CONCERNED families feel they are “being punished” by a decision to withdraw funding from four East Lothian nurseries, forcing hundreds of parents to find alternative childcare arrangements with just weeks’ notice.

East Lothian Council announced last Tuesday that four nurseries, owned by Bright Stars Nursery Group Ltd, were losing their funding for 1,140 hours of early learning and childcare.

The council will stop providing the funding to Pear Tree West Road, Church Street and Meadowpark, all Haddington, and Pumpkin Patch Nursery in North Berwick, from October 7, affecting 151 children aged three and four across the four settings, which were only taken over by Bright Stars in June and July.

The council says that the nurseries have “not been meeting the national standards of early learning and childcare as set by the Scottish Government”, though Pear Tree Church Street and Meadowpark were both named in the top 20 in Scotland by earlier this summer, while the Church Street branch was named Scottish Nursery of the Year by the National Day Nurseries Association in June.

The Scottish Government funds up to 1,140 hours of early learning and childcare a year for every child aged three or four. These hours are available for parents at all council nurseries, as well as at each council’s funded providers.

The council has said it will not be reviewing whether it will return funding to the Bright Stars nurseries in the future for 12 months.

READ MOREOwners 'stunned and dismayed' as four nurseries to lose funding for 1,140 hours

Worried parents packed out the Maitlandfield House Hotel in Haddington last Thursday evening as Nicky Davis, managing director of childcare and operations west at Bright Stars Nursery Group, answered questions about the loss of funding and what steps could be taken to challenge it, but there was anger at the lack of any council presence at the meeting.

Parents have until tomorrow (Friday) to apply for places at council-funded nurseries, otherwise they face having to pay out hundreds of pounds more a month for childcare.

And the tight timescale, together with the sudden announcement of the loss of funding, has angered many parents, who are now calling for answers from the council.

At last Thursday's meeting, four parents were chosen as nominated representatives for their nurseries and wrote to the council to request an immediate meeting with council and nursery representatives to discuss the situation. The meeting was set to take place yesterday (Wednesday).

'No flexibility'

In a letter sent to council officials, the four parents – Katie Berry, Rachel Davies, Emily McCorkell and Mariken Schipper – say: "This decision has resulted in parents having little to no flexibility in childcare options.

"The Bright Stars nurseries provide, for many, the only true wraparound childcare in these council wards. The other options being made available to parents through the local council nursery system make no such provision and, as such, the decision is having a material impact on working parents’ ability to continue to work.

"Given the material impact of the decision of the council, the parents of the affected children are surprised at the lack of council engagement with, and notice given to, the parents, who are the key stakeholders in the process of this decision.

"Parents and carers of the affected children are, of course, primarily concerned for the welfare and wellbeing of our children and we do not wish to put them in an unsafe setting.

"But we have not, as yet, been given any true clarity on the reason for this decision being taken – and many of us have had emails and calls asking for more detailed justification for the decision from yourselves go unanswered.

"Bright Stars indicated to the parents in [last Thursday's] meeting that they believe their nurseries do currently meet the national standards and that they remain surprised at the council decision. We were disappointed, therefore, that invited council representatives chose not to attend because it would have been very helpful to have your voice and a rationale for the decision put forward."

Other parents have also expressed their concerns.

Pear Tree West Road (top left), Church Street (top right) and Meadowpark (bottom left) and Pumpkin Patch (bottom right) will no longer receive funding, concerning parents including Marion Sauvebois (inset)

Marion Sauvebois and Sean Cameron with their two-year-old son Max Cameron

Marion Sauvebois, 34, whose son attends Pear Tree Church Street and would have been eligible for the funding in the spring, said: “Communication from the council has been shocking and the letters have been flippant at best, patronising at worst. They don’t even have the decency to spell out the reasoning or logic behind their decision.

"Pear Tree Church Street was voted best nursery in Scotland. This makes absolutely no sense.

“Like most parents, we feel like we are being punished.

“The council is refusing to engage or answer emails. I’m really worried that the council, by pulling funding from all private nurseries in town, will force Bright Stars out of Haddington and condemn these nurseries to close down, if not now, eventually.

“With the cost of living crisis, this is doubly unfair to staff and parents.”

Council's response

In response to parents' concerns, a council spokesperson said this week: “We understand last week’s meeting was arranged by Bright Stars so its representatives could meet with families.

“Council officers have offered to meet with a parent representative of each of the Bright Stars nurseries and arrangements for this are in the process of being made.

“We have been working to support parents and carers by providing information on their options, as well as telephone and email contact details so that our early years team can answer questions and discuss alternative nursery provision. The team will continue to be available to speak with parents and carers if required.”

Bright Stars has previously told parents it will make up the missing funding until the Christmas break but Ms Davis was asked at the meeting if this could potentially be extended to 12 months, the earliest that council funding could return.

Announcing the loss of funding to parents last Tuesday, Ms Davis said Bright Stars were "stunned and dismayed".

She added: "We are now doing everything in our power to resolve the situation with East Lothian Council so your child can continue to receive Government funding to attend our nurseries. We are urging them to re-consider."

Council's concerns

In a lengthy letter sent to parents just hours before last Thursday's meeting, Nicola McDowell, head of education at the council, said that there were concerns about four criteria at the Bright Stars nurseries: staffing, leadership and management, and in particular related to the overall leadership of the Bright Stars Nursery Group; physical environment; self-evaluation and improvement; and inclusion.

The letter stated: "We would like to assure you again that this decision was not taken lightly and we know that it is a worrying and challenging time for many families. Our priority is to put the interests of children first."

READ MORE: Nursery crisis: East Lothian Council explains decision to withdraw funding

The letter said "there are sufficient places available across East Lothian to accommodate all children affected" – however, parents have expressed concern about the potential of having to take their children many miles across the county each day for a nursery place rather than them attending at one in their home town.

Initial concerns focused on Pear Tree West Road, which received a poor report from the Care Inspectorate in the spring, but the letter stated that "further issues subsequently came to light".

"Despite engaging with Bright Stars Nursery Group and making substantial efforts to resolve the matter for several months, unfortunately we were unable to find a resolution enabling us to enter into a new contract," the letter said.

It was also claimed that "communications issued by Bright Stars Nursery Group have, in some instances, been incorrect or misleading" and that Bright Stars had been "unable to provide sufficient assurance that the necessary improvements could be made".

Inclusion concerns

The Courier understands that the reference to concerns over inclusion partly relates to the exclusion of two autistic children from one of the nurseries.

Asked about the allegations, a spokesperson for Bright Stars said: “Bright Stars Nurseries care for a significant number of children with additional needs and our priority is to provide safe, high-quality care and support to every child.

“On very rare occasions, depending on specialist staff expertise and experience, we may have to advise that in the best interests of the child and other children in the nursery, that we cannot provide the additional support required.”

NDNA questions decision

The council's decision to withdraw funding has also been called into question by charity the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA).

Jonathan Broadbery, NDNA’s director of policy, said: “The decision taken by East Lothian Council is worrying as it will impact on 151 three and four-year-olds currently on funded places and their families.

"We are already seeing settings closing throughout the UK and the removal of settings from the area will make it very difficult for families in East Lothian to access the care that they require.

"Parental choice and accessibility is a cornerstone of the 1,140 hours policy and this needs to be reflected in the decision.

“The nurseries’ owners have demonstrated their commitment towards children’s education, experience and development in agreeing to pay for funded children for the rest of the term. If the local authority’s decision affects the long-term sustainability of these settings, we would also have concerns about the possible impact on places for younger children.”

Politicians' thoughts

Craig Hoy, South Scotland MSP, attended last Thursday's meeting and said he would look to raise the issue at Holyrood.

He told the Courier: “East Lothian Council’s decision to force parents to decide on their children’s future care provision within a notice period of less than two weeks is a concern for many parents.

“The council have so far failed to clearly communicate what underlying issues are present at Bright Stars Nurseries, and this has become a major source of anxiety for parents and guardians.

“East Lothian Council need to be clear about the issues at Bright Star Nurseries and work towards achieving the best possible outcome for children attending these nurseries.

“It is also vital that Bright Star Nurseries publicly addresses concerns about national standards and that they are as clear as possible about why this situation has developed.

“Unless this takes place and the council supports an adequate number of nursery placements in Haddington and North Berwick, it will be parents and children who lose out because presently there is insufficient capacity to offer parents the same patterns of childcare in other nurseries.

“As an MSP, I will continue to engage with all stakeholders to find a solution that is in the best interests for parents and children. I will also be raising wider issues in relation to 1,140 hours provision and funding with the Scottish Government.”

'Very difficult situation'

Fellow South Scotland MSP Martin Whitfield added: “This is clearly a very difficult situation for everyone involved and must be particularly unsettling and worrying for parents and carers with children at one of these nurseries.

“I understand that the decision to withdraw the funding was made on the professional opinion of East Lothian Council staff, but have contacted them to raise the concerns of parents and carers and seek further information.

“It’s also vital that those affected by the decision are provided with all the assistance and support they need with making alternative arrangements.”

East Lothian MSP Paul McLennan said he backed the council's decision, adding: "I have had a full briefing from the council. I am supportive of the decision the council has made. I have also spoken to the nursery providers.

"There are clear guidelines and commitments that every provider must adhere to in order to qualify for 1,140 hours funding. It's my understanding that not all these commitments were satisfactorily in place, despite previous requests.

"I know the council is working hard with parents in order to secure alternative placings. I would encourage ongoing dialogue."

'A failure to consult'

But East Lothian MP Kenny MacAskill said communication from the council "simply isn't good enough".

He added: "Moving to another nursery in a different town is disruptive for the child and often impossible for the parents. That’s why this is so serious for so many.

"The welfare of children has to be paramount in everything that the council do. However, there seems to have been a rush here, a failure to consult with parents and indeed to be open and frank about the basis of their decision.

"General care and welfare of the children doesn’t seem to challenged by the council, nor is it raised by the parents. The information from the council alludes to failures on inclusion but lacks any specification by what is meant by that.

"That simply isn’t good enough for parents or staff. Either there’s a substantial case to answer on issues relating to the welfare of the children, which should be specified, or approval should be given and the minds of parents and staff eased.

"Given that there seems to be nothing but praise from parents for the care given, it's time this was resolved by the council."

Group writes to council

Meanwhile, North Berwick Community Council (NBCC) has written to Monica Patterson, chief executive of East Lothian Council, describing the removal of funding from the Pumpkin Patch nursery as "unforgivable" during the cost-of-living crisis.

A spokesperson said: "NBCC urge East Lothian Council to review their decision to remove the 1,140 hours of funding.

"If reinstatement of the funding is not an option, we request to see solid evidence and reasoning as to how this life-altering decision has been reached, along with realistic solutions which will allow these hardworking families to ensure that their children have somewhere affordable to go locally during the day from October 9."