Special Children and Lifelong Learning Scrutiny Panel 27th September 2023
2:25 pm, Wednesday, 8th November 2023 - 3 weeks ago
SPCLL.35 APOLOGIES FOR ABSENCE
Apologies for absence were received from Councillor Brasted and Downes for this meeting.
SPCLL.36 DECLARATIONS OF INTEREST
There were no declarations of interest received in respect of any item on the agenda for this meeting.
SPCLL.37 NURSERY PROVISION
The panel received a report from the Director of Children’s Services on the recent nursery consultation.
The Chair introduced Mr Dicker who had requested to put his views forward on the consultation. He explained that since nurseries had received consultation letters there had been a lack of information available to the nursery settings. He felt that he had received an inadequate response from officers to requests for further information. A local public meeting was held in Scartho where two Ward Councillors attended but they were unable to answer questions as they had been advised not to do so. The Leader of the Council had said that he had not been informed about the consultations. However, it was now known that there had been informal discussions with the Director of Children Services and Councillor Cracknell, the Portfolio Holder for Children and Education. Mr Dicker wondered why this panel and Cabinet were not told about the consultation. Mr Dicker also felt that the financial information provided was misleading. He wondered how a consultation could be started when necessary information had not been released.
The Chair then invited Councillor Farren to speak for 5 minutes.
Councillor Farren went through a range of issues stated in the report. She spoke mainly of Reynolds Daycare as it was within her Ward. She stated that the report said that there was a £50,000 deficit at the start of the finance year. She stated that there were now measures in place to combat this and it was now significantly lower. Reynolds Daycare was cost effective because they only employed the correct number of staff, but they now needed to build back the children they had lost as a result of the consultation. Councillor Farren confirmed that Reynolds Daycare did have higher staffing costs because the Local Authority had increased staffing figures. She stated that she had done a series of opinion polls and found out that only 5% travelled from outside the Sidney Sussex ward to use the facility, whereas the other 95% were from the ward. Reynolds Daycare was a 3-year funding provider and that was where they got their greatest market share. Councillor Farren noted that occupancy figures within the report were incorrect.
With permission of the Chair, one member asked Councillor Farren that if she had more than 5 minutes to speak what would she have wanted to add. She stated that during the consultation, figures had fallen from 61 to 47, they were currently at 64 and 59, all for children based on registered capacity. The setting was limited because they had a need for extra staff.
Councillor Patrick also asked Mr Dicker that if he had a further five minutes, was there anything he would have wanted to add. Mr Dicker stated that it would be helpful if Council Officers could answer why there was a need for the settings to do a business plan.
One Member asked if there had been any interest from academies to take on these nurseries. Ms Jack confirmed that there had not. The member stated that a sustainable route needed to be in place. They wondered how we were going to do that. Ms Jack informed the Panel that they were currently in the process of each setting putting forward business plans to help and support them, and part of that may include looking at possibilities for the future.
Another Member wondered about the polling of residents that Councillor Farren had undertaken as it was believed that parents chose nurseries closer to their work than home. Councillor Farren stated that 95% lived in the Reynolds area. The member wondered how many parents were polled. Councillor Farren confirmed that they had asked everyone and used data from the setting.
A Panel Member asked Councillor Cracknell when she first had discussions of the consultation. Councillor Cracknell stated that information was provided to her in April 2023. There was then a detailed discussion as a result of the letter being sent by the governing body to the Local Authority stating the need for federation to finish. The Panel member stated that a recent Freedom of Information request had suggested a discussion in December 2022 and advice from Officers was the closure of the three nurseries. Councillor Cracknell confirmed that advice given was that the nurseries were not viable, and they needed to discuss options. She wanted to work with the three settings and a range of officers to help come up with plans for the future. Ms Jack confirmed that the business plans would be reviewed at the end of October 2023.
One Panel Member asked whether the consultation was still taking place. Councillor Cracknell confirmed that the Leader had asked for it to be stopped. The Panel Member stated that Councillor Farren mentioned that 95% of the children attended Reynolds Daycare from this area. They stated that it was a ward where there was not a lot of car ownership and if there was it would tend to be multiple car family drop offs. It they were to close it would be a closure of two outstanding rated Ofsted nurseries. They wondered whether the Council had taken this into account as Looked After Children have to go to either outstanding or good rated nurseries. They wondered whether we had a lot in the area that may need to take on extra placings. Ms Spencer explained that she couldn’t specifically say how many spaces were available in the borough but stated that the report did show a range of settings available in walking distance of these three settings in question. Ms Spencer reiterated that they were no longer seeking to close these settings and that they were looking for sustainable plans for the future.
Another Member clarified that these nurseries would have lost children because of these potential closures. They wondered whether this would be taken into account when looking at the number of children enrolled. Ms Jack explained that the intention was to work with the providers to create a sustainable plan, so things like this would be picked up on.
A different panel member said that it was difficult discussing educational settings, especially when there’s a need to make very difficult decisions. They wondered whether information was still taken on birth trends and finance trendsand it was felt that reliable data was needed before reaching any type of decision. Ms Jack clarified that birth date data could fluctuate and the financial trend for these settings had been negative historically, but this was not to say that future plans may change this.
One Member explained how he had attended Great Coates Nursery finance meeting and they were projecting that any deficit would be wiped out. They wondered whether this had been filtered up the management chain. Ms Jack stated that she wasn’t aware because the business model had not been completed but she stated that it did sound promising. The Member read out letter parents had received and how BBC news had reported on the closure of these settings. They speculated whether it was to close the settings and not to consult. Ms Spencer confirmed that the view was to go out for consultation and one of the options was for the settings to be closed. She added that the intent was not to close. The member mentioned how they had requested relevant surveys and certain information, but officers had not provided information promised. Ms Jack added that they had met with Great Coates Nursery and discussed the need for a sustainable business plan and if further work was needed, future plans would be made with the setting.
A Councillor explained how a friend of theirs had informed her that data used could be wrong as the council may only use the local doctors, but they stated that not everyone at Scartho used those doctors. The Elected Member hoped that they didn’t only used the data from Scartho Practice, but also looked elsewhere. They also wondered who owned the buildings and if these settings were shut what would happen to them. Ms Spencer confirmed that the Authority owned two and one was leased. She clarified that if closed they would go back to the corporate property assets team to make a decision.
One Member appreciated that letters went out to inform the settings of the public consultation, but they said how notice of redundancy also went out to all nursery staff. If it was just about going for consultation why were staff sent a notice of redundancy. Ms Spencer was unsure and said that they would have to check. The Member expressed their concerns that lead officers of the Council did not know why notices of redundancy had gone out. Ms Spencer indicated that it was part of the process. The Elected Member explained that the settings had been adversely affected by these letters going out, Members wanted to know what would be done to rectify that. Ms Jack stated the settings had a full range of support from Officers to put sustainable plans in place. She reiterated that they would be working closely with all of the individual settings.
Members wondered whether they would be able to receive these sustainable plans when they have been received from the settings at the end of October. Mr Jones explained that the scrutiny panel was there to scrutinise decisions prior to being taken by Cabinet. Members wanted to be reassured that any potential decisions on the nursery provisions would be received by the panel in good time. Officers confirmed that it would.
One Member thought the report slanted towards why the nurseries should close. They asked that, when compiling these reports, a balanced viewpoint be created.
Members wondered what was being done to make these nursery settings more attractive. If more people chose them they would become more valuable. They asked whether we would be helping them stay sustainable. Ms Jack explained that this would be part of the process of developing a business case and how it would be ongoing. They were working on building positive relationships with the settings.
One Member asked whether the change of funding going from 2 years old would make nurseries more valuable. Ms Jack stated that the new legislation had only just come out, but she hoped all three settings would be able to maximise the funding.
A Member wondered why the settings had only been given a minimum three year period on these business plans. Councillor Cracknell stated that there were no particular timescales. She was personally minded that there would have to be changes. Covid wasn’t a distant past. Parental choices were different then to what they were now. There were a lot of factors to take into consideration, but they were open to all factors.
A panel member asked about the internal investigation being implemented by the Chief Executive. Mr Jones stated that this was currently ongoing and ward councillors were involved with the investigation. Members hoped a briefing for all Members would take place before the findings went public.
It was suggested that a standing item be added to the agenda for scheduled meetings of this panel to receive updates on progress with these three nursery settings. This was agreed by the panel.
- That the report be noted.
- That a standing item be added to the agenda for scheduled meetings of this panel to allow it to receive regular updates on the three nursery provisions.
There being no further business, the Chairman declared the meeting closed at 5.36 p.m.