‘Remarkable success’ - Minister’s verdict on privatised nurseries

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A MINISTER told a Tynwald scrutiny committee that he believed the policy to privatise pre-schools had been ‘remarkably successful’ – while another cabinet member said he was ‘proud’ of what had been achieved.

Phil Gawne and Chris Robertshaw, who were both members of the Council of Ministers’ pre-schools working group, were giving evidence to the social affairs policy review committee that is investigating whether the government’s policy on early years education represented value for money.

At the hearing on Tuesday, committee chairman Brenda Cannell MHK read out a letter from the Department of Education, which indicated that the number of pre-school places offered in its settings had nearly halved since the service was privatised. Education chiefs, however, insist this does not mean fewer children are using them.

The letter states that currently 260 places are being offered in department settings, of which 240 are filled. This compared with 405 places that were offered last year when the nurseries were still run by the state.

It says the discrepancy may be due to the fact that some private operators are only offering half-day sessions as they want ‘to test out the market’ – so 260 places does not mean 260 children.

Giving evidence to the committee, Social Care Minister Chris Robertshaw MHK, who was a member of the Council of Ministers’ pre-school working party set up in February in response to public outcry over the privatisation plan, urged the committee to look at the ‘full picture’, or the report it would produce would lack validity.

He said: ‘I’m actually proud of what the two departments [Education and Social Care] have done out of a very difficult situation,’ he said.

Mr Robertshaw said private sector provision was growing, with three new private operators currently and three more in the pipeline. ‘It’s a beginning – don’t judge the end by the beginning,’ he said.

Fellow Minister Mr Gawne MHK told the committee he had been ‘far from comfortable’ with the original policy, but was now of the view that ‘quite frankly, I have to say the policy has been remarkably successful’.

Asked whether he thought the quality of service remained as high, he replied that the ‘straight answer is no’ but he was ‘considerably more convinced’ than he was six months ago that it would go on to attain the same quality.

The then Education Minister Peter Karran claimed that the working group was set up to look at ways of implementing the department’s pre-school policy – a policy which, he said, had already been approved by CoMin the previous November. Its role was not to evaluate the policy or consider other options, he insisted.

The committee was told that the working group was informal and did not keep minutes.

Committee member David Callister MLC suggested there was little point in having a working group if it didn’t consider other options. Fellow committee member Steve Rodan pointed out that campaigners had suggested an alternative model whereby teacher-led pre-schools could continue to be run by the state, but parents would be charged to cover the shortfall in the department budget.

Mr Gawne said a variety of options, including that subsequently suggested by the campaigners, had previously been explored, discussed and ruled out by the education department and by CoMin. He said it would have been ‘quite bizarre’ for the working group to have gone over ‘old ground’.

Mr Gawne, who chairs the Mooinjer Vegger Manx language charity that was subsequently awarded contracts to run four of the pre-schools, denied having a conflict of interest when he was invited to join the CoMin working group. He said he had made his position clear to CoMin and had not been involved in any discussion in relation to the tendering exercise.

Director of education Martin Barrow told the Manx Independent that to date pre-school credits have been claimed for 807 children out of 1,028 listed as eligible. He suggested that far from fewer children now getting a place at pre-school, the opposite was true and that 807 children were getting at least some level of pre-school education – and this figure was expected to rise.

He explained that the 260 places did not include those settings that are not owned or leased by the department.

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