Ballantyne questions First Minister on "significant risks" surrounding childcare plans

Scottish Conservative MSP for South Scotland, Michelle Ballantyne, today questioned First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on the Scottish Government’s plans to increase the amount of free childcare.

A new report from Audit Scotland 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.

It raises concerns 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, the publication 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.

The report also poses 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.”

In part, the policy was intended to give parents greater flexibility to pursue employment or training opportunities. Research carried out by the body 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.

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.

Mrs Ballantyne, Scottish Conservative MSP for South Scotland, challenged Nicola Sturgeon at First Minister’s Questions today on the implementation of the policy, asking what the Scottish Government’s response was to these reports.

Speaking at First Minister’s Questions, Michelle Ballantyne said:

“The Scottish Government has estimated that only between 6,000 and 8,000 additional whole time equivalent staff are required to deliver the expansion.

“Audit Scotland’s report reveals that council estimates place the number significantly higher, with an additional 12,000 staff required. Can the First Minster please tell me which figure is correct?”