Struggling Sunderland nursery could close over rising deficit and falling pupil numbers

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A struggling city nursery could close its doors for good due to financial problems and falling pupil numbers.

Sunderland City Council’s cabinet are set to launch the legal process needed to close Millfield Community Nursery School.

The 129-place nursery, based in Bell Street, is maintained by the council and was rated ‘Good’ in its last Ofsted inspection.

According to cabinet papers, the nursery has become “financially vulnerable” due a budget deficit which has grown every year since 2015.

If no action is taken, this is predicted to jump to nearly £420,000 in 2023/24.

Attempts to balance the books – including restructuring staff three times and a pupil recruitment drive – were not enough to tackle the issue, council officers say.

And wider factors, including reductions in government funding for nurseries in Sunderland, will  see the Millfield hub face budget cuts this year.

In a fight to tackle the deficit, the nursery’s governing body, working with Together for Children and Sunderland City Council, proposed extra staffing restructures .

This included reducing the headteacher’s salary through partnership with other nurseries and “regrading” support staff.

However, these alternatives are not expected to claw back enough funds to tackle the issue.

Another option to merge with another nursery would also  “negate any potential savings” and “destabilize” the other nursery provision.

And the rising deficit, they argue, would impact on the “nursery’s ability to offer a good provision in a safe and secure environment.”

A Sunderland City Council spokesman said: “It is with regret that following discussions with the governing body of Millfield Community Nursery School, the cabinet is looking to these proposals.

“The nursery has had long standing difficulties due to a falling demand for places.

“This together with increased costs and changes to the early years funding formula, has left the nursery school increasingly financially vulnerable.

 “There’s an increasing preference within the community for nursery places within a school setting as opposed to attendance at a maintained nursery school.

 “In the Millfield Ward in Spring 2017, 65 children were attending Millfield Community Nursery School in comparison to 105 attending a nursery within one of the two local primary schools.

 “In Spring 2019 the number of children attending Millfield Nursery had fallen to 55 with 129 attending a nursery within a primary school.

 “Millfield’s governing body has worked very hard with the city council to address these issues by encouraging more parents to send their children there and by re-structuring the nursery’s staffing to reduce costs.

 “However, these efforts have not had sufficient impact to make the nursery financially viable.

“Further staffing re-structure isn’t possible and the nursery’s financial deficit is predicted to carry on increasing.

“In the medium to long term this is likely to impact on the governing body’s ability to deliver a broad, balanced and consistent quality of provision.

 “Therefore, given the nursery’s increasing financial vulnerability and the availability of alternative nurseries reducing the chances of an increase in numbers, the cabinet is looking to these consultation proposals about closing the Nursery School with effect from August 31 2019.”

Millfield Community Nursery School will be discussed by cabinet on Thursday, May 16 at Sunderland Civic Centre.

If plans are approved, a council consultation will be launched between Wednesday, June 5 and Wednesday, July 3.

Any person can send objections or comments to the council during this four-week period.

And following feedback, council bosses are expected to make a final decision by Tuesday, September 3 this year.

The council add the “decision has not been taken lightly and have said there are enough nursery spaces in the area to meet demand.

In the event of a closure, they add, the nursery and Family Information Service will work together with parents, children and staff to identify alternative places and provide a “smooth transition for all children”.

Chris Binding , Local Democracy Reporting Service