Funding cuts to hit under fives

FUNDING for nursery education across Norfolk is to be scaled back after council chiefs unveiled more than �4m of cuts in new nursery places and children's centres.

FUNDING for nursery education across Norfolk is to be scaled back after council chiefs unveiled more than �4m of cuts in new nursery places and children's centres.

Hundreds of families with children under five will be hit by the proposals, which will see building work being cancelled on eight new children's centres and extra cash for nursery placements being withdrawn, leaving many youngsters without places.

The move follows a decision by the government to claw back capital funds for Sure Start and Early Years Quality and Access grants on projects yet to get under way.

But the council believes it can reduce the �5m being demanded to �4.1m by using unused cash earmarked for an extended schools project.

Work to slash spending across public services in the county began in earnest yesterday, with councillors approving a �10m cut in grants that included halving the size of the Connexions careers service and putting on hold dozens of road safety schemes.

But no sooner had votes been cast than papers came out detailing fresh cuts in early-years services for the under-fives: these are in the pipeline this year.

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And, with the government looking at cuts of 25-40pc in the coming comprehensive spending review, the documents warned that the authority was facing an unprecedented �155m black hole in funding, with schools and road schemes likely to bear the brunt of the necessary cutbacks.

Meanwhile, public sector unions are to hold a meeting in Norwich tomorrow with a view to forming a “coalition against the cuts”.

Many of the schools with nursery provision were stunned to learn news of the cuts in emails as staff and pupils arrived for the start of the new school year. Some even had builders on standby to begin work, but all projects have now been put on hold until a final decision has been made.

Tim Lawes, head of Catton Grove Primary School in Norwich - which was hoping to secure planning consent this week to build a new, �355,000 classroom to increase nursery places from 78 to 102 - warned that the cuts would leave youngsters without nursery places in the areas where they lived.

“If this project doesn't go ahead, it means a significant number of three, four and five-year-olds will not have a school place in the catchment area,” Mr Lawes said.

“This cut is a bolt out of the blue, and our concern is the children will not get access to high-quality provision within this area. What really annoys me is the money is there for us to do this project but it has got to be spent by March 2011, and what this government is saying is that projects that haven't begun have got to be reviewed for cost-cutting purposes.”

Joanna Pedlow, head of Toftwood Infant School - which was in line for a new, �414,000 children's centre building - said the news was a double whammy; work was due to start in the summer, until it emerged that a planning blunder meant councillors had to reconsider the scheme.

“It's a big blow because it would have benefited the families both within the school and the local area and there would have been people here from other services such as health which they could discuss things with instead of going into Dereham,” she said. “I'm so cross about it and I'm frustrated that the funding has been cut,”

She added. “We were told that work was going to start in May/June and we have been waiting for months. We'd wanted to resurface our playground ready for September but were told not to because that's where the builders would work; so the children have missed out there, too.”

Penny Sheppard, head at Queen's Hill Primary School, Costessey -which had been pledged �575,000 for a new children's centre building - said: “It's hard, because the government has got to make these cuts and we are all aware that there are cuts out there. I'm not surprised, and here at Queen's Hill we just work day-to-day.

“If the school grows then it becomes more difficult, but whatever decisions are taken it's not going to stop the work we do to support families.”

Alison Thomas, county council cabinet member for children's services, said funding was being scaled back from �14.7m to 9.5m after the in-year cuts by the coalition and the authority would need to work out how to ensure sufficient provision.

“We have frozen spending in this area while a review takes place and now need to decide how we prioritise which projects go ahead and how we will meet this reduction,” she added. “This reduction is part of the government's efforts to tackle the dire state of public finances and leaves us with difficult decisions to make about the future of our phase three children's centre and early- years capital programmes.”

She added. “It is important to emph-asise that children's centre services are already being provided across the county and this will continue, albeit without the high-quality buildings we had hoped for in some areas.”

The council cabinet will consider the cuts plans on Monday.