‘Family-friendly’ overhaul plan for early years education

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Under Education Department plans, next year’s cohort of preschoolers will be the last to receive the 20 free hours per week nursery education that has been in place under the Nursery Education Fund scheme since 2009.

Controversial plans to slash the scheme for many families and introduce means-testing were pulled by the former Education Minister in 2016 following a public outcry and a threat from fellow politicians that they may oppose ministerial spending plans altogether because of the proposal.

Now the Island’s new Education Minister, Senator Tracey Vallois, has said she wants to avoid any future uncertainty and stress for families by coming up with a remodelled system that will work in the long term and be flexible enough to react to change.

The final details of that new system have not yet been decided and all options are currently on the table, she said. However, the minister said that the plans were ‘highly likely’ to include provision for free nursery hours in some form.

‘It is highly likely there will be free hours, what that looks like I can’t say at the moment,’ she said.

‘I want to make sure we get something that is fully future-proofed and flexible enough to change and adapt as and when we need it to.’

She added that a review of early years had been carried out and the department had been and would continue to be consulting with industry professionals as it developed the details. The department has already met the Jersey Early Years Association, which represents nursery providers in the private sector, she added.

And she stressed that the new plans would not be about cutting spending and would instead focus on early years provision from conception and not just children in the year before they start school.

‘The NEF needs remodelling. We have had a report done and we need to have an interim position for next year so that everyone knows where they stand,’ she said. ‘That interim position is that from September next year all children in the year before they start school will be entitled to 20 free hours.’

The overhaul, she said, would be timed to fit in with the next States financial plan, which is due to be debated in September next year, and would depend on what funding was available.

‘Hopefully, that [means the new scheme] will be available in 2020,’ she said. ‘It is early days at the moment. But the remodelling is fundamentally about the children, their needs, the family’s needs. It is about how we change the way we do things in terms of supporting family dynamics in the 21st century. It is not just about four- and five-year-olds.’

Jersey’s NEF scheme was introduced as a fair way of ensuring all children have access to high-quality nursery education in the year before they start school. It also meant the States would be required to build fewer nursery classes at primary schools to cope with demand as children could also receive free hours in the private sector.

Over the years, however, private nurseries have complained that the States does not pay them enough to deliver the free hours, in a debate that is now being mirrored in the UK, which from last year has provided all preschoolers with 30 free hours per week.

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