Children and families minister Nadhim Zahawi has said it would be “foolishly stupid” to deny that local authority-maintained nurseries are under financial pressure.
He made his comments with a rising number of nursery schools warning that they are in financial straits and at risk of closure.
Mr Zahawi urged town halls to hold fire on decisions about nurseries until the government’s forthcoming comprehensive spending review, due next year, as he vowed to lobby the Treasury for ongoing funding.
Nursery schools were given an extra £60 million by the government last year to support them through changes to the way early years education is funded. But this funding is due to end in 2020.
Giving evidence on early years provision to the Commons Education Select Committee yesterday, Mr Zahawi was pressed by the Conservative chair, Robert Halfon, on whether this funding should be extended beyond 2020, particularly in disadvantaged areas.
The minister said he had seen “first-hand” the quality of provision in maintained nurseries and the “incredible work they do.” He said he was working with the sector “to put our best evidence forward to fight for maintained nurseries” in the next spending review.
“My message to local authorities is do not make any premature decisions on maintained nurseries," urged Mr Zahawi. "We are working with the sector."
He added: “I do accept that they absolutely have additional costs; it’s clear. It would be foolishly stupid of anyone to think otherwise. That’s why I’m working with the sector to try and make sure that we’ve got all the evidence…When you go before the Treasury, you want to make sure that you can answer all the questions to land the funding."
The government's spending review entails a full review of funding across departments.
Mr Zahawi was giving evidence at the latest stage of the committee’s "life chances" inquiry, which is probing the impact of early years education and social policy on determining children’s life chances.
The minister was grilled by several MPs on whether early years schemes such as free childcare were doing enough for disadvantaged families and whether the early years education being provided was of the right quality.
Mr Zahawi said the number of graduates entering early years provision had remained “stubbornly flat” despite a succession of governments pouring in a total of around £600 million in a bid to get more to work and stay working in deprived areas since 2006.
Don't get 'hung up' on degrees
On graduate-level entry, Mr Zahawi said: “The evidence suggests that both the quality of training and professional development is the area that makes the greatest difference, rather than being hung up on whether someone has or hasn’t got a degree.
“My focus is to spend money as part of our social mobility action plan – about £20 million [is] earmarked – for professional development in the early years setting and I think that’s the best way of doing it.”
Mr Zahawi told James Frith, a Labour MP on the committee, that he was keeping in mind a review of pay incentives to attract more people.
Asked if this could include a “skew” towards a “Teach First for early years” after the Spending Review, Mr Zahawi said: “It’s an area that we are looking at. I can’t make any commitments obviously on [the Spending Review] because, as you and I both know, money is tight.
"But nevertheless I think this putting into bursaries at the moment is a good one and we will continue to do that."
He added: “I come to this with an open mind. I want the best possible outcomes for the most disadvantaged children in our community.”
The education charity Teach First already takes on early years trainees and has done so since 2013. Under the scheme, recruits spend two years training to become early years teachers and complete a leadership development programme while working towards a PGCE.
Russell Hobby, chief executive of Teach First said the charity was "immensely proud" of its work in early years settings across England to date.
"This is such an important phase," he said, "and many of our participants have navigated the genuine complexities of everything that goes into being a great Early Years teacher. This includes not only having a keen sense of how best to teach early years pupils but also the understanding of childhood development, health, wellbeing and social care.
"We welcome the minister’s drive to champion early years settings, and look forward to working with government in the future, to look at where the need is greatest, and what more Teach First can to do support every child, at every age, in order to give them the fantastic education they deserve.”