Good news for nurseries as council pulls money out of reserves at the last minute
A one-off amount of money has been given to each of North Northamptonshire’s four maintained nurseries to help them survive
By Sarah Ward
North Northamptonshire Council pledged more than half a million from reserves to its four maintained nurseries yesterday after a dramatic about turn which looked like it was going the other way.
After hearing from more than 50 passionate speakers from across Kettering, Corby and Wellingborough leader of the unitary council Jason Smithers said their words ‘had not fallen on deaf ears’ and made a last minute intervention, taking his senior officers and executive team out of the packed chamber at Corby Cube before coming back in to announce a reshuffle of the funding.
Pen Green would still lose it’s £523,000 as proposed but this would be offset by a one off £350,000 payment and the other three nurseries - Ronald Tree nursery in Kettering and Wellingborough’s Croyland and Highfield nurseries - would each receive an additional extra £100,000 this coming financial year on top of the tens of thousands more the funding recalculation would afford them.
Family after family lined up to tell the councillors the extraordinary impact the nurseries have had on their lives. Pen Green users spoke of how its services and staff had literally saved their lives, stepping in when their children were sick and when they themselves suffered nervous breakdowns. Stories were told of how teenage mothers had, with the aid of Pen Green, gone on to qualify as teachers and even become head teachers of other school’s within the town.
Many were emotional as they took to the chair to speak for their allotted three minutes making it evident how these nurseries were more than a place to drop off children, but were integral to improving their lives and those of their children.
Mother of seven Leanne Drummond told how the centre had helped her two disabled children and had also offered vital support when she herself had a nervous breakdown.
Anthony Lee also spoke of the help he had received and told the meeting ‘if it hadn’t been for Pen Green you would be dealing with two children without a father’.
For the past decade the amount being given by the government to fund maintained nurseries in Northamptonshire has been greatly reduced, with the nurseries having to make do with less funding. In 2017 cuts meant that a number of sure start centres in the county had to close, including one at Croyland nursery.
The remaining two integrated centres in Northamptonshire Corby’s Pen Green and Camrose in Northampton received a larger share of the maintained nurseries funding pot, a decision which Pen Green has always insisted was with the consent of the DfE and the former county council due to the extra services it provides, a stance which has also been backed up by the area’s school’s forum (the body which makes recommendations on how the money should be split).
But two months ago the council’s newly appointed director of children’s services Anne Marie Dodds made the case to realign the funding pot, a recalculation which would have seen at least half a million pounds taken out of Pen Green’s annual funding and put it at risk of closure. In contrast the remaining three nurseries would all have stood to gain - a situation which all of them were in need of, as two had gone into the red and the third is running out of money each year.
Pitting one nursery against each other
Revealing how much more Pen Green received of the £1.3m overall funding pot, by dividing the cost on purely participation levels led to some division between the maintained nurseries which for the past decade has fought together against cuts. By putting into black and white how Pen Green received more than three quarters of the funding pot while the other three nurseries received a small amount, it became clear more money was needed for the other nurseries.
Lyndsey Barnett, head teacher of the Croyland and Highfield nurseries, said what ‘is now required is fair and equitable budgets’. She said her two nurseries were now in financial deficit and she was unable to maintain the garden and outdoor areas. “Depressing is an understatement as we see our buildings and our gardens fall into disrepair,” she said.
The deputy head of Croyland Jo Newman also told NN Journal that in the absence of site supervisors she was having to clean the loos as well as her teaching role.
Fears coming true
Back in 2018 when it became clear there would be two new unitary councils in Northamptonshire, it was said by senior leaders of Labour’s Corby Borough Council that as the only labour run administration in the county, Corby would lose out when it came to big decisions. Unlike all other councils in the county it voted against the move to unitary.
And today for most of the four hour meeting it seemed that prediction would come reality. Despite a centre which has a name on the national stage, it looked like the Conservative council would decide to take away the core funding from the centre, a decision which would have no doubt lessened the service that Pen Green could offer. (Corby is the only part of North Northamptonshire which does not have a councillor sitting on the unitary’s executive).
As it stands Pen Green is now around £179,000 worse off and will be facing a shortfall of more than half a million pounds again next year.
A bizarre u turn
Before the council leader made the last minute intervention it looked like his executive, including the councillor responsible for children’s services, Cllr Scott Edwards was about to sign off the option which would have seen Pen Green lose £523,000 and undoubtedly have made it a lesser centre.
He had said that it was going to be ‘a very difficult decision to make as we only have one pot of money’ but said if the money wasn’t shared more equally some nurseries may have to close.
Finance portfolio holder Lloyd Bunday also told the packed room that ‘gone are the years of bottomless budgets’ and ‘trying to use reserves only pushes the can down the road’ with colleague Cllr Andy Mercer insisting there were no good solutions and the authority had to choose the ‘least worst option’.
But after Cllr Smither’s dramatic halt to proceedings and a 45 minute private session, the councillors decided they could push the can down the road and they didnt have to choose the least worst option and instead could take £650,000 out of its budget contingency, an option that had been suggested by a number of speakers.
He said the money would be a one off sum to help Pen Green adjust to the funding formula transition and allow greater growth and participation for the other three nurseries.
It was also made clear this was a one off measure.
NN Journal asked Cllr Smithers immediately after the meeting ended what had made him change his mind but he refused to say, instead declaring the council was a fair authority.
So it is unclear whether this is a move he may have been considering as an option before the meeting or whether it was hearing the stories of just how good the nurseries are, that changed his mind. Other political factors may also have been at play. However, whatever swayed it, he didn’t look happy about it after the meeting.
What happens now
Head teacher at Ronald Tree Nursery Debbie Thwaites said the additional money coming to her nursery would be much welcome.
“I’m a bit flabbergasted,” she said afterwards. “I feel this is a huge commitment to maintained nurseries. I don’t know if they (the councillors) understood what we did. But they do now.”
As the sum being taken from reserves is more than £500,000 the amount will have to be approved by the full council, which is due to meet tomorrow. The council’s scrutiny committee will also look at the funding formula for maintained nurseries and there will be a financial audit of all the nurseries.
The executive has also pledged to work with the nurseries to find other ways to fund their services.
NN Journal has been reporting on the maintained nursery funding issue for the past few months. If you value our community reporting please consider supporting us by taking out a monthly subscription. Local journalism has long been under threat and we can only continue with the support of those who read us