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Elizabeth Laffeaty-Sharpe, who runs Downham Montessori Nursery and Downham Nursery School, voices concern for future of industry

A nursery owner says her current struggles are the worst she has ever faced amid continuing pressures in the childcare industry.

Downham has already been rocked this year after Alpha Nurseries, which operated The Willows Day Nursery on Sovereign Way, told parents it had gone into liquidation, leading to its sudden closure.

This is believed to have left around 60 children without any form of childcare.

The Downham Montessori Nursery, which is adjoined with the Preparatory School, has taken on some youngsters left without childcare
The Downham Montessori Nursery, which is adjoined with the Preparatory School, has taken on some youngsters left without childcare

Elizabeth Laffeaty-Sharpe runs the Downham Montessori Nursery in Stow Bardolph – adjoined with Downham Preparatory School – and the Downham Nursery School.

She managed to open two new classes to cater for some of these youngsters. Eighteen of them are now at the Stow Bardolph nursery, with ten more at the Downham site.

However, she cannot make room for them all – and is actually battling a number of problems herself.

Elizabeth Laffeaty-Sharpe runs the Downham Montessori Nursery in Stow Bardolph and the Downham Nursery School
Elizabeth Laffeaty-Sharpe runs the Downham Montessori Nursery in Stow Bardolph and the Downham Nursery School

She is still awaiting confirmation of the level of funding she will receive from Norfolk Early Years.

“The proposed level, however, would not cover our costs,” Ms Laffeaty-Sharpe said.

Some parents have suggested that she make use of Government funding which provides free places for younger children.

However, Ms Laffeaty-Sharpe told the Lynn News that accepting any such funding would result in her having to close down with near-immediate effect.

This is because she currently loses £3.65 per hour on all children aged between three and four, and can only survive as those aged from nine months to three years pay for their sessions.

“If we joined the Government scheme to provide funded places for the younger children, we would have to close, as we would not have enough income to pay our staff and bills,” she said.

“The Government tell parents that they are entitled to free childcare. It is not free; it is heavily subsidised by nursery owners.”

Ms Laffeaty-Sharpe says that in her 40 years of running the West Norfolk nurseries, she has never had it so tough.

She also worries for the future in Downham, which is in the midst of an expansion and is facing educational problems elsewhere.

With 300 families looking to secure a spot at Downham Academy for next year, at least 30 look set to miss out on the first choice for their children because of a lack of spaces.

The maximum number of Year 7 students Downham Academy can normally accept is 240, but recent negotiations with Norfolk County Council have resulted in that limit being increased to 270.

With both of her nurseries now oversubscribed with waiting lists, Ms Laffeaty-Sharpe has concerns for the coming few years.

“Over 500 new houses are being built in Downham and we do not have any nursery places available,” she added.

“Unless the Government pays providers a level of grant that covers their costs, more nurseries will close, and no-one will invest in new nursery schools that are not financially viable.”

The Lynn News contacted the Department for Education for comment, and was pointed to a press release regarding a “major new national recruitment campaign” launched last Friday.

This comes alongside a trial of £1,000 cash sign-on bonuses, to give nurseries and early years providers “the workers they need and offer more childcare places for parents”.

The roll-out is expected to save working parents using the full 30-hour entitlements up to £6,500 a year.

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said: “Parents shouldn’t have to choose between a career and a family and our expanded childcare offer is going to make sure of that.

“From April, hundreds of thousands of parents of two-year-olds will get 15 funded hours. This is good for families and good for the wider economy – ultimately putting more money in parents’ pockets at the end of the month.

“The fantastic nurseries, childminders and professionals across the childcare sector are central to the success of this roll-out and our new recruitment campaign will support them in continuing to deliver the flexible and high-quality childcare parents need.”

However, as Ms Laffeaty-Sharpe pointed out, this is unlikely to help her, as she needs to charge the parents of younger children in order to stay afloat.

Furthermore, of the 20 local authorities cited as having been invited to take part in this pilot scheme, none in Norfolk are included.

Ms Laffeaty-Sharpe said: “I do not know of another industry where government controls the amount you can charge.

“Our nursery is in a rectory with three acres of garden and woodland. Many nurseries are in industrial units with no outdoor space.

“The costs of running our nursery are much higher, as we want to provide our children with the very best environment.

“I would liken this to the Savoy Grill being told that they can only charge the same for a burger as McDonald’s but expecting McDonald’s to produce the same product as the Savoy.

“The temptation for nursery owners if they want to remain solvent is to look for the cheapest accommodation they can find rather than what environment would the children benefit most from.”

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