement to funded hours, and from Labour in terms of honouring that decision.  Whoever wins this election, we need to make sure it delivers excellent provision that gives every child the start they need to their education.

The sector has long known that educational gaps appear before children start in our classrooms. The opportunity will now present itself to do something about it and we must embrace it.

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