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Nursery owner in fight over staffing

Nadene Ghouri and Mark Houldey report on a court case that could have national implications

A Norfolk businessman has gone to court in a bizarre twist to the battle between schools and private nurseries for the nation's three and four-year-olds.

The test case could have implications for all fee-paying private nurseries which are losing children to free school nurseries and reception classes.

Bill Dickinson, the owner of Rainbow Daycare and Nursery School in Worstead, is appealing against a refusal by Norfolk County Council to allow him to increase his adult:child ratio from one to eight to one to 13 - the higher level at which school nurseries can run. In some reception classes the ratio is worse than one to 30.

Mr Dickinson claims schools have an "unfair commercial advantage" and that he will be forced to close his nursery unless his "economically unviable" ratio is changed. He told the Family Proceedings court in Norwich that his nursery, which has 45 pupils, had made a loss of pound;20,000 over the past six months. He said: "I am not a greedy man trying to wring the last drop of blood out of parents."

He says he would be happy to have 26 three to five-year-olds, producing an income of pound;28,00 over the 33-week school year. After paying two nursery nurses pound;10,000 each, that would leave a profit of only pound;8,600.

Mr Dickinson, who also runs a business designing factory automation systems, said: "I am a committed to running my nursery as a modern business. My choice seems to be either shut down or adopt the sweat-shop mentality of low wages and bad conditions which permeates this industry.

"This is a rural community and when schools call, people jump. Four-year-olds go into reception classes and three-year-olds take their places in education authority nurseries. This leaves us with under-threes. The problem is under-threes don't make us any money. They are a break-even community service."

Mr Dickinson's stance has baffled other nursery providers who see the good adult:child ratios as their major selling point over schools.

A day care officer employed by the council, Pauline Todd, told the court she had carried out an inspection at Rainbow Nursery. She felt meal times were not well managed and that correct staff ratios had not been maintained during playtimes. She also said that staff had not responded well to a child when he said he didn't feel well.

Steven Briggs, head of the council's registration and inspection service, told the court: "There may be aspects of the style Mr Dickinson has presented which may put people off. I am not sure people want to join a cause at a day-care facility."

He said there was no evidence to suggest that other nursery schools were "following in Mr Dickinson's wake" in seeking to alter their ratios.

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