Another #SNP fail: The government needs to act if it wants to deliver

Another #SNP fail: The government needs to act if it wants to deliver

by Elizabeth Smith
article from Thursday 22, March, 2018

EVERYONE KNOWS WHY the expansion of child care is so important, such is the overwhelming evidence about the benefit of quality care in the early years of a child’s life and the importance of child care provision when it comes to supporting the economy.

So, in that context, the Scottish Government’s intention to extend child care provision to 1,140 hours is laudable but, as its Ministers are finding out, it will not be an easy journey. Audit Scotland and the Accounts Commission were clear in their recent report that the policy ambition was very much in line with national strategic objectives, but they warned that it was going to be very challenging to deliver the policy by 2020.

In particular, the report was highly critical of the fact that the Scottish Government had not undertaken any effective analysis of its proposals using the experience of the 600hrs policy which was put in place five years ago – something which the new Minister, Maree Todd, acknowledged at the most recent Education and Skills Committee meeting.

This lack of analysis is a major worry since it has left us without the necessary measures to evaluate the impact of the £650m of additional funding since 2014. For example, there is no comprehensive evidence to show how increasing the amount of time three- and four-year-olds spend in nursery is advantageous to them. Nor is there any evidence to substantiate why this policy is preferable in terms of spending priorities when we compare it against a universal provision for two year olds or targeting vulnerable one-year-olds.

Likewise, there is the issue about accessibility and flexibility of provision. It is no use extending the number of hours of child care provision unless these hours can be offered on a flexible basis and are accessible for parents. The Scottish Government appears to understand this point but, to date, its policy provision does not match the rhetoric – something that has been consistently pointed out to ministers by groups such as Fair Funding for our Kids. Their published research shows that only one in ten local nurseries provides the length of care to cover the full working day.  In 19 out of Scotland’s 32 local authorities there are no public nurseries open for the full stretch of 8am-6pm and this must surely tell us something about the lack of incentives within the system.

Audit Scotland and the Accounts Commission also said that the Scottish Government had to make much greater effort to define what it means by quality child care. Ask any parent and they will tell you that flexibility and accessibility are key but so too is having the right numbers of fully qualified staff. Yet, we know in Scotland that early learning staff numbers have fallen by 44.8 per cent since 2008, which is one of the main reasons behind local authorities projecting an additional £160m cost than the Scottish Government has estimated.

The quality of the learning environment is also important There are now 848 fewer early learning and childcare providers than there were in 2008, a decline which has predominantly occurred in the more deprived areas.  This has coincided with a decline in the number of childcare providers rated good or better, which now stands at its lowest point in half a decade; and these are just the ones we know about. Last year it was reported that since 2011 nursery inspections had fallen by a third so there is a strong message here for the Scottish Government about quality of delivery.

And related to this is the fear amongst many private sector providers that local authorities are much more likely to want to concentrate on the three- and four-year-old provision from which it is easier to deliver economies of scale and cost savings in comparison with the more staff intensive one- and two-year-old provision. Such an imbalance would be unfortunate so it is not surprising this is posing a major headache for the Scottish Government.

Back in March 2017, Scottish Ministers announced that they were looking at the possibility of a childcare account whereby money would follow the child but it seems little progress has yet been made. This is something the Scottish Conservatives have been arguing for a long time since a childcare account or voucher system is the best way of delivering both more choice and greater flexibility. For those local authorities that have moved closest to this system, e.g. Edinburgh, there seem to be many more satisfied parents and a better quality of provision. That ought to be an important signal for the Scottish Government.

The Children and Young People’s Minister, Maree Todd, has said publicly that the Scottish Government will deliver the 1,140 hours policy by 2020. If she is to be proved correct she has an awful lot of work to do to remove the considerable barriers within the current system which are making many providers sceptical of that timescale. She also has a lot of work to do to collect the necessary evidence that would better inform the SNP’s policy commitments and persuade parents that they will really get what they are asking for without facing substantial increases in the cost of family child care.

Elizabeth Smith is a Conservative & Unionist MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife and the Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Education

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