Until recently, pre-school education was almost entirely private in the UK. The vast majority of provisions were playgroups, often run by volunteer mothers at minimal cost. Others followed specific educational philosophies such as Montessori. Then in 1996 the government introduced a system for paying a grant towards the cost of nursery education.
One condition of this was that the government inspection system (Ofsted) would now inspect nurseries receiving grants for their educational impact – using a set of Early Learning Goals.
Initially this did not have a major impact on the educational settings, but the playgroups had to re-invent themselves as teaching organisations, which they did by claiming that children could learn as much through free play as through directed activities – a highly questionable assumption which largely went unchallenged. The grants were ‘manna from heaven’ for the playgroups, but did not cover the costs of more educational settings. However, as top-up charges were allowed, that was not crucial and the funding provided a welcome subsidy for parents.
However, within a few years, the government decided that the 15 hours per week of funded nursery education should be free to parents, so providers were unable to charge a top-up fee to meet their costs. For settings which offered all day care (i.e. from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.) for working parents this was not an issue as they could give the first 15 hours freely, and then charge whatever they could to recoup the loss. For sessional settings (nurseries offering sessions to mums who just wanted a few hours for their youngsters) this had a serious effect as the grant level barely covered their costs.
In addition to these developments, the state became more and more involved in nursery education. The money for the nursery grant was not ‘new money’, it was deducted from the schools budget. They, understandably, felt aggrieved and so many state primary school started taking children in at an earlier and earlier age – ready or not. Also a series of Children’s Centres (which were designed to provide a while range of children’s services, including health, nurseries and other needs) was set up. Initially they were heavily subsidised, later the subsidies were reduced and many of them closed or reduced their services.
Successive governments have also worked to improve the qualifications of early years workers. However the way that qualifications are required has also had an effect on settings. For a small provision (typical of many Montessoris for example) it is necessary to have two fully qualified staff at all times. For a large all-day setting, they only need someone with Early Years Teacher status, plus one other, and all the rest of the staff can be unqualified. In practice this means that many of the day care nurseries run with almost all unqualified girls, earning the minimum wage. That is fairly profitable compared with sessional settings which have been closing down at an alarming rate.
Given the profits from all-day settings, a number of people set up multiple nurseries and these have often been bought out commercially to form larger chains of nurseries. Smaller settings have not proved of interest commercially. There are very few Montessori chains (one in Kent has seven settings, one in London has four and there may be others but they are the exception.)
The magazine Nursery World recently produced a ranking of the top 25 chains in the UK. The chain ‘Kids 1st’has retained its number one place for the fourth year running, with all of its inspected nurseries graded outstanding. ‘Kids Planet’ >is runner-up for the second year in a row, with nine of its nurseries outstanding, and the rest graded good. ‘Childbase’ is in third place, one position higher than last year after achieving three more outstanding grades in the last 12 months. A new entry to the list is ‘Children 1st>’ and the ‘London Early Years Foundation’>is in fifth place.
Chains often change hands for considerable sums. Busy Bees, the largest UK chain with 214 settings, sold for around £200 million in 2013 but even small chains can be valued at considerable amounts. In 2016 Asquith Nurseries added three Montessoris to their existing chain, in a multi-million pound deal.
Whether all this is good for children is a very moot point. Research on this has been inconsistent with respect to cost to benefit ratios – but with a lot of evaluation focusing on school readiness rather than overall wellbeing. Many high quality settings which provide small scale care are really struggling.