MSP for South Scotland, Michelle Ballantyne, today led a Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party debate on childcare and early years. The party business motion submitted in her name passed this evening, signifying the Parliament’s concern around the Scottish Government’s childcare expansion plans.
Mrs. Ballantyne secured a debate on the Scottish Government’s plan to expand free childcare to 1,140 hours per child in the wake of a recent report that claims there are “significant risks” the policy will not be effectively implemented.
A new joint report from the Accounts Commission and the Auditor General highlights several concerns around the implementation and planning of the Scottish Government’s commitment to provide 1,140 funded hours for 3 and 4-year-olds, as well as eligible 2-year-olds. It also expresses fears that there are considerable risks that councils will not be able to expand funded ELC by the 2020 deadline.
Mrs Ballantyne told Maree Todd MSP, Minister for Childcare, that childcare and early years in Scotland will soon face a staffing crisis, with the Scottish Government estimating only 6000-8000 whole-time equivalent staff will be required to implement the plan, while councils place that figure at a staggering 12,000 additional staff.
Furthermore, Audit Scotland has discovered a £160 million discrepancy in the cost of the policy, with the Scottish Government placing a price tag of £840 million on the expansion, while council estimates have found the figure to be closer to £1 billion.
In her speech, Mrs. Ballantyne, the Scottish Conservative shadow minister for childcare and early years, urged the Scottish Government to consider alternative funding models, such as childcare accounts, which have seen successful trials in Edinburgh. Since the announcement on this issue by former minister Mark McDonald last year, the SNP has made no progress on the childcare account, which the Scottish Conservatives have advocated for several years
The South Scotland MSP also raised the issue of flexibility and access to childcare for parents. Many parents have not been able to access their free childcare under the entitlement to 600 hours, with 1 in 5 children missing out of their current funded hours. Few council nurseries are open from 8am – 5pm or offer full day slots as part of their provision, rendering the entitlement useless to parents hoping to use the opportunity to pursue new employment or training routes. Furthermore, this limits the choice of parents to choose the best nursery for their child.
One of the key priorities of the expansion to 600 hours was that it would make it easier for parents to get into work or education.
Research carried out by the Accounts Commission found that funded ELC had a limited impact on parents’ ability to work, citing poor planning and a lack of clarity in the policy as factors.
Mrs Ballantyne also asked serious questions about the success of the previous expansion to 600 funded hours, which began in 2014.
The Scottish Government has committed almost £650 million of additional funding to expand provision to 600 hours, however Audit Scotland say “it is not yet clear whether this investment is delivering value for money.”
Other bodies, such as Fair Funding for Our Kids and Reform Scotland have also voiced concerns about the expansion, highlighting flexibility and access respectively. Reform Scotland published a report earlier this week entitled The Early Years Lottery, criticising the Scottish Government for omitting to collect data in relation to eligible youngsters, as well as for failing to address birthday discrimination.
Speaking after today’s debate, Michelle Ballantyne said:
“The Scottish Conservatives believe that the delivery of high quality childcare will not happen unless there are considerable improvements in its accessibility and flexibility for parents.
“Increasing the number of hours on a targeted basis is important but it can only bring limited benefit if these additional hours cannot be used effectively.
“The recent Audit Scotland/Accounts Commission report slated the SNP for underestimating the costs of the intended 1140 hours provision. It also criticised the SNP for failing to undertake any analysis to determine what makes qualitative improvements in the provision of childcare and how it will be made easier for parents to access.
“This is a completely unsatisfactory situation which is creating a great deal of anger amongst parents and hampering the incentive of providers to make childcare more flexible.
“The Scottish Conservatives have long argued for a flexible childcare voucher system.
“Last year, the Scottish Government said it was looking to introduce exactly this to be known as a childcare account but nothing has happened. It is time to change all that and give parents what they want.
“Today’s vote has shown the reservations the Parliament has about these proposals, and I very much hope the Scottish Government take on board these criticisms before we have a crisis on our hands.
“This is the Year of Young People after all. The SNP might be content to play politics with our children’s futures, but I think they should be ensuring we have the best possible childcare system that works for both children and parents.”