Sunderland council-run nursery school to close despite hundreds of objections
Proposals to close a Sunderland nursery school facing mounting financial difficulties have officially been approved – despite hundreds of local objections.
Last year, Sunderland City Council revealed its intention to explore proposals to ‘discontinue’ Hetton-le-Hole Nursery School due to its rising financial deficit over the past five years and low pupil numbers.
The nursery school has been at the heart of the community providing education, care and other services for children since 1945.
Council chiefs have previously said that the nursery school’s financial woes were linked to the way cash is allocated under Government funding formulas, parental choice around nursery places and the extra costs required for nursery schools maintained by councils, including a head teacher.
According to a report prepared for decision makers this week, the nursery school’s deficit exceeded £200,000 at the close of the financial year 2020/21 and is expected to increase even further if action isn’t taken.
In recent months, a campaign to save the nursery school was launched with Hetton Town Council, parents and staff raising awareness of the site’s heritage and ‘outstanding’ Ofsted-rated childcare provision.
Across both pre-publication and statutory public consultations on the closure, hundreds of objections were lodged with Sunderland City Council.
The final statutory proposal to close the nursery school was discussed at Thursday’s (May 20) School Organisation Committee of Cabinet (SOCC), which was held in the council chamber at the civic centre.
Councillors heard that the nursery school’s leadership had previously implemented a staffing restructure to improve the financial position, but this had not resolved the problem.
At the council meeting, representatives for parents and staff spoke passionately about the importance of the nursery school, the pupils and staff expertise, with one objector suggesting city leaders ‘didn’t care’ about those affected by the proposed closure.
Councillor Richard Elvin, representing Hetton Town Council, spoke in opposition, raising concerns about council communication, the consultation process and the impact on staff and children’s health and emotional wellbeing.
Council bosses admitted that the emotive stories from objectors had struck a chord and that there were no issues with the staff or quality of provision at the nursery school itself.
However, the meeting heard that attempts to find alternatives to closure had not been accepted by the nursery school’s governing body.
A proposed staffing restructure aiming to bring the budget back into surplus was not progressed by the nursery school at the time of the meeting.
Meanwhile, a proposal for Hetton-le-Hole Nursery School to join the established federation of Houghton Community and Mill Hill Nursery Schools was also identified as an option.
But the proposal, which would have seen the three sites managed by one head teacher, was rejected by the governing body of Hetton-le-Hole Nursery School.
Headteacher of Hetton-le-Hole Nursery School, Ruth Williamson, said it had been acknowledged in meetings that the financial vulnerability of the site was due to the methodology behind the national funding formula and the “unavoidable costs” associated with a maintained nursery school.
She added that the proposed federation option was “deemed unviable by [nursery school] governors as they could not confidently assure the quality of education expected by parents with a structure which shared one head teacher across three nursery schools.”
Options such as pushing back the proposed closure date by a year, relocating the nursery school to an alternative site or adopting parent/carer proposals to increase fees and support the nursery school via crowdfunding, were not considered financially sustainable by council officers.
Councillor Claire Rowntree, speaking on behalf of city councillors for Hetton, said the loss of the nursery school would have a “tremendous impact on our community.”
The Hetton councillor called for the SOCC to allow the nursery school governors “the opportunity to reconsider the alternatives to closure with the expectancy that an alternative would be accepted and the nursery will be able to remain open.”
Following more than two hours of representations and debate, the proposals to close the nursery school were approved by the SOCC.
Councillor Graeme Miller, leader of Sunderland City Council, said he was “disappointed” with the stance of the nursery school’s governing body towards alternatives put forward by council officers.
Meanwhile, councillor Linda Williams said she was “sad” the process had got to the point of closure, despite “so many hands being extended.”
Cllr Williams, who serves as cabinet member for Vibrant City, added: “We’re at the point here of a governing body who want to continue to run their facility in the same way but can’t afford to do that.
“It’s really sad, the offers have been there and I honestly think federation would have been the best way forward.”
Councillor Kelly Chequer, cabinet member for Healthy City, also disagreed with the suggestion that the council “didn’t care” about those affected.
As a parent with a child in nursery education, she said she could empathise with “every single parent” represented in the council report.
Cllr Chequer went on to say: “I’m also a school governor, I’m also a corporate parent and public servant and I care about every person I represent, especially children. Every single child matters.
“But I also have a responsibility to the public purse.”
Following the decision from the SOCC, provision at Hetton-le-Hole Nursery School and its separately registered childcare provision is expected to be discontinued from August 31, 2021.
Council officers have stated there are enough early years places in the area to accommodate pupils affected by the closure, alongside additional nursery provision which will be offered at Hetton Primary School this year.