Berkhamsted pre-schools fear closure risk

Outstanding: that was what Ofsted called Berkhamsted Baptist Church Pre-school in 2011, but it may have to close.
Outstanding: that was what Ofsted called Berkhamsted Baptist Church Pre-school in 2011, but it may have to close.

PRE-SCHOOLS are at risk of closure if plans to switch school intake from twice a year to just once are given the go ahead, children’s workers have warned.

Nurseries accept children who turn four within half a year of joining a nursery at the moment.

But under the new rules, this could change to youngsters who have their fourth birthday within the year, so the change will force them to take on an increased number of younger children.

The proposals by Herts County Council would take more three-year-olds out of pre-schools because they would go straight to nursery, making it more expensive to fund places for two-year-olds who need more supervision.

The law requires one adult to be employed to care for every four two-year-olds – but it is just one adult for every eight three-year-olds.

Fiona Richardson, owner of Happy Days pre-school in Berkhamsted, said: “We will lose all of our three-year-olds and have to shut if this plan goes ahead. It would not be financially viable for us to stay open.

“All the pre-schools in town would shut if they could not get the three-year-olds.”

Nursery place shortages means there are currently 14 three-to four-year-olds in Berkhamsted who do not have nursery school places for the 2013 academic year.

Stephanie Harden, 38, of Egerton Road, Berkhamsted, is mother to one of them – Jake, who has just turned three.

Rainbow Corner Pre-School, which he attends at the moment, offered to keep him on until he begins reception class in September 2013.

The Berkhamsted pre-school, which focuses on children aged up to three-and-a-half, at the moment cares for six older children whose parents were unable to secure nursery places for them.

But Mrs Harden said: “Jake would potentially have nowhere to go if these changes go ahead.

“Everyone was worried about the lack of nursery places – and now it looks like the pre-schools could have to close, too.”

A consultation on whether Berkhamsted should switch from three to two-tier education or build a new first school recently tried to solve the shortage problem, but no conclusion has yet been reached.

In a letter to parents, Sasha Blake, administrator for Rainbow Corner Pre School, says if the plans go ahead, it will have to substantially increase fees or face closure.

She writes: “Rainbow Corner has been running for over 30 years and has become part of the local community. We have also spoken to other pre-school managers in areas where this change has already been made. They are all facing the possibility of closure, as they are all struggling financially.

“It is really important that as many parents as possible respond to the consultation and we would really appreciate it if you would read the consultation paper and say no to this change. Please, please help us to keep our pre-school open.”

The county council says in its consultation statement that switching to a once-per-year intake could offer more choice for parents, before asking people if they support the plans.

Mrs Richardson said: “Instead of saying: ‘You will lose your pre-school if you vote no’ they are saying: ‘If you want to have choice, vote yes.’ It does sound like it is a bit of a done deal.”

High Street-based Berkhamsted Baptist Church Pre-School has written to the 193 families on its waiting list for the next two years asking that they vote no to the changes. The pre-school, ranked outstanding by Ofsted last year, has asked the parents of the 30 children who currently go there to vote no as well.

Caroline Manson, its treasurer, said each play leader costs up to £5,000 per year and the changes would force them to massively increase fees to recruit more of them – or face closure.

Jo Brown, spokesman for Herts County Council, said: “The consultation on changes to the intake policy is to allow parents and nursery workers as well as the public an opportunity to express their views on the proposals and help shape the policy.

“The proposals allow schools greater flexibility in the way they manage their pupil intake and we are encouraging providers to work together to find the best policy to suit local communities.

“We do not anticipate any providers will close as a result of a change in our policy.”