Can childcare fill primary schools’ empty classrooms?

On-site childcare delivers many benefits for schools, but 'practical issues' face leaders considering renting out vacated spaces

On-site childcare delivers many benefits for schools, but 'practical issues' face leaders considering renting out vacated spaces

14 Oct 2022, 12:00

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Running on-site childcare in classrooms that may be empty as rolls fall allows primary schools to prepare pupils for reception, intervene early, and provide a “one stop shop” for families.

But “practical issues” face leaders considering renting out since-vacated spaces, who may leave themselves short should populations spike again.

Children’s commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza called this week for “underused space” in primaries to be used for early years education and childcare.

The latest government projections predict the primary school population will fall by 16.6 per cent over the next five years. Some councils are already reducing school capacity and repurposing empty classrooms.

Early years provision on school sites is nothing new, and it is becoming more popular. Government figures show there were 9,500 school-based early years providers in England last year, up from 8,600 in 2018.

Schools can run their own provision funded through government childcare schemes and private fees, or rent out space to outside providers.

Leaders told Schools Week they favoured the former.

Schools like earlier interventions

The nursery and after-school club at Hartford Manor Primary in Cheshire was run in partnership with external providers, but is now in-house.

Head Simon Kidwell said the school wanted to provide “continuity of care”. The nursery now delivers early reading programmes that tie into what’s taught in reception, for example.

The provision also moved into the main school building, easing transition for the 70 per cent of reception entrants who attend the nursery.

Paul Gosling

Wraparound childcare is also available from 7.30am to 6pm to benefit parents commuting into Manchester.

Running the provision has been “certainly more beneficial than just having it as a lease”, and the school hopes to soon provide holiday care.

Exeter Road Community Primary School, in Exmouth, took over control of its pre-school provision from a charity. Head Dr Paul Gosling said this was to put “some of the developmental stuff in earlier”.

“It’s a good thing to do. I would encourage schools to do it. But not all school spaces are appropriate. It will need capital investment.”

Capital funding for schools is increasingly harder to obtain: the amount available fell by 29 per cent in real terms between 2009 and 2021.

On-site childcare not a money-maker

Most of Exeter Road’s nursery places are funded through the government’s 15 or 30-hour free childcare offer. But low funding rates mean the “economies of it don’t quite work” in poorer areas, said Gosling.

Pay in the childcare sector is also too low, leading to recruitment and retention challenges.

exams childcare

“I’m not sure if having extra space helps with that, because it’s people that the money gets mostly spent on. It needs to be invested. [But] the best investment you can get is in the early years.”

Another school leader said their school started running its own provision after the closure of a Sure Start centre left a “real gap” for younger children.

But, there is “no financial benefit. Essentially the money you bring in is spent. And if we’re below a certain number [of children], you lose money.”

Leasing out space to a private provider would provide an income, but “the reason why we do it are the gains around the improved support for families, the education provision”.

“For us, we’re a bit of a one-stop shop. That familiarity of school space, routines, but also for parents picking children up they’re coming to one space. There’s a whole host of potential advantages. But financial is not one.”

De Souza said more school provision would provide consistency in standards and mean workforce training and development could be aligned to wider school staff.

‘Evicting toddlers’ not a good look

But school business leader Hilary Goldsmith said classrooms are “specifically designed for the age and physical size of the children in them”.

She also warned “annexing” of classroom space would potentially have an impact on schools’ ability to deal with rising numbers in future because “you can’t just kick the nursery out”.

School business expert Matthew Clements-Wheeler added that if birth rates rise in a locality or a new housing development increases demand, then “evicting toddlers” may lead to “adverse publicity”.

Other issues include the need for dedicated toilets, working patterns of staff, arrangements for utility costs and for pick-off and drop-off. But if these can be addressed, then it’s a “good use of publicly-funded buildings”, Clements-Wheeler added.

But Goldsmith said it was much simpler to just “build dedicated nursery facilities”.

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