Exclusive: Primary heads’ relief after funding U-turn

Previous government position had meant leaders were ‘forced’ to choose between ‘safety’ and ‘financial sustainability’, headteachers say
21st January 2021, 1:33pm
Amy Gibbons


Exclusive: Primary heads’ relief after funding U-turn

Nursery School

The government has made a partial U-turn on its potentially "catastrophic" decision to fund nursery classes based on attendance levels during the third national lockdown, Tes can reveal.

The NAHT school leaders' union said the government had "forced leaders to choose between the safety in their settings and financial sustainability" when it told schools they would only receive funding for nursery classes based on the number of children in attendance, or those removed from school by their parents, on national spring census day, which is today.

This meant that those leaders who restricted pupil numbers because of the Covid crisis were likely to see a dip in their funding.

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But headteachers are now relieved to learn that, while the government will continue to base funding on today's headcount, it intends to provide "top-up" cash for those nurseries that currently have "artificially low numbers".

James Bowen, the NAHT's director of policy, said if the government had not changed its position, or if it does not follow through on its promise, the consequences could be "catastrophic" for schools with nursery classes.

"We are still in a position where, because of the way the government has handled the census, they have forced leaders to choose between the safety in their settings and financial sustainability," he said. 

"And that's a really unacceptable place for the government to put school leaders because they've made it clear that they could only count pupils in the census who are either there on the day or whose parents had opted to take them out.

"So, where a school had followed its risk assessment and reduced numbers in line with its risk assessment, the government was saying, 'you can't count on the census and therefore you won't get funding'. Obviously, that put  those school leaders in an impossible position.

"And because that census guidance has been there since last week and lasted well into this week, a number of nursery leaders have been forced to increase numbers and bring more children back into school."

However, the government changed its position on funding "overnight", Mr Bowen said.

"Throughout this week and last week, we have been trying to get the government to change that position," he said. 

"Because what we've been saying is, we're not asking for any additional funding here - this isn't about having more money - all we've asked them to do is to allow schools and nurseries to include all children, even the ones who are having to stay at home if the school has had to temporarily reduce numbers.

"Now, the frustration is, the government haven't changed their census guidance. So the census guidance today remains as we said before - you can only record if they're in or if parents have opted to take them out.

"What has changed overnight is the government have told us that the census won't be the be-all and end-all this year.

"The government recognise that census numbers in nurseries could be lower than they ordinarily would.

"And so they'll look carefully this year at the census returns - and where those census returns are showing sort of artificially low numbers, there's going to be an option of top-up funding, so that schools will be able to claim the top-up funding. 

"Our expectation...is that they should be able to claim for all children."

Mr Bowen said it was "frustrating" that the government hadn't taken the "obvious and most straightforward option", which, in the NAHT's view, was to claim for all children enrolled in nurseries.

And while "it looks like this is a more positive situation than it otherwise would have been 48 hours ago", the union will "reserve judgement" until it sees the detail of the funding, he said.

"We are concerned; we want to see the detail now, and the whole thing about when they'll get the funding, exactly how that will work - we haven't seen the details of any of that yet," Mr Bowen said.

"And I think it's really important that the government comes through, makes sure that funding gets to schools as soon as it possibly can, there are no delays, that it's not overly bureaucratic to claim it."

Mr Bowen said if the government had not changed its policy, or did not deliver on its promise, the consequences could potentially be "catastrophic" for both school-based and stand-alone nurseries.

"I think, for some, particularly maintained nurseries, where they can't even divert money from elsewhere - they don't have alternatives and some schools won't have that option either - so this is, it could be catastrophic if the government don't fund schools," he said. 

"And it's only asking them to fund for the pupils they've got on roll - that's it, nothing more than that - and, without that, we could see nursery places disappearing. That's the long and short of it."

A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: "Last week we issued further information on how to interpret the Early Years and Schools Census guidance in the context of the pandemic. We have make it clear that children who are temporarily absent from open nurseries can continue to be counted including if they are ill or their parents are worried about Covid.

"We will be closely monitoring attendance in early years settings, as well as the capacity and responses of providers.

"While the census count will be the indicator to determine the funding, there is the capacity to provide top-up funding if necessary, to ensure that providers receive funding for every child that attends.

"More information on how this will work can be found in the guidance we published in December 2020."

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