Campaigners warn that spending cuts to protect schools could lead to widespread closures. Nadene Ghouri and Dorothy Lepkowska report
State-run nursery schools are facing widespread national closures as they fall victim to local authority belt-tightening, according to the National Campaign for Nursery Education.
The campaign says nurseries are under threat or have already been shut in at least six counties as a result of cost-cutting measures.
Liz Murphy, the campaign's chair, said: "It's appalling that such excellent provision is under threat of closure at a time when the Government claims to be valuing nursery education and is talking so much about raising standards in early years."
Ms Murphy said she recently received a letter from Estelle Morris, the education junior minister, which said that she was "unaware of any areas that are currently considering the prospective closure or amalgamation of nursery schools and early-years provision".
Ms Murphy said: "If that's so, then Ms Morris is due for a shock."
Last night, education chiefs in Buckinghamshire were expected to decide to close the county's four nursery schools, saving about Pounds 500,000 a year. This money will form part of an extra Pounds 3 million cash boost for schools.
Roger Russell, the council spokesman, said: "The education committee has to take some very difficult budget decisions. In order to protect our schools next year by giving them an extra 2.5 per cent - the schools wanted 5 per cent - non-mainstream areas such as youth, and community, museums and nurseries will suffer a higher level of cuts. Whether that means the four nurseries will close nobody yet knows."
Mr Russell said the committee would consider proposals to absorb the nurseries into schools.
The four nursery schools - the Coppice and Bowerdean in High Wycombe, Henry Allen in Amersham and Beech Green in Aylesbury - educate about 450 three and four-year-olds between them.
Henry Allen, the largest nursery, has 115 children - 20 per cent of whom have special needs or behavioural difficulties.
Helen Read, a teacher at the nursery, said: "I'm furious. I don't understand what the local authority means when it says we can be absorbed into school nurseries. What school nurseries?
"At the moment we have children going from here into a partitioned school dining hall. There's a reception class on one side and a so-called pre-reception class on the other. You can't just put 30 children in a room and call it a nursery.
"Where's the special needs provision, early-years expertise, dedicated space and equipment which we have? We've all had good reports from the Office for Standards in Education and been told we give value for money. It's such short-sighted, false economy letting us go."
Carol Hubbard, deputy headteacher of Bowerdean, said the nurseries often formed the focal point for poor and deprived communities.
She said: "We give the mums an opportunity to meet and have a chat and add some colour to their difficult lives. We have a boy here who has rickets and, at the age of three, he still wears nappies and feeds from a bottle. He and his family need support. I cannot imagine that a reception class in a school would be the right environment for him.
"What we do is to give the children a good start and prepare them for school. In most cases they need to have their confidence boosted."
Carol Morgan, headteacher of the Coppice school, said: "These nurseries are about more than just educating children. We also play a vital counselling role, teaching the parents how to be with the children.
"There is virtually no replacement provision in this area if the nursery closes."