Greens have criticised a last-minute change of government guidance to its early years funding rules, which will likely see nurseries and childminders that have closed or limited their current capacity due to coronavirus lose out on vital funding.
A census will be taking place this week, for which nurseries and childminders will be asked to count the number of children in attendance during the week. This will determine the amount of free-places funding that will be provided.
It was originally advised that early years providers would be able to claim for pupils registered at a nursery or on roll under exceptional circumstances, even if they were currently unable to attend due to the ongoing pandemic.
However, new guidance issued by the UK Government on 14 January has confirmed that nurseries that have limited expected attendance this week will not be able to claim funding for those currently not present. Early years providers that have been forced to temporarily close due to the pandemic are likely to be most affected.
Those critical of the decision have questioned why the Government is pursuing a data counting measure, despite the ongoing impact of the national pandemic, and have vocalised concerns that early years providers that have sought to prioritise the health of its staff and children are to be penalised financially.
Cllr Hannah Clare, Chair of the Children, Young People and Skills Committee on Brighton and Hove City Council, said: “In the middle of a pandemic, where the number of cases are higher than ever – the choice from Government is that unless we reopen our council-run nurseries, we will lose out.
“Asking councils to count the attendance and demand that we progress with this census during a national lockdown and some of the worst rates of this virus we have ever seen locally is grossly unfair. Providers are being forced by the Government to make decisions based on finances – not on the health and wellbeing of our community.
“We will continue to challenge this decision and remain clear – that the health of our community is the priority of this council.”
When England entered its third national lockdown on 5 January, the Government announced that nurseries and childminders would remain open in England, while providers in Scotland and Wales were advised to close by the devolved administrations.
Since this announcement, some local councils have been forced to implement tighter restrictions on their early years providers. Brighton and Hove Council announced all nurseries were to be closed to help reduce the spread of coronavirus on 6 January, as the infection rate in Brighton rose to higher than the average rate for England.
There are now concerns that the Government’s decision to change its guidance on early years funding could cost nurseries in Brighton and Hove millions of pounds.
This news arrived in the same week councillors were told that the amount of funding given to early years providers in Brighton and Hove remains lower than the national average.
Caroline Lucas, MP for Brighton Pavilion, commented: “It beggars belief that, in the middle of a pandemic crisis, the Government would deliberately change its guidance in such a way as to increase the risk of infection for children and staff.
“Ministers are wilfully putting Councils in an impossible situation: if nursery providers remain closed, collectively they stand to lose millions of pounds; if they’re forced to open, they put staff and children at risk.
“To hold nursery providers and young children to ransom in this way is despicable and - following the free school meals debacle - marks a new low in the Government’s cruel and callous treatment of our young people.”
Councils in areas where nurseries are still open to all have also begun to demand a change in position from government ministers, as it is likely that new rules mean both private and council-run nursery providers will have limited attendance of both staff and children and will therefore experience a funding shortfall.
The Green Party has confirmed that it will be writing to the Department for Education to challenge the decision.