Nursery closures – councillor says sorry for 'blunt' announcement
A MASSIVE campaign against the sudden announcement of the closure of nursery and childcare services offered at centres in Blandford and Shaftesbury has secured an apology and a promise for parents whose livelihoods and children's development have been put at risk.
More than 50 distressed mums and dads gathered at a meeting in Blandford on Monday with Dorset County Council councillors responsible for education and children's safeguarding.
Caroline Wawman, who chaired the meeting, told them: "It is a massive blow to a rapidly expanding town and to the families who rely heavily on the centre to be able to go out to work, not to mention the loss of jobs at the centre itself. There is an awful lot of emotion attached to this closure, but we have to look at the way forward."
Cabinet Member for education and communications Toni Coombs admitted that a letter and press release announcing the closure of two SureStart nurseries and an after-school club had been poorly drafted.
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"It was badly written and blunt," she said. "I am sorry it has come as such a shock."
She said the letter had failed to make it clear that the five months' notice provided an opportunity to source alternative provision, which the council has a statutory duty to ensure.
She promised that another letter would be sent to parents and those whose children were on the waiting list, and that the decision to close before the end of the academic year impacting on those due to progress into primary schools would be reconsidered.
She also promised to look into an alleged "gagging order" placed on children's centre staff, some of whom were parents themselves who were unable to fight for their jobs, having been told they could not sign a petition launched against the closure.
Rebecca Knox, Cabinet member for children's safeguarding and families, said that while the children's centres themselves would not close, the nurseries and after-school club ran at a combined £134,000 annual deficit which was not sustainable when the council faced reduced funding and budget cuts.
She said: "We want to ensure that nursery services here and in Shaftesbury can go forward, and the answer may well lie in this room. We want to work with you to get the right solution."
She said the campaign launched in response to the announcement had already resulted in a number of offers from providers of alternative services, and a series of drop-in sessions was being offered to parents so that individual needs could be established.
"The decision to close was taken reluctantly and officers are working hard to find alternatives for parents and children. No one should be left without - nurseries and school clubs are so important in helping young children to learn, flourish and develop."
Responses to the announcement on Thursday were immediate and vociferous from anxious parents.
Hazel Wilby, who set up a Save Blandford Children's Centre Facebook group, said: "There was absolutely no consultation period before they announced the closure, and it will create a nightmare situation because there are no other options for childcare in the town."
There are 83 children on roll at the Blandford nursery, 79 in Shaftesbury and 70 at Oscars after-school club, which serves all the primary schools in Blandford.
In a letter to MP Bob Walter, Alison Hayward, who works at Blandford library, said: "The centre is a necessity to every working parent in the area, where a very limited amount of 8am to 6pm nursery care is available. It is essential for modern day families where both parents work full or part time, and if the closure goes ahead a lot of mothers and fathers will be forced to give up work as there will be no other choice."
She said the staff at the Blandford Children's Centre were amazing, working beyond what was in their job descriptions to make it "a wonderful and safe place for my very precious people to go".
Working single mother Lucy Peet said: "I would not have been able to hold down my job without this service. The council should be supporting working parents. My children have already dealt with the break up of a family - I hope they and all the other children adjust to the disruption of a new environment, if they are lucky enough to find one."
Blandford librarian Emma Bevin expressed concern for delivery of the library service since some of her staff were affected, and one mum with a full-time job said: "I have no family in the area and don't want to have to send my children up to family in Manchester during the school holidays."
A similar response came from Shaftesbury, where Sarah Davis said there were no other nursery places and mother-of-two Emily Gale said the announcement had caused "panic and a lot of upset".
"Being able to put my three-year-old daughter in Shaftesbury Nursery was hugely important because it allowed me to have a part-time job, and the children are integrated and happy there. It has come as a huge shock and caused panic with all these children now looking for nursery places in a very small town," she said.
Several others have highlighted the lack of vacancies at other nurseries and for childcare locally, and their need for services both before and after school hours and during school holidays to remain in their jobs.
Drop-in sessions were held for parents in Blandford on Tuesday and in Shaftesbury on Wednesday, and will be followed by further sessions at the centres in Blandford on Monday morning and Shaftesbury on Tuesday morning.