Fears early years education in 'dangerous position' as £2.5m funding diverted
PUBLISHED: 16:53 24 January 2020 | UPDATED: 16:53 24 January 2020
Fears pre-school education in Norfolk is facing a "dangerous" funding gap have been raised after £2.5m of early years money was set aside for other education priorities.
Forty childcare workers, nursery and pre-school teachers have highlighted concerns that central government funding intended for pre-school - or early years - costs is being reallocated to plug gaps in the special needs budget.
A letter sent to Norfolk's MPs and county councillors said: "An excessive amount of the early years 2018-19 budget is being retained and used to offset deficits in the schools high needs block."
The council is allowed to keep up to 5pc of the grant, awarded by central government to go to nurseries, childminders and pre-schools, but has held onto an extra 2pc of the 2018-19 budget.
The council said the reallocation - which was approved by the Norfolk Schools' Forum and was compliant with Department for Education (DfE) checks - was used to make up for an overspend in the budget for the children with highest needs, but that early years funding was ring-fenced and the underspend was due to having fewer children in 2018-19 than expected.
The letter to the council, written by Lacey Douglas, administrator of The Heathers Nursery, stated: "This 2pc will not be passed onto early years providers where it is desperately needed.
"Accountability of underspends in the early education funding budget at the county council is not transparent.
"There is an underspend of £6m over the past two years which demonstrates poor budgeting and lack of planning.
"The early education of Norfolk's youngest citizens is in a dangerous position with unsustainable funding levels and decisions made without due process."
The letter also claimed Norfolk had the fourth highest underspend in the country, and childcare providers called for the additional 2pc to go back to early years.
Ms Douglas said when she became aware of the underspend she contacted the Norfolk Schools Forum, but was told the early years representative had resigned from the committee and not yet been replaced.
"Early years in Norfolk is on its knees," she said.
"You are flicked off like a flea if you ask questions of the finance team about this.
"We need the money. The funding is allocated by central government for early years at a rate of £3.65 per child per hour.
"We've got overheads, holiday, sick pay, pensions and we just can't do that on £3.65 per hour."
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She added: "We send out emails to parents saying 'please don't provide snacks, we'd rather have cleaning products'.
"Staff are buying out of their own pockets. It's awful."
Ms Douglas said the biggest worry was the risk of underfunded groups closing down, and said: "These are children who won't get an education. That money is for those children.
"The biggest impact will be on families and parents themselves.
"Norfolk MPs and councillors need to say there's not enough money for Norfolk - it's not fair."
And mother-of-two, Laura Holloway, said the nursery underfunding meant providers were having to constantly beg parents for donations.
"People are being asked to donate to so many charities," she said. "These funds available would mean we could stop asking people for money all the time.
"It's really important."
Ms Holloway, 34, added: "The nursery are amazing, they get food donations from Tesco, and we take in fresh fruit as parents.
"They're in this really difficult position that they may have to start asking for top up fees. But they know some of the parents can't afford that and it would put them off, so they won't do it.
"As a parent, I just assumed it was all funded but that £3.65 doesn't cover other costs - it just about covers electricity and staff."
John Fisher, cabinet member for children's services, said: "We want to ensure nurseries, pre-schools and childminders are receiving as much funding as possible.
"We completely recognise the ongoing funding pressures and are talking to the DfE about this issue and what we can do to support our youngest children.
"However, this issue alone will not solve the ongoing pressures on early years or the schools' budget.
"This needs a solution from central government, and we will continue to make the case for better funding for Norfolk."
Mr Fisher said the council was limited in how it could use schools' budget surpluses, and added: "I would encourage a representative from early years to join the Schools Forum."