Maintained nursery schools are one of the UK’s unique educational assets, and yet remain a largely untold story. Most families know about nursery classes attached to primary schools, nurseries run as private businesses and volunteer-run playgroups. Far fewer know there are maintained (that is, state funded) nursery schools, or what makes them different from other early years provision. This lack of public profile is not because they are a new phenomenon. Pioneers such as Rachel and Margaret McMillan set up nursery schools a century ago seeking to bring better health and educational opportunities to young children and their families. They used ground-breaking approaches such as a focus on play, outdoor activity and the holistic development of the child, many of which are being rediscovered today in ‘new’ developments such as forest schools.
Only around 400 maintained nursery schools still remain across the UK, and these numbers have been gradually eroded over the last ten to fifteen years.
They are publicly funded schools specialising in the 3-5 year old age range. Like nursery classes attached to primary schools, they have a high proportion of graduate staff. Unlike nursery classes in primary schools, they have headteachers who are early years specialists. This means that the focus can be on delivering play-based age-appropriate education to children at a crucial stage of development, which requires a quite different set of approaches to later primary school.
They are inspected under the same Ofsted criteria as primary schools, rather than those used for early years settings in the private and voluntary sector, with longer inspections, and yet they have a far higher proportion of Outstanding judgements than primary schools or the rest of the early years sector – 58% of nursery schools compared to 10% of other setting-based early years providers .
(Taken from Maintained nursery schools: hubs for quality in the early years. Early Education 2015)
1929 The return of Labour government. A joint education and health circular encouraged local authorities to open nursery schools. Nine nursery schools were opened in England.
1933 Haddow Report supported nursery schools as desirable adjunct to the national system of education. The report highlighted the need to provide nursery schools with garden playgrounds near housing schemes.
1936 Nursery School Association (NSA) submitted memorandum to the Board of Education emphasising importance of nursery schools for all children, not just as a source of remedial work in slum areas or for the nurture of debilitated children.
1944 Education Act raises hopes by stating that local authorities should provide nursery schools, or, where more expedient, nursery classes for all children whose parents wanted them.
1952 Spring: NSA branches at Brighton, Nottingham, Nuneaton, Warwickshire, Weston Super Mare, Wigan and Kent all engaged in campaigning against the threatened closure of nursery schools and classes. December: thanks to swift and strenuous action, the threat to maintained nursery schools partially averted.
1960 The part-time nursery school was instituted providing support for many more children.
1967 The Plowden Report ‘Children and their Primary Schools’ urged the setting up of more nursery schools and classes especially in areas of social deprivation. 24 authorities were invited to submit proposals for the provision, expansion or improvement of nursery schools or classes, day nurseries and children’s residential homes. As a result 16000 more nursery school places were made available.
1988 Government inquiry into educational provision for under-fives recommended that all children should be entitled to nursery education.
1990 The Rumbold Report, ’Starting with Quality’ looking at the quality of education experience of 3 and 4 year olds, published.
2006 Early Education prints ‘Position paper 1’ focussing on the importance of qualified early years teachers in nursery schools and children’s centres and the key role they play in improving outcomes for all children.
2016 All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) set up to look at the value and future sustainability of maintained nursery schools.
2017 Early years’ national funding formula starts. Maintained nursery schools see significant funding cuts and begin to close. As a result of the APPG, the government give maintained nursery schools transitional funding until March 2020 in recognition of them being schools with additional costs.
2019 Government guarantees that transitional funding will continue until July 2020.