Two Croydon nurseries face partnership ultimatum to secure future amid financial concerns

A child in Crosfield Nursery
-Credit: (Image: Crosfield Nursery)

Five maintained nursery schools in Croydon have been given a reprieve from closure, with the council deciding against its initial plans to shut them down. However, two of these nurseries now face the challenge of finding a school or academy partner by January 2025 to tackle the council's financial worries.

Following an extensive review that lasted nearly a year, which assessed the financial sustainability of Croydon's five maintained nursery schools (MNS), it was discovered that two were suffering from long-term budget deficits. Crosfield and Selhurst nurseries, the two MNS in deficit, are now required to form a 'soft federation' partnership with a neighbouring school or academy to stay afloat financially while continuing to provide their educational services.

The nurseries - Purley Nursery, Selhurst Nursery, Tunstall Nursery, Crosfield Nursery, and Thornton Heath Nursery - are all council-run and funded, offering complimentary education for children between the ages of three and five. Each of these nurseries boasts an Ofsted rating of "good" or higher.

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While the day-to-day experience for children and parents is expected to remain unchanged, some governors are feeling the pressure to secure their nursery's future before the January deadline. Crosfield and Selhurst nurseries, in particular, have expressed their discontent with the new directive, indicating a preference to steer their own course.

The topic of imposing a 'soft federation' on Crosfield Nursery was hotly debated at a scrutiny meeting Monday, July 8, with the issue set to go before Croydon Council's cabinet for a decision on July 15. Rowenna Davis, Head of Scrutiny, expressed her dissatisfaction with the council's decision during the meeting, highlighting Crosfield's efforts to rectify its financial issues, reports MyLondon.

Cllr Davis, after visiting the nurseries, conceded that she "certainly did get a sense of pace" regarding the financial improvements Crosfield has been implementing. Additionally, it emerged that the school is predicted to achieve a budget surplus by the end of this fiscal year.

Despite these developments, Shelley Davies, Croydon Council's Director of Education, argued that changes have not been happening swiftly enough, stating: "We need to inject some pace." She also noted that the finances of both Crosfield and Selhurst have been bolstered by funding from the Department for Education.

Ms Davies emphasised the necessity of decisive action, saying: "Individuals will have a view about our engagement, but doing nothing is not an option. We have to be robust if we are to move forward."

This "robust" approach could involve the council appointing a new executive board should the MNS governors fail to secure an appropriate partner by January 2025.

Croydon's Mayor, Jason Perry, speaking to the LDRS, echoed the sentiment that collaboration between the schools and the council is desirable. However, he stressed that safeguarding the council's finances was paramount, reiterating that "doing nothing was not an option".

He said: "This is our strong recommendation to the governing bodies that this is the way forward and this is how they will deliver sustainability for their schools going forward. If the schools do not move forward, that is why there is the inclusion of the line about an executive board. I hope that's not where this goes, I very much want to work with Selhurst and Crosfield."

Nurseries are being "set up to fail"

However, parents don't perceive this as a one-size-fits-all solution for the nurseries. A Croydon mum named Georgia who helped spearhead a campaign to safeguard the MNS, reckons that the council's decision puts additional pressure on the childcare centres, virtually "setting them up to fail".

She said: "It's great that no nurseries are going to close but it's taken a huge length of time to come to this decision. It's been nearly a year of uncertainty for staff and families, and the outcome is that they have suggested something that maybe they could have thought about suggesting before they even went to the consultation process."

When asked if any noticeable changes are anticipated under this fresh structure, she said: "Probably not, but it is remarkable that Crosfield and Selhurst have not lost a single member of staff in this time, which speaks of massive dedication. Then if you're told that if you don't find a partnership by January, the effect on staff morale is going to be significant. We don't know how our governors are going to react, there may be governors who don't know how to engage with a partnership that has just been hoisted on them."

Councillor Amy Foster, who has backed the campaign since the threat of closure emerged last year, added: "While it's welcome news that the council is no longer proposing the closure of our borough's valuable maintained nursery schools, I remain concerned that what is now proposed is closure by stealth.

"The report coming to cabinet next week does not acknowledge the work done by the Crosfield and Selhurst Federation to improve their financial position over the last year or why they so strongly believe that the only way forward is a new federation for these schools. That these proposals should be coming forward just a week before the summer holiday and using such threatening language about how they expect the leadership team to respond is hugely disappointing and in my view disrespectful of the hard work that the federation has delivered.

"I would strongly urge the mayor and cabinet member to reject this recommendation and instead continue to monitor the federation's progress over the next year if the recommendation includes waiting to ensure a balanced budget by 2025/26, why not enable the federation to pursue their plans without the disruption of a new partnership in such a rushed process?"

Croydon's other three Maintained Nursery Schools (MNS) have been operating under a soft federation model for several years, which allows them to share staff and resources among the partners involved. While the council acknowledges that this organisational structure has helped these schools maintain a budget surplus, there are doubts about whether it will ensure the financial viability of Crosfield and Selhurst in the future.

During the scrutiny committee meeting, Cllr Davis cautioned that this new soft federation model would not secure the nurseries' future. She stated: "This model alone is not the answer to the deficit."

Meanwhile, Cllr Alasdair Stewart expressed concern over the lack of information on how the model will save the schools money, leading to a "lot of unknown unknowns".

Parents and staff also voiced their worries about the apparent neglect of the Special Educational Needs (SEN) provision offered at the MNS. Martin revealed that "31-42 per cent of all three-year-olds receiving SEN support in state-funded settings between 2015 and 2022 were educated at Croydon's maintained nursery schools."

However, the council's report provided little insight into how the SEN provision might be impacted by the new 'soft federation' structure. When the LDRS questioned Cllr Perry about this, he responded: "This is about the finances of the schools first and foremost.

"This authority has had a problem with schools closing previously costing local taxpayers millions of pounds. So we can't repeat the mistakes of the past where schools that have a deficit end up costing the taxpayers. We have always recognised that the schools are well-loved by their local communities and well-used by their extra communities, that is why we have taken more time to find a solution to take this forward."

He added: "The easier option would have been to make a decision and get on with it, instead we've taken the time and effort to engage with schools and parents and listen to what they're telling us and actually find a solution that works so that we can keep all five schools going for the future."

This new plan is set to be presented at the Cabinet meeting on Monday, July 15, where members are anticipated to approve it.