The Covid crisis has pushed maintained nursery schools "to the very brink", a headteachers' leader warned today, with a new survey showing that more than a third are cutting staff and services.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT school leaders' union, has urged the government to come up with a long-term funding guarantee for schools in the sector.
He said: “Many maintained nursery schools were in a perilous financial position even before the pandemic, but the last year has only deepened that crisis and they have now been pushed to the very brink.
"If we are to avoid widespread nursery closures, the government must urgently come forward with a long-term solution – this cannot be kicked down the road any longer.”
His warning comes as the results of a survey carried out by the NAHT, together with the NEU teaching union, Early Education and Unison, paint a bleak picture of the financial state of the maintained nursery sector.
EYFS: Nursery schools 'need more funding'
According to the survey, cuts to staff and services as a result of lost income and additional Covid costs have been reported by more than a third (34 per cent) of nursery schools.
Maintained nurseries were not eligible for exceptional cost funding for Covid from the government and have had to cover those costs themselves.
Leaders in maintained nursery schools reported losing an average of over £70,000 of income, as well as an extra £8,000 spending for Covid-related costs.
This is coupled with a lack of certainty over the funding they will receive for the next school year.
Almost half of respondents (46 per cent) said that at the end of March 2021 they were in deficit for the year. The average deficit reported was £76,000.
Only less than a quarter (23 per cent) confirmed they could continue to operate within their current funding levels.
These findings, the unions warn, suggest that ongoing uncertainty, together with the financial pressures of Covid, put the long-term sustainability of the sector "at severe risk".
Commenting on the survey findings, Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU, said: "If the government was sincere in its assertion that maintained nursery schools provide a valuable service, then it would not leave them in such dire straits.
"A lack of long-term funding solutions and minimal support to help them through the pandemic has left too many maintained nursery schools teetering on the edge of closure.
"It is essential that these settings are not lost and it is deeply damaging to these schools that, year after year, they have to live hand to mouth. The government must act now to guarantee viable long-term funding from September 2021."
Beatrice Merrick, the chief executive of Early Education, said: “Maintained nursery schools during the pandemic were a lifeline for local families: they stayed open for the most vulnerable children and children of critical workers, often taking in children from other settings which closed.
"Instead of this lifeline being supported, it is being put at risk by government failure to address their routine funding needs.
"Having been operating on a financial knife-edge for years, the pandemic has tipped the balance for too many schools. Government needs to act now to resolve the long-term funding issue and provide targeted financial help to those whose survival has been jeopardised by the pandemic.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: "We are providing local authorities with around £60 million in supplementary funding this year for their maintained nursery schools, and have confirmed the rates they will receive up to March 2022 to give them clarity around their budgets as early as possible.
“This supplementary funding was introduced as a temporary solution while a longer-term solution to funding maintained nursery schools is considered. Ministers have been clear that our commitment to doing this remains unchanged, and any change will follow a public consultation.”