Whither nursery education?

February 15, 2007

My regular reader will know that Bish does a bit of work for a local pre-school which the MiniBishes attended in their formative years. It is a lovely place, run on Montessori principles, and provides a wonderful environment where children can learn through guided exploration. The company is a not-for-profit (registered charity) organisation full of dedicated staff, paid very poor wages, who start many local youngsters off on the path of learning.

Now our pre-school, along with many others, is facing an uncertain future due to new legislation that our government is introducing regarding the funding mechanism for nursery places. (We don’t call ourselves a nursery, but that’s the category we fall into.) Years back, the government implemented a Nursery Education Grant (NEG) which offered a fixed amount to parents to pay for up to five two-and-a-half hour sessions per week for 38 weeks of the year. Naturally this was not enough to cover the full cost of provision, so parents were allowed to top-up the difference in session fees and pay for additional weeks or sessions over the allowed “quota”.

In April, the government are threatening to remove that right, and will insist that the NEG meets the full cost of the sessions. There is no proposal to increase the value of the NEG, nor any suggestion of how providers can make up the shortfall in cash. For example, The New Montessori Pre-School with which Bish is proud to be associated, charges £12.50 for a three-hour session, while the NEG is £8.30 for 2.5 hours. Pro rata then, for a 2.5 hour session, we charge £10.40 so the NEG leaves us £2.10 per child per session short.

And bear in mind that we are a non-profit organisation. When we set our fees we look first at our projected expenditure and then work out what we must charge to meet it. Around 80% of our costs are wages, and we start unqualified staff at the minimum wage, giving them small premiums as and when they achieve a qualification such as NVQ or Montessori Diploma. None of the directors are paid, they are all voluntary. A further 10% of the costs are rent, so no wiggle room there either. Only 10% goes on equipment, food and drinks, and administration.
So what do we do? Without top-up fees we would have to shorten our sessions and at the same time slash our costs by 20%. How? It seems plain to me that we can only do it by having fewer staff, and fewer staff means less attention for the children, and less attention means less learning. The government’s policy will turn us from a pre-school into a nursery, a child-care club, a creche.

The alternative seems to be either to try to finesse the system  somehow, or to withdraw from the NEG scheme altogether and go private. But we believe that Montessori education should be available to children from poorer backgrounds (indeed Maria Montessori began her methods with just such children!) so must we really start catering just to an elite who can afford to pay the full fee themselves? This policy does seem very misguided, and yet its aim is so laudable.

There’s more about this issue on the national Save Our Nurseries web site. Do visit and join the campaign if you feel as strongly as we do about the right of all parents to choose the best pre-school education for their children, not just the cheapest child care.

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