I am pleased to have the opportunity to bring the motion to the chamber. Early learning and childcare is one of the most important areas for any Government, because it not only shapes the lives of whole generations but creates the foundation for Scotland’s future.
High-quality early learning can play a key role in reducing the attainment gap by giving all Scotland’s children a level playing field on which to build their learning. There is compelling evidence to show that early access to high-quality early learning and childcare can significantly reduce the impact of socioeconomic disadvantage before starting school.
High-quality early learning provides nurturing, stimulating experiences that help children to grow and develop. It can also support parents, particularly mothers, to access education, training and work, as well as provide support to vulnerable families.
The provision of early learning and childcare is, quite simply, a policy that no one would want to oppose. It is an investment in the very fabric of our society, which is why I have brought this debate to the chamber today.
The Scottish Government has, in its words, set out
“the most ambitious plans to extend childcare and early learning that the Parliament has ever seen.”—[
, 22 February 2018; c 15.]
However, it did so without undertaking the level of planning and consultation that might reasonably have been expected, thereby creating significant challenges to its flagship policy.
Today is an opportunity to explore those challenges in what I hope will be a constructive and thoughtful manner. Today is about ensuring that the issues raised in the joint report issued by the Accounts Commission and the Auditor General are scrutinised and that we, in this chamber, and perhaps more important, those in local authorities and nurseries, as well as the childminders and the parents who are trying to navigate their way through what is being offered, ensure that the end result is something to be celebrated.
I will cover a number of the issues raised in the report and in my visits to local authority and private nurseries and my many conversations with early years practitioners and childminders.
On Thursday last week, the First Minister told the Parliament that
“we delivered” the commitment
“on 600 hours when many people across the chamber were sceptical that we would do so.”
She also said:
“We delivered it; we have shown a track record in delivering expanded childcare, and we are on track to deliver the next expansion.”—[
, 22 February 2018; c 21, 15.]
However, the report by the Accounts Commission and the Auditor General states:
“The Scottish Government failed to set out clearly the improved outcomes for children and parents that the expansion to 600 hours was designed to achieve”.
“There is a lack of evidence that increasing funded hours in the way that the Scottish Government has done will deliver improved outcomes”.
I therefore ask the minister to say, when she comes to speak, how she is measuring the success of the 600 hours roll-out. How do we know that it is being delivered and has been a success?
It is clear to me that the Scottish Government failed to set out clearly the improved outcomes for children and parents that the expansion was meant to achieve and how it would assess the impact of that additional investment. There were no measures to indicate success, nor was the baseline data available. Those basic steps should have been addressed in 2014, if not earlier. It appears that those issues have carried over to the 1,140 hours expansion, with a recent freedom of information request from Reform Scotland revealing that
“the Scottish Government has confirmed that it does not know how many children are currently eligible and entitled to pre-school provision but are unable to access it or are on a waiting list.”
In addition, research by the Scottish Government, the National Day Nurseries Association and fair funding for our kids has found that one in five children is missing out on their current funded hours, yet the Scottish Government claims that there is 97 per cent registration for funded childcare. Are we talking about registration or childcare that is being accessed and delivered? When planning an expansion on this scale, should not the Scottish Government start by getting those essential facts right? I say that not because we want to pull them up on it or because we want to make an issue of it, but because, if we do not get the expansion right, we are going to get it wrong for our children—a generation of children who will not get a second opportunity.
The Scottish Government needs to be clear about the priority for this policy. Is it for children, is it for parents or is it for both? In its current state, it largely fails to achieve the outcomes for both. In January, the Scottish Government published an initial evaluation of the expansion of early learning, in which it stated:
“The expansion from 475 to 600 hours in 2014” is
“not expected to lead to a measurable change in children’s outcomes.”
We have seen that mirrored in parents’ responses to the expansion, particularly around flexibility, accessibility and payment. Research by fair funding for our kids has found that, after the implementation of the expansion to 600 hours, nine out of 10 parents who want to change their working situation said that their main barrier is lack of appropriate childcare.
The Scottish Government estimates that the cost of delivering the 1,140 hours of early learning and childcare will be about £840 million a year. Councils, on the other hand, have placed their initial estimate for the expansion at about £1 billion a year. That is far higher than the Scottish Government’s estimate. It raises serious questions about the feasibility of the policy and risks councils being left to deal with a £160 million black hole.
To add to the confusion on funding, there is a big difference between what the Scottish Government and local authorities are saying is needed for essential changes to childcare infrastructure. Local authorities have said that they need to set aside £690 million of capital funding between 2019 and 2020, but the Scottish Government has allocated only £400 million for that purpose. At a time when councils across the country are feeling pressure on their budgets, they will struggle to make up the shortfall.
If Stuart McMillan had taken the time to read what our manifesto says about our approach, he would have found that we would not have gone about things in the same way. We would have taken a staged approach, starting with the most vulnerable one and two-year-olds and working forwards. In many ways, what matters is the planning; it is not just about having a good intention. We do not disagree with the intention—the question is whether we can deliver it. I say “we” because, ultimately, the issue is one that concerns all of us, all the local authorities and all our children.
One of the authorities that will struggle is Midlothian Council, which is the fastest growing authority in Scotland. It will be particularly hard hit as it struggles to find the revenue funding and capital funding that are needed to implement the policy. That will only be compounded by pressures on partner providers, such as after-school clubs, which are already struggling and whose rents are being raised as budget cuts are made.
In addition to those financial pressures, the Scottish Government has estimated that an additional 8,000 whole-time equivalent staff will be required to implement the expansion, yet council estimates show that 12,000 more staff are needed, including staff in training and central staff. I am aware that the Scottish Government has launched a recruitment drive, but we are still talking about a daunting figure and a significant difference in numbers.
Last Thursday, the First Minister told the chamber that the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council is offering about 1,500 additional places and that there are 836 additional graduate-level places. I am not decrying the efforts that are being made, but will we really have enough staff to enable us to complete the proposed ambitious expansion of childcare in Scotland?
Research by Skills Development Scotland has cast doubt on that. It shows that although partner providers are optimistic about retaining existing staff, 63 per cent of them are already finding it difficult or fairly difficult to recruit suitable new employees. Indeed, partner providers might well struggle with the introduction of the 1,140 hours of provision, because 41 per cent of them are not confident about their ability to accommodate the expansion. That might be partly due to a loss of staff, because there is a drain from the partner providers to council providers, which can offer more generous pay and conditions. I noted that on a recent visit to a nursery that is an exemplar when it comes to how the 1,140 hours can be delivered. It had a purpose-built building and all the staff that it needed, but it was heavily oversubscribed.
We have to give some real thought to how our partner providers will cope. I have visited several private nurseries across the country and spoken to many of their managers and owners, who have confirmed that they are losing their staff. If partner providers continue to lose their most qualified staff, that will impact on the future quality of the childcare that is available to parents, as well as push up the fees, as nurseries seek to retain their staff. In turn, that could limit parents’ choice in finding a local high-quality nursery, and it could lead to private nurseries closing down.
I would be very interested to hear what the Government’s position is when it comes to the money. The partner provider offer, which usually sits between £3.45 and £3.75 an hour, will not cover the costs that need to be met if private nurseries are to be able to deliver the provision that is intended.
I can absolutely understand why the member is concerned, because in England, where the Tories are in charge, the NDNA has said about the expansion process:
“The Chancellor has given a clear message that this Government is not interested in properly investing in early years and just expects the sector to get on with it while faced with all these increases. NDNA will continue to lobby the government to address this appalling situation until a fair hourly funding rate and business rates relief for nurseries are forthcoming.”
Do you agree that, in contrast—
I have two points to make in response to that. If the minister, having read about the issue, feels that there are real issues south of the border, that should serve as a learning curve for her in relation to what to do.
It is an interesting point, because the 1,140 hours are being rolled out. At the moment, parents in England are accessing the 1,140 hours, and the complaint is not about their ability to access that provision. I think that there is learning to be had, both negative and positive, but that does not immediately address the issues that I have raised, and the question was not one that was pertinent to what I said.
The Accounts Commission has added that many councils’ expansion plans do not include detailed information on how they plan to recruit all those additional staff. Often, the plans do not take account of the numbers of staff required by partner providers, and I wonder whether that may account for some of the differences that we are seeing between the Government numbers and the numbers that are coming forward from local councils.
There are many other issues that I am sure will be raised today, but my key point in all of this is that we have to do right by our children and by our parents. We will do right by our children only if we have high-quality provision. We know, and evidence shows us, that poor quality provision will do more harm and will actually lessen the life chances of children, particularly our more vulnerable children. We cannot have high-quality provision unless we have good-quality staff, which means that we need to roll out provision that is staffed by people who themselves have good-quality learning, good qualifications and experience. I worry that, in the rush, there will not be time to develop those staff adequately, so many of our initial children will suffer from a poorer quality of provision than we intend to give them.
That the Parliament recognises the strong cross-party support for the expansion of childcare, but expresses its grave concern regarding the findings of the recent Accounts Commission report,
Early Learning and Childcare
, which stated that there were “significant risks” that local authorities would not be in a position to deliver the Scottish Government’s target of 1,140 hours by 2020 because of the difference in estimated budget costs and additional pressures on staffing and additional infrastructure; notes the concerns expressed by the commission that the Scottish Government failed to undertake the necessary cost-benefit analysis of the 600 hours provision, therefore failing to assess the impact on parents and providers of expanded childcare provision, particularly in terms of eligibility and the accessibility and flexibility of provision, and demands that the Scottish Government takes immediate action to address the concerns of the Accounts Commission and to engage constructively with groups, such as Fair Funding for our Kids, the National Day Nurseries Association Scotland and local authorities, to agree a comprehensive strategy that will deliver quality provision across Scotland.
The expansion of funded early learning and childcare will transform our children’s life chances. By 2020, we will provide all three and four-year-olds and eligible two-year-olds with 1,140 hours of high-quality nursery education, and we will ensure that all our children get the best start in life. Such ambitious plans always come with challenges. I do not deny that those challenges exist, but we are absolutely committed to addressing them in partnership with local authorities and other delivery partners, and we are on track to deliver that expansion.
Audit Scotland has looked at the process at a point when there is still some distance between our figures and local authority figures. It is right and proper that both sides take the time to challenge and refine cost estimates, and that is exactly what is happening at the moment. The gap is currently closing. We have said that we will fully fund that provision. We are working in close partnership and we expect to reach agreement in the next few weeks.
Expanding funded early learning and childcare is the right policy. The socioeconomic gap in cognitive development starts before primary school, and it is widely acknowledged, including by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, that universally accessible and high-quality early learning and childcare help to provide children with skills and confidence that they can carry into school education. That is a cornerstone for closing the poverty-related attainment gap.
Parents recognise the benefits of high-quality early learning and childcare for their children. In fact, Audit Scotland’s own research found that parents were “overwhelmingly positive” about the quality of the early learning and childcare that we are providing. Quality will absolutely remain at the heart of our expansion plans.
We are offering children new and richer experiences through that expansion. I, too, visit many nurseries, and last week, I visited the City of Edinburgh Council’s forest kindergarten at Lauriston castle. I saw how outdoor learning affects children’s confidence and wellbeing and how it can encourage a lifelong love of the outdoors. We are working with Inspiring Scotland and councils to encourage much greater use of outdoor environments as part of the expansion. It is an opportunity to change the offering that we provide, and we are investing more than £800,000—
No members deny that there are a lot of good things in the report, particularly on the Scottish Government’s strategic objectives. However, the Scottish Government does not appear to have any convincing analysis of the benefits of or the output from the delivery of the 600 hours policy. Why has that analysis not been done?
There is a huge body of evidence from around the world on how delivering such provision closes the attainment gap. Is Liz Smith suggesting that we wait longer before we have the expansion? I know that the Conservative Party does not support the expansion, but we do, and we are going to do it.
We must never forget that the fundamental purpose of the policy is to improve our children’s early years experience. However, the policy will also support parents and help to lift families out of poverty. By increasing the number of funded hours of childcare, we will support parents to work, train and study, unlike the offering down in England, which is for working parents only.
The full entitlement to 1,140 hours will save families more than £4,500 per child per year and remove the burden of massive childcare costs. The near doubling of funded entitlement offers parents greater flexibility of provision. Flexibility should be determined by local authorities engaging with their communities to understand and respond to their needs within a framework of high-quality provision.
The issue is that the number of hours is limited to 600, which is precisely why we are expanding the number to 1,140 hours.
We are committed to fully funding the expansion, just as we more than fully funded the expansion to 600 hours and the introduction of eligibility for two-year-olds. We recognise that reaching timely agreement on a multiyear funding package for expansion is absolutely critical, which is why the programme for government commits to agreeing that funding package and why we have been working closely with local authorities to reach a shared understanding of the investment that we need to make. I am confident that we will do that by the end of April.
There are a number of challenges involved in identifying the eligible two-year-olds and targeting the offering to their families. We are working with local authorities and the Department for Work and Pensions on sharing data to identify and target them. I accept that there is an issue.
There is a huge body of work going on behind the scenes to deliver the expansion. In the past year alone, we produced an early learning and childcare quality action plan, about which, members will be interested to hear, the NDNA said:
“It really shows that the Scottish Government has listened to and worked with the sector, including NDNA Scotland, in its proposal to improve quality in early years.”
We also produced a skills investment plan; an online resource for childminders; plans for an additional graduate in nurseries in Scotland’s most deprived communities from August this year; a multidisciplinary delivery support team to work with local authorities to provide innovation and redesign capacity; phase 1 of a national workforce recruitment marketing campaign to positively promote careers in ELC; and updated guidance for careers advice organisations.
Many of those actions relate to the need to expand the workforce, and we estimate that up to 11,000 additional workers will be required by 2020, creating job opportunities around Scotland. The investment to do that is already well under way. To support the first phase of the workforce expansion in 2017, we provided local authorities with £21 million in additional revenue funding, boosted ELC capacity in colleges and universities, and increased ELC modern apprenticeship starts by 10 per cent.
I am afraid that I am in my final minute.
We estimate that the combined effect of that investment will have supported more than 2,000 additional practitioners to enter the ELC workforce in 2017-18.
We will build on that. Next year, in 2018-19, there will be an additional £52 million for local authorities for workforce expansion. We are providing 1,700 additional higher national certificate places, more than 400 additional graduate places and a further 10 per cent increase in ELC modern apprenticeship starts.
Our approach to phasing in the expanded entitlement prioritises the communities where children need it most. Families in Scotland are already benefiting from early roll-out of the expansion, with more than 3,000 children receiving the expanded entitlement.
Yes, there are challenges, but we are on track and we are confident that we will meet them. I hope that all parties that are represented in this Parliament can unite behind our ambitions for Scotland’s children and support us in working in partnership with local authorities, private and voluntary providers and parents to deliver the expansion in entitlement.
I move amendment S5M-10650.3, to insert at end:
“; acknowledges the Audit Scotland finding that, since 2016, the Scottish Government and councils have been working closely together to plan how they will deliver this expansion and assess its impact; believes that the expansion of early learning and childcare will transform the life chances of children in Scotland, helping to give all children the best start in life; agrees that, by the end of the current session of Parliament, staff, including in partner providers, delivering funded early learning and childcare, should be paid at least the living wage; believes that the early learning and childcare delivered through the expansion must be high quality if the benefits to children are to be realised, and considers that the Audit Scotland finding, that parents were overwhelmingly positive about the quality of the provision and the benefits for their children, provides a strong foundation for the expansion to 1,140 hours by August 2020.”
I am currently giving speakers time back if they take interventions, but I warn members that there are only a few minutes left to spare. I am sorry to say that just as you are about to speak, Mr Gray.
There is a certain irony in our having this debate on a day when the childcare arrangements of families across most of Scotland have collapsed under the weight of the snow, with nurseries and schools closed.
I bow to no one in my capacity to blame the Government for almost anything, but even I cannot expect it to stop the snow falling.
We should acknowledge, however, that parents face the collapse of childcare arrangements on a regular and entirely predictable basis. It happens every time schools or nurseries go on holiday and every time a child reaches the age of five and suddenly has to be at school later or finish earlier than the previous arrangements allowed for.
Parents really need childcare to be full time, flexible, for all ages, year round and affordable—beyond the free hours that might be on offer at nursery. That is the message that the independent commission for childcare reform gave us so strongly only a few years ago. The existence or otherwise of breakfast clubs, after-school clubs and early morning and twilight wraparound care can make or break childcare, especially in as much as such facilities allow parents, particularly women, to work.
Let me be clear. The commission supported the expansion of free nursery hours, and so do we. However, the commission was critical of a Government that was focusing exclusively on free hours for three and four-year-olds to the detriment of other elements of childcare.
Nonetheless, that has been the approach of this Government, with the increase to 600 hours per year and the promise of 1,140 hours by 2020, so that is the policy that Audit Scotland and the Accounts Commission considered. Their report is not positive, although it contains a few positive comments, all of which the minister harvested for her amendment. On the current provision of 600 hours, the report makes clear that the expansion was not properly planned, that no economic modelling was carried out and that no appraisal was made of options for delivery.
The Government has never made clear whether the measure was intended to allow parents to work or to improve educational outcomes for children. The Government has always talked about high-quality childcare—I agree that we should have that—but Audit Scotland says that the Government never tells us what it means by “high quality”.
I am interested in what Mr Gray thinks the Government should have done in identifying the purpose of the measure as being either to improve outcomes for children or to enable parents to get back to work. What would his judgment have been?
My judgment is that both are important, as I think that Mr Swinney agrees, but primarily this is about improved educational outcomes for children and addressing inequality. However, Audit Scotland makes clear that some decisions about how the policy is delivered have been based not on that view but on the view that it is about making it possible for parents to work.
The figures appear to suggest that most three and four-year-olds access funded hours, but Audit Scotland is clear that the effect of multiple registration makes those figures highly unreliable. Further, as Mr Johnson indicated a moment ago, only half of eligible two-year-olds are registered. The purpose of the policy is apparently to allow parents to work, but most parents tell Audit Scotland that the 600 hours has had a limited impact on their ability to work—I think that the minister acknowledged that in responding a moment ago to an intervention. That certainly reflects the research that the fair funding for our kids campaign has done, with parents repeatedly raising the issue of families being unable to access their entitlement because of inflexibility.
However, the Audit Scotland report saves its greatest concerns for the implementation of the new promise of 1,140 hours. The report identifies significant challenges and major risks, and points out that detailed planning should have started earlier than it did and that, even when it did start, councils were asked to plan in the absence of clear information that they needed from the Scottish Government. The report provides chapter and verse on risks around finance, infrastructure and workforce. On finance, as we have already heard, by 2021 there will be a £160 million black hole between the annual running costs estimated by councils and the finances promised so far by the Government. The story is the same for infrastructure but largely worse, with councils planning to spend £747 million on new accommodation and buildings but the Scottish Government currently proposing, indicatively at any rate, to provide not much more than half of that requirement.
However, the biggest challenges lie with the workforce. Councils estimate that they will need 12,000 full-time equivalent additional staff to deliver the policy, which is a 128 per cent increase. The truth is that the Scottish Government does not know where those staff are coming from. At First Minister’s question time last week, the First Minister reeled off what she said was her plan to deliver increased numbers of apprenticeships and graduate places, and we heard the minister repeat that plan today. However, the trouble is that those measures are right here in the Audit Scotland report but Audit Scotland simply concludes that they will provide only a very small number of the additional places needed—it is not enough. To be honest, the Scottish Government is to workforce planning what Eddie the Eagle is to ski jumping.
When the self-same First Minister was health secretary, she had a plan for the nursing workforce, did she not? What do we have now? We have a fourfold increase in unfilled nursing posts. In her top priority of education, she has managed the incredible outcome of losing 3,500 teacher posts and still creating a shortage of teachers and hundreds of unfilled vacancies. There is no rational reason or credible evidence to allow us to believe that the Scottish Government can find and train 12,000 early years workers to deliver its policy. That is what Audit Scotland tells us in the report in its always polite, courteous and understated way when it states:
“it is difficult to see how all the challenges can be overcome in the time available.”
The minister might be confident that he is going to reach agreement and resolve all the challenges, and that it is all going to be fine. However, Audit Scotland is telling him that it does not believe him. There is not enough revenue funding, not enough capital funding, not enough staff and not enough leadership from the Scottish Government to deliver its flagship policy. That is the wake-up call that the report delivers.
I have been extremely disappointed by the Government’s tone so far. We have heard from this side of the chamber a very reasonable and considered argument that recognises some of the benefits of the policy and some of the success that it has had for families, but all we have heard in return have been moans and groans about what is happening south of the border. It is time that the Scottish Government went away and took a serious look not only at what members across the chamber are saying but at what is being said by outside bodies with responsibility for scrutinising the Government, by parents and families and by providers and local authorities. It seems a bit of a coincidence that everyone else feels a degree of doubt about the policy’s achievability, but the Government still has full confidence in itself.
I recognise that many families are already benefiting from this policy, but the whole process is far too random. In fact, in some cases, it is entirely a postcode lottery. In rural communities such as mine in Dumfriesshire, we are not seeing a good level of flexibility for parents, people do not have a lot of choice and providers themselves recognise that they are struggling to deliver the quality of early years childcare and learning that they wish to provide and be associated with. I am very pleased to find out today that the minister has agreed to meet me and some private and voluntary providers to hear their concerns. I am gravely worried by the fact that all 20 private providers in Dumfries and Galloway have told the council that they wish to halt the procurement process, because of worries about not having the capacity or the staff to deliver these policies and because they have not had access to the required capital funding.
I say gently to the member that people who live in Dumfries and Galloway consider themselves to come from a different part of the world than the Scottish Borders.
As for approaching the council, I have met it on a number of occasions; I have taken council staff to meet providers; and I have facilitated conversations. I think that the council has also met the Scottish Government on a number of occasions to express concern and worry about how it will find enough staff for its own in-house nursery provision and what that will mean for private and voluntary providers. Everyone is on exactly the same page, apart from, it seems, the Scottish Government.
We have got to this point because the Government has decided to overpromise without giving any thought to how it will actually deliver. It is the same thing that we see time and time again with the policies that come forward. It is all well and good to say that there are good intentions behind these things, but if they cannot be delivered on the ground, all the promises and warm words are meaningless.
I am very worried by the fall in the number of providers. Since the Government came to power, we have lost 637; indeed, we have lost the sole childcare provider in my home town of Moffat.
I share Mr Mundell’s concerns about providers leaving the industry, which is why I am so anxious to ensure that there is good dialogue between local authorities and providers about having a role in the expansion of early learning and childcare. Does he agree with the importance of that dialogue in having breadth of provision and in assisting with ensuring that contributions are made to the delivery of this policy objective?
Thank you very much, Presiding Officer.
I absolutely agree with the minister, and that is why I have contacted him to arrange a meeting to make sure that all parties are working together. The private and voluntary sectors are absolutely vital and we cannot overestimate their importance, because at present only one in 10 council nurseries is open between 8 am and 6 pm. In Dumfries and Galloway, certainly, the sole funded provision in the vast majority of communities comes from private and voluntary providers and they do not feel well supported at the moment. They feel that they are being asked to do something unrealistic.
Those people are absolutely committed to the sector and they have juggled a lot of challenges and changes, most of which they welcome and recognise are important. All they want is a fair hearing, and for the Government to stop and take stock of the suggestions that are being made and the concerns that people have from across the parties. I urge the Government to listen, and to work constructively with all those involved.
I remind members that I am the parliamentary liaison officer for the education secretary.
“They’re easie-oasie up there so I can just change my hours [at short notice]… You can just pay for extra hours. [The nursery’s] open all day. I can just tell them how long I want Layla to be there for.”
That is parent story 18 on page 24 of the Accounts Commission report.
“She did start speaking just before she went to nursery and since then it’s come on leaps and bounds…more articulate, new words ... honestly, things I don’t have time to sit and do with her on a regular basis”.
That is from parent story 26.
“[The funded hours allowed] me to get qualifications that I wouldn’t have otherwise got. So looking for a job might be a wee bit easier because I’ve got qualifications, it’s gave me skills. It makes me feel more useful, like I can actually do something… It gives you confidence.”
That is parent story 21.
Those are real examples from the Accounts Commission report. Let us not throw the baby out with the bath water. For some parents, carers and children, the policy is working and it is working well. The Government commitment to fully fund the expansion of early learning and childcare to 1,140 hours by 2020 is undoubtedly ambitious, but it is also about growing the economy, tackling inequality and, crucially, closing the poverty-related attainment gap, as Michelle Ballantyne alluded to in her opening speech. Indeed, the report cites the 2014 study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, “Closing the attainment gap in Scottish education”, which found that the gap between children from low-income and high-income households can be 10 to 13 months by the age of five.
Today’s Conservative motion begins with a recognition of
“the strong cross-party support for the expansion of childcare”.
While there is general agreement on the principles behind the policy, it is also clear from the Accounts Commission report that individual experiences of ELC provision vary across the country.
Page 28 of the report details the differing models that are used to deliver the ELC entitlement. The number of councils using the part-day model, which allocates three hours and 10 minutes, has remained relatively static between 2014-15 and 2016-17. However, the key difference that is highlighted is the increase in provision of shorter part-days, longer part-days, full days, additional funded hours for flexible use and extended periods beyond the school term time. Crucially, in 2016-17 more councils were looking at a range of models. I think that we should all be cognisant of the different needs of families; there can be no one-size-fits-all approach to childcare provision.
The Accounts Commission states that councils do not always provide clear information to help parents to understand how the complex system of ELC works. The report highlights the confusion of parents and carers over the application process required for a funded place, with some administered centrally and others unclear about the use of a catchment area for nurseries. Parent story 3 illustrates that:
“It took me a full year to get him somewhere. What they said was you get a form and you put in 3 choices, so I put in 3 choices but none of them could take him… It’s just as well I went to [another nursery] as he still didn’t get a place at the ones on my form”.
The expansion of early learning and childcare is predicated on accessibility. It is, therefore, essential that all local authorities ensure that they have systems in place to engage parents with a wide variety of childcare options that best meet their needs.
The report highlights the differing admissions criteria that are used by councils, with some prioritising older children, others children with additional support needs, and others looked-after children. Through the work of the care review, it is obvious that the Government is committed to care-experienced young people. I hope that it will now consider looking at how local authorities work to prioritise children in terms of their ELC entitlements, especially children who are looked after.
The report recommends that
“Councils ... Develop the range of ELC on offer locally in response to parental consultation, and design choice around this.”
I have previously highlighted Fife Council’s refusal to use childminders in the entitlement offered. Fife is a rural and an urban local authority area, and childminding is a popular method of childcare for many working parents and carers, so the authority’s blocking of such provision arguably limits the potential flexibility offered by ELC.
“lt certainly is not a case of simply providing more money. We need to be looking to provide a balanced range of places—not necessarily bigger nurseries—but the sensible use of the small family based services provided by childminders that also allow outdoor learning and support for parents.”
The SCMA says that some local authorities are biased towards childminders. Does the member consider that to be true? If that is the case, how can the Scottish Government improve its relationship with childminders to enable more flexibility and more hours of childcare to be delivered?
I am not sure that I can comment on whether local authorities are biased towards childminders; as a Fife MSP, I have experience only of Fife. I know that Fife does not use childminders in the entitlement offered, but if it were to invest in childminders, we could move forward.
Last October, the Scottish Government published an action plan to ensure that quality is at the heart of ELC provision. The plan set out 15 actions to strengthen the quality of childcare provision, including promoting
“greater use of outdoor learning” and empowering parents
“to make choices about the right ELC setting ... for their child.”
Therefore, councils such as Fife need to reflect on how they are empowering parents and carers to have that choice.
I return to the purpose of the legislation, particularly its aim to drive productivity. The report acknowledges that access to childcare is a factor in helping women back into work. Some women, including my mum, had to give up their careers in the 1980s to have their families, because that was expected of them. Unlike their mothers, they often had to return to work, as the unpaid hidden labour that they carried out in the home—providing the state with free childcare—had not allowed them to progress up their career ladder.
And there you must conclude. I am sorry, but I said that I had no time in hand and that members would have to absorb interventions. I am grateful that you took one, but we must move on. Please sit down.
This afternoon, we are discussing the obstacles to the expansion of childcare and what Audit Scotland has identified as the difficulties in the delivery of increased hours. I will focus on outcomes, which Audit Scotland has addressed in its report.
There seems to be a huge gap in what we are expecting childcare to deliver and how to measure that. The Audit Scotland report says:
“The Scottish Government failed to set out clearly the improved outcomes for children and parents that the expansion to 600 hours was designed to achieve ... It did not identify what measures would indicate success or ensure baseline data was available.”
The key question from the report is that if childcare is to help close the attainment gap and improve outcomes for children—not just in their childhood, but throughout the rest of their lives—we must find some way of measuring that, and we must find some benchmarks to assure ourselves about what quality childcare provision is.
The document states that a Scottish Government policy aim is for childcare to improve outcomes for children. That policy aim accepts the premise that the quality of childcare improves when the parents hand over the child to the nursery or childminder. In some circumstances that may be true, but I find that a difficult premise for society to accept blithely—that when children are put into nurseries or childcare settings the quality of the care that they get improves drastically enough to affect their outcomes. It is a bit sad for our country to accept that blithely on a policy level.
A few years ago, social workers were able to support parents in their own childcare preventative work. Social workers had the time and capacity to convene parenting groups and share with parents techniques around play, language, games and discipline in order to give them stronger parenting skills. Now there is precious little if any time for any of that work to be done in our communities. I know that, in Dundee, social workers are now completely consumed by high-tariff statutory cases, which must of course be properly and sensitively managed. However, that leaves a gap around the provision of support for parents who want to improve their parenting skills—and I think that all parents recognise that they need to do that regularly.
I would like to make an observation that might be a little controversial. Just last month, the “Cities Outlook 2018” report told us that 260,000 jobs, I think, across Scotland will go by 2030 due to automation and that, in my city of Dundee, 25 per cent of jobs will disappear. Nobody welcomes those figures or is prepared to accept an economy where that scale of job losses is realised. However, we must realise that, even if we try to reverse or curtail that change, there will be more parents looking after their own children in the future. It is therefore vital that we support more parenting work in that context, and in a preventative context, so that we can support parents to achieve their own aspirations to provide the highest quality of care.
On outcomes in the childcare setting, the Government must strive to continually improve the quality of childcare. Audit Scotland points out that the Scottish Government stresses the importance of high-quality childcare but fails to define what it means by “high quality”. Is that not a huge omission in policy making? When I was choosing childcare, quality was one of my highest priorities, so why is there no benchmark of quality for parents throughout the country who make such choices?
I conclude by drawing the attention of the minister to the fact that, in Dundee, the council still does not know what its capital revenue funding will be in 2018-19, as the Scottish Government has not decided on its distribution by local authority. Perhaps the cabinet secretary can update me on that today.
While recognising the concerns that were expressed by the Auditor General, I begin by welcoming the positive comments in the Audit Scotland report on expanding childcare from the existing provision of 600 hours to 1,140 hours. I also welcome the cross-party support for the principle of the policy, given the huge importance of the proposal. I note that Iain Gray’s speech was the usual ray of sunshine, delivered in his Eddie the Eagle type of way: lots of complaining and no positive suggestions with regard to how we can improve the roll-out of this important policy.
I see that he is still with us.
There is absolutely no doubt that the role of the parent has changed. Long gone are the days when the male worked and the female stayed at home with the children. Families have changed and work patterns have changed, and childcare needs have, of course, changed alongside those changes.
Given the cross-party support that I mentioned, I have no doubt that every member in the chamber recognises the fact that childcare issues are a huge barrier that prevents many women and, indeed, men from returning to the workplace. Many parents and guardians who, at one time, would have sought out childcare from older relatives such as aunts, uncles and grandparent now find that, with the pension age constantly increasing, that is no longer a viable option.
The Scottish Government has set out a further plan to rectify some of those many issues—issues that not only prevent parents from seeking gainful employment but stand in the way of a sure start for our young children.
Members will note my use of the word “plan”. As with any plan or major project, a lot of work, an investigative process and adjustments are required in the early days. It is clear that the Scottish Government is taking a responsible approach to implementing the policy. Positive conversations are taking place with local authorities to produce a multiyear funding package, and it is not unusual—actually, it is extremely common—at this point in the life of a major project for people to have different ideas as to the final costs. What is not in doubt is that the Scottish Government has pledged to fully fund the policy. The Scottish Government is working towards having full agreement with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on the matter by the end of April.
During its consideration of the draft budget, the Education and Skills Committee, of which I am convener, explored the expansion of early years provision with the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills. We asked him, among other things, about funding to support the expansion and upskilling of the early years workforce. Also, in the committee’s concluding letter on the draft budget, we asked the Scottish Government for more details on the number of qualified teachers in the early years workforce who would be supported in the 2018-19 budget.
Looking forward, the committee is holding a series of evidence sessions with ministers in March, and Audit Scotland’s overview of the early years sector will give that work a valuable context. The committee will hear from the Auditor General for Scotland on 21 March, and that session will be followed directly by evidence from the Minister for Childcare and Early Years. The committee will be looking for questions for the session with the minister from individuals and stakeholders via social media, so she has that to look forward to.
The Parliament, through my committee at least, will be keeping a close watch on the progress of the expansion of childcare. Having previously commended the Conservatives for their support in principle for the expanded target, I must comment on the difference between the way in which this Government is supporting early years and the approach taken by the party of government of which Michelle Ballantyne is a member. The early years national funding formula, which was intended to abolish the funding disparity across England, has in fact reduced the average nursery’s budget by £13,000, due to Westminster’s underfunding. One nursery owner said:
“Let’s not be lectured on well thought out polices that are beautifully executed by the Tories when counties such as Suffolk are seeing preschool establishments ... resorting to bucket collections and will see the likely closure of” many
“early learning establishments”.
There is no time for interventions, unfortunately.
I understand that there is concern around funding, but the project is ambitious, as I have said several times. It is absolutely fair to say that sufficient groundwork and research will need to be done to ensure that we can meet the proposals as set out, and the Scottish Government has pledged to do just that. Although I accept that there is much to do to achieve our ambitious targets, it is clear that the Government is serious about making life better for children and families. I would have been happier to hear our opponents come up with practical ways in which we could help to achieve that, rather than hear the suggestion that we postpone the policy until some unknown date in the future.
Expansion of childcare to three and four-year-olds and eligible two-year-olds has been welcomed by parents, care givers and educators across Scotland. It is about time that all parties came together to ensure that we deliver it.
I see that I have a wee bit of time in hand, and I am more than happy to take an intervention if Mr Kerr wishes.
That is part of the whole overall package that has resulted in many nurseries and early years places closing. Anything that benefits parents would of course be welcome. Most people would be surprised if it came from the UK Government, but we would still welcome it.
On that note, I close by saying that I support the Government’s amendment.
Research has shown that the rate of child development is greatest in the first five years of life. By the age of three, almost half of our language capacity is in place, and by the age of five, when many children first enter primary school, the figure is as high as 85 per cent. The evidence from psychology, neuroscience and biology is clear—our experiences in our early years are the greatest determinant of our capacity to grow into confident and resilient adults who are able to handle life’s ups and downs. That is why the expansion of free childcare is hugely welcome—but only when it is high-quality childcare. I have some sympathy with the points that Jenny Marra raised about support for parents looking after their children.
The increase in provision of childcare is clearly an ambitious move from the Government in respect of the scale of change that is needed in the early years and childcare sector. That need goes some way towards explaining some of the problems that are raised in the Audit Scotland report that is mentioned in the motion. On staffing, the Scottish Government has estimated that between 6,000 and 8,000 whole-time equivalent additional staff will be needed to deliver the expansion by 2020; however, councils estimate that 12,000 might be closer to the mark. That is a huge increase.
Audit Scotland’s report shows that pay for childcare staff is substantially lower in the private partner provider sector: the average salary for practitioners in local authority settings is estimated at £28,000, but is only £15,000 in partner provider settings. On average, the public sector spends two thirds more on an early years practitioner than the voluntary sector and 80 per cent more than the private sector on staff-related costs including wages and pensions. The same report says that that might be explained by the higher proportion of practitioners who are still in training in the partner provider sector, but the matter is far too important to theorise about. As welcome as it is, we do not want the expansion of free childcare to be delivered by an increase in the number of low-paid childcare workers who lack good pensions and decent pay, and of whom the vast majority are women.
Shortages in the care sector will impact on staffing in the childcare sector. I would like the minister to address those issues in her closing remarks—in particular, how she will ensure that recruitment of the additional staff who are needed will be done in concert with the Scottish Government’s fair work principles. Childcare and early years work are really important and should be highly valued and well paid.
I warmly welcome Jenny Gilruth’s support for childminders. Recruitment of more childminders will be crucial to ensuring that the 1,140 hours can be delivered to everyone. Childminders sometimes feel as though they are treated as the poor relation in the early years and childcare sector—I know that from experience. They can offer excellent care and do so with great flexibility. It is an area that needs to be focused on. I am pleased that Audit Scotland estimates that childminders will deliver 6.5 per cent of total funded hours for eligible two-year-olds by 2020-21, compared with just 1.6 per cent in 2016-17.
Daniel Johnson raised low take-up of the means-tested entitlement for two-year-olds. He is right to state that about 10 per cent of all two-year-olds were registered for funded ELC in September 2017—that is less than half of the 25 per cent of two-year-olds who are entitled. The Audit Scotland report suggests that registration figures do not include provision for two-year-olds that is offered through childminders, and that councils do not get information from the DWP and HM Revenue & Customs about eligible children in their areas. The minister addressed that to some extent, but I would be interested to hear exactly what the minister is doing to access UK Government data for that purpose, especially because that was recommended to the Scottish Government as a major priority in a report that was commissioned in March last year. I do not think that those are insurmountable problems, so I am interested to hear what the Government is doing to solve them.
The same research shows that parents and professionals identified that personal contact and relationships with health visitors and other professionals, and with friends who use ELC, are key to promoting provision and encouraging take-up. That chimes with the healthier, wealthier children project that is being rolled out nationally, which has helped parents to access thousands of pounds a year by training health visitors and midwives to signpost benefits advice. There is an opportunity in all this for the new social security system, in that some of the new forms of assistance that are being established are similarly means-tested. Ministers have pledged to increase take-up of benefits by raising awareness and helping people to apply for what they are eligible for, so there are lessons to be learned from the lower-than-desirable take-up of the offer on two-year-olds, and from considering what we can do about that. It has been agreed in Parliament that our youngest citizens would really benefit from an earlier introduction to early learning and childcare. Too many of them are not accessing that provision.
As well as the total amount of childcare and its flexibility and accessibility, we should use the roll-out to explore new innovative models of childcare. The City of Edinburgh Council, as the minister noted, is piloting the forest kindergarten approach, in which children spend the majority of the time outdoors in woodland settings, learning through exploring nature. I saw the photos, and the minister was clearly having a fun day, but I would like her to touch on what further innovation could be introduced to the sector so that it is as fulfilling as possible for those who receive the provision, as well as for those who deliver it.
I take Alison Johnstone’s point about childminding. Edinburgh schools will be closed tomorrow, as she will well know, so I have been doing some childminding arrangements by text in the past half hour or so. That is probably not allowed, but hey ho: these things have to be done. At the moment, the choice seems to be between sledging down Arthur’s Seat and organising five-a-side football in the garden lobby. We will see how that goes.
I want to take as the theme of the debate the vision of expanding childcare—an ambition that few members, if any, would disagree with—compared with the policy’s implementation. I hope that the Government’s front-bench team understands that many of us—certainly, those of us in the Liberal Democrats—are in absolute agreement with the Government on what it seeks to achieve through expansion of childcare, for all the right reasons. Many colleagues from across the Parliament have set out the cogent arguments for that expansion of provision. The minister rightly mentioned the international research that exists on the issue, which should not be discounted. It is pretty important stuff.
However, that differs from the policy’s implementation. Many of us, regardless of which part of Scotland we represent, have concerns that are fair and need to be articulated in Parliament. Audit Scotland and the Auditor General are not to be dismissed in that regard: they brought most of those concerns together in the report that was published a few weeks ago.
I understand the point that the Government makes about the financial gap between councils and the Government; of course that gap will exist. However, there are a number of steps behind that that I want to touch on, which I hope the Government will concede are important in resolving the matter and in making sure that things are brought together.
Some councils received the revenue letters for the 2018-19 financial year only last Friday and, as yet—I am very happy to be corrected on this—they have not had confirmation of the capital that they are to receive for the 2018-19 financial year. I hope that the Government’s front-bench team will accept that it is difficult, particularly on the capital side, for councils to plan effective spend and value-for-money projects if the information on the amounts that they are due to receive is not forthcoming.
The resource allocations have been made and distributed to local authorities. Capital allocations are discussed by the settlement and distribution group, which involves local authorities. The local authorities asked us not to distribute the capital allocations until we had made further progress on resolution of authorities’ individual plans. The Government has said that there is £150 million on the table to be allocated, but we have been asked by the settlement and distribution group at this stage not to allocate it. The Government would happily allocate it today, but we are not being encouraged to do so.
As I am sure Mr Swinney will accept, that might show the difference that exists between individual local authorities and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities as a whole—[
.] The cabinet secretary can wave his hands around as much as he likes: I am not criticising the Government. I can never understand why John Swinney gets so worked up when he is on the front bench. Some councils are making the case—which I think is a pretty reasonable one—that, given that they have not received their capital allocations and it is now the end of February, it is a tall order for them to plan capital projects in the next financial year. If COSLA is saying—I will be happy to check this with COSLA—that it does not want the capital allocations to be made until the plans are finished, I will be interested to hear that argument.
However, I think that it is important to separate the allocation for the 2018-19 financial year from the three-year funding deal, which has yet to be resolved. Last Thursday, the First Minister made it clear that that is due to be concluded by the end of April, so we can assume that councils will hear in May what the deal is. What is important about that is that the three-year allocation will provide a basis for the longer-term capital allocations that will be necessary to meet the objective of expanding childcare provision, as well as the revenue amounts, which relate to the workforce. Many colleagues have made the point about the scale of the workforce challenge.
The bit that I have not understood, as a member of the Education and Skills Committee—whose role James Dornan mentioned earlier—is that when both John Swinney and the previous education minister have given evidence to the committee, they have led evidence that 12,000 staff would be needed across the whole sector. We can all go and check the
Official Report about that afterwards. The number that is being presented now is very much fewer than that. I will be very grateful if the Government sets out in its winding-up speech why the figures are so far apart, as Audit Scotland pointed out.
The Audit Scotland recommendation that appears to me to be the most important one is that the “Scottish Government and councils” must
“Urgently finalise and implement plans for changes to the workforce and infrastructure” that are necessary for delivery of the policy. To do that in the required timescale will be exacting, but it must be achieved.
Ev eryone in the chamber wants the best start in life for our children and appreciates how crucial it is that children are given quality, flexible and affordable care as early as possible. Doubling entitlement to free early learning to 1,140 hours per year by 2020 for all three and four-year-olds and eligible two-year-olds provides an historic opportunity in Scotland. Quite simply, no other policy has such potential to transform the lives of children and their families while improving the prospects of Scotland’s economy in the short and long term, as Michelle Ballantyne acknowledged in her opening speech.
Of course, achieving that vision and reshaping how we care for our children cannot happen overnight and will require substantial increases in the workforce and investment in infrastructure, as well as new, innovative and flexible models of delivery. If concerns are raised by stakeholders, it is right that they are listened to and that we address them. That is why we are working collaboratively with those in the early learning profession and with local authorities to make the policy work. Why on earth would we jeopardise this historic chance to put Scotland on a progressive and groundbreaking path by simply ignoring the people on whom we depend to make it work? We will not do that.
We are engaged in meaningful dialogue with all concerned parties. We are listening and will act on any concerns; it is in no one’s interest not to do that. That is why I am dismayed and a bit depressed by the Opposition’s negative approach to this fantastic initiative. Instead of welcoming such a transformative plan, Opposition members instead choose to play politics with it and dish out their “SNP bad” card.
The recently published Audit Scotland report recognises that the
“Scottish Government and councils have worked well together to expand provision.”
Does the member recognise that the figures that members on all sides of the chamber have brought up today and the concerns that we have raised are contained in the report by the Auditor General and the Accounts Commission? That is not playing politics; it is visiting some very real concerns by people outside politics who are looking independently at what is going on.
Yes, I understand that, but that is why we are stressing that we are listening to them and working to make the policy work. It is important that we do that. We are not dismissing those concerns, but we just think that the negativity might not be helpful.
There has been, actually.
As I said, the recently published Audit Scotland report recognises that the
“Scottish Government and councils have worked well together to expand provision. Parents are positive about the benefits”.
I received several emails in the summer from concerned parents whose children were about to begin attending a nursery in my constituency that is piloting the 1,140 hours scheme. Their concerns reflected the issues that are contained in Michelle Ballantyne’s motion. However, I am pleased to say that all their fears proved unfounded by the time that their children began nursery last August. When I visited the nursery just after the term had begun, I learned that the concerns that parents had had at the outset were also shared by staff but that they had worked alongside the local authority during the summer and had eradicated the problematic issues by the time the term began. Parents subsequently reported to me that there was increased flexibility, huge savings in childcare costs and amazing benefits to their children’s social development.
The Government is working with councils to help them develop their expansion plans and recently reached agreement with COSLA on the multiyear funding that is needed. As the First Minister outlined at First Minister’s question time last week, the Government plans
“to have full agreement with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on the matter by the end of April.”—[
, 22 February 2018; c 15.]
The Scottish Government is striving to make Scotland the best country in the world for a child to grow up in. Policies such as the baby box and the expansion of early years provision are paramount in that regard and are crucial to growing our economy, closing the attainment gap and tackling inequality. There will be challenges and difficulties along the way, as there would be with any scheme as ambitious as this one, but the Scottish Government is on track to deliver by the target date of 2020. That has not changed, and neither has the saving to Scottish families of £4,500 per child per year.
We have invested in early years apprentices, with a record number expected to start this year, and the plans are to recruit 20,000 new practitioners. I said in our previous debate on early years provision—and I am happy to say again today—that early years practitioners are not glorified babysitters. They are skilled, qualified workers who do one of the most important jobs there is.
The new practitioners will learn about the importance of the attachment-led ethos and about adverse childhood experiences, which can affect every aspect of a young person’s life. Their skill and knowledge will enrich our children’s lives, so our programme is not all about quantity. It is about quality, first and foremost, and childminders, too, must be a pivotal part of the initiative.
To address Alison Johnstone’s point, I note that fair pay is at the heart of our plans. We will enable payment of the living wage to all childcare staff delivering the funded entitlement by 2020.
I ask members to look at our record. Since the Scottish National Party came to power, we have increased nursery entitlement by 45 per cent for three, four and vulnerable two-year-olds, saving families, so far, up to £2,500 a year. However, it is a bit like groundhog day. The Opposition told us then that we could not deliver it, but we did. Let us not forget that the purpose of the policy is to improve the experience in our children’s early years and prepare them for their school years and beyond, and it is about helping parents to work without having massive childcare costs to pay.
I urge the Opposition to work with us on the policy and not to be negative from the sidelines and shout, “SNP bad”. This is about our children’s and our grandchildren’s futures—
Everyone in the Parliament agrees that childcare is of the utmost importance. Good-quality childcare is crucial for our children’s development. The SNP tells us that its plans to double free childcare are ambitious. They may indeed be ambitious, but ambition does not mean that the SNP Government should not listen to those who have raised concerns, for what it needs is an achievable ambition, and what that means in simple terms is an ability to listen to constructive criticism and act accordingly.
I know that the SNP does not like taking lectures from the Tories—that is another favoured phrase—but will it take lessons from Audit Scotland, which has said that there are “significant risks” in the implementation of its childcare plans? Figures compiled by the Care Inspectorate for its report on early learning and childcare statistics show that childcare availability has decreased for poorer families while increasing for more affluent families. The findings demonstrate that, in 2013, there were 54.4 childcare providers per 10,000 residents in Scotland for the most-deprived families, which shrank to 53.6 by 2017. That is in stark contrast to the figures for the least-deprived families, where the figure was 107.3 in 2013, rising to 110.3 last year. That is a significant issue as the evidence suggests that the gap starts in pre-school and only widens throughout the years, making the attainment gap ever harder to close. That is another reason why it beggars belief that childminders have been sidelined throughout the expansion plans. We should be utilising them to ensure that every parent has fully flexible, high-quality childcare.
The purpose of my intervention on Oliver Mundell was to stress the diversity of provision that we are interested in encouraging. Indeed, in the pilots that we have undertaken, 10 of the 14 trials involved childminders. That is hardly sidelining childminders. We have provided for 10 of the 14 trials to include childminders to make sure that they are central to delivery of the policy.
I disagree with John Swinney. The figures that I have seen show that, of the 6,000 childminders in Scotland, only 100 were included in the partnership process. We can argue over those figures, but Scottish Borders Council is saying that the childminders support more than 800 families, offering them care all year round, including the elusive hours before and after school, as well as during school holidays. That flexibility is crucial for working parents. Even though John Swinney is trying to defend the pilot projects and the partnerships that have been going on within those projects, I hope that he will listen to the concerns of childminders. As I said, only 100 of those 6,000 childminders in Scotland are being commissioned by local authorities to deliver funded childcare. That highlights a serious issue with delivery and represents another example of the SNP Government being committed to an idea but not to delivery.
Audit Scotland makes it clear that the SNP Government did not carefully consider delivery and that it did not identify measures of success before committing almost £650 million, which makes it difficult to assess
“whether the investment is delivering value for money”.
It also said that the Government agreed to the expansion
“without evidence that it would achieve the desired outcome for children and parents and without considering other ways of achieving those objectives.”
Does the Conservative Party support the expansion or not? It seems that Conservative members are saying that it is a great idea but that we should hang on, research it a bit more and do it in the future. The Conservative Party’s budget proposals would take £500 million out of the budget. Can the member make it clear that Conservative members are not willing to fund the proposal, that they do not think that it is affordable and that they do not agree with universality?
Audit Scotland said that the SNP’s expansion of funding provision for the 600 hours of childcare—I stress that I am talking about the 600 hours—was done without considering the range of different options to improve outcomes for children and parents. That lack of foresight, which led the Government to fail to explore alternative methods, is characteristic of the way in which the SNP Government decides on an end goal and then pursues it regardless of the costs or results. If the member disagrees with Audit Scotland, she should write to it.
Those quotes from Audit Scotland highlight glaring omissions and show a lack of focus when it comes to attempts to fulfil what the SNP has itself described as a flagship policy.
Scottish Borders Council is already struggling to deliver childcare and will again struggle to meet the SNP’s aims—[
Can I speak, please?
That problem is not one that will be felt only in the Scottish Borders. Graham Sharp, the chair of the Accounts Commission has said:
“The scale of change needed over the next two years is considerable and there are significant risks that councils will be unable to deliver that change in the time available.
There is now an urgent need for plans addressing increases in the childcare workforce and changes to premises to be finalised and put in place.”
However, we have seen nothing that resembles a plan.
The report also found that parents said that funded ELC had a limited impact on their ability to work, due to the hours available and the way in which those hours were provided. Further, concerns were raised that increasing infrastructure to the required levels and increasing the workforce in the short time that is available will be difficult to achieve. In fact, Audit Scotland has said that the SNP Government
“should have started detailed planning with councils earlier, given the scale of changes required.”
The Scottish Conservatives have a plan—a cunning plan, at that. We want parents to have access to free hours of childcare wherever and whenever they want—
For me, the policy of doubling free childcare in Scotland is potentially the most transformative policy of this Government in relation to families, education and the economy. Is the plan bold? Yes. Is it a challenge to effect such a massive change? Absolutely. However, in my experience, the things that make the biggest difference are the things that are the hardest to achieve.
Better provision of high-quality and flexible early years education and childcare is at the heart of every piece of evidence that has been given to every inquiry into the gender pay gap, the inequality of women, household income and the attainment and wellbeing of our children. It is the key part in the jigsaw of unlocking our children’s potential and our country’s economic potential and providing a good quality of life for families. It is the part of the SNP manifesto that I genuinely think is the most transformative.
Let me get started—I may let Mr Kerr in later.
The policy recognises that there are shortcomings in existing provision, which—as Jenny Gilruth rightly pointed out—varies from local authority to local authority.
I totally agree that flexibility must be built in. To take my own situation, I absolutely chose to go with child minders and nursery provision as a combination for my children because that is what worked for me and for them, and it fitted in with my job and my husband’s job.
Something so transformational is not going to be easy to put into place, but succeed it must. That is why, as I look at the Conservative Party motion, I hope that the Conservatives’ criticism is constructive and well meaning and that they want to see this Government’s endeavours succeed.
I probably place less importance on that than on actual delivery. We are working with councils to deliver the policy. We have a bold ambition. We want to get it done to a timescale that will be meaningful for families who have children now, so I am not totally h ung up on that; I am more hung up on the fact—
Despite some of the to-ing and fro-ing, I have enjoyed the debate. The Scottish Government amendment will not delete one word of the motion that we are debating, so there is a lot of agreement—although people would not know that from the tone of the debate from time to time and the political snowballs that have been thrown back and forth.
An issue that is raised in the motion is the difference in the estimated revenue and capital costs of the planned childcare strategy. It is worth noting that, in the coming financial year, £243 million of additional money is being put into childcare, with an additional £54 million specifically for workforce funding, and £150 million to build the bricks and mortar and to renovate much of the fabric of the estate. Some of that might have been completely lost in the debate. On top of that spend, an additional £52.2 million of revenue has been allocated to local authorities.
Indicative budgets show that by 2021 childcare investment will have doubled to £840 million. Let us not forget that: it is, by any measure, a hugely significant investment in the sector.
It is only fair to say that if the Tories have a cunning plan about childcare, it cannot be to take £500 million out of the Scottish budget. The Conservative Party has no credibility in respect of the subject under debate. I have a better plan. Let us not do the Tory Baldrick plan; let us do the Jerry Maguire plan: he said “Show me the money.” The Tories will not show us how they will raise one single penny for childcare; they just want to cut, cut and cut while promising the earth. I am throwing that political snowball back at the Conservatives. As I said, they have no credibility in the debate.
Let us look at the money that it takes to build the fabric of childcare facilities. I convene the Local Government and Communities Committee and have been here long enough to know that Governments, including SNP Governments, seek to fund as efficiently as possible any new initiatives that they give to local authorities. I also know that local authorities like to maximise projected costs: there are low-end and top-end projections and they eventually get there. I trust that that is what will happen on this occasion. That is not just the responsibility of the Scottish Government, but of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and individual local authorities. I am confident that we will get there.
We need more information on multiyear budgets. We are hoping that the blockage that the Deputy First Minister mentioned on allocations across local authorities will not be unblocked only for the coming financial year, but for the multiyear indicative budgets for three years ahead so that councils can get on with planning. I am keen to hear about that in the minister’s summing up.
I would also be keen to know about the massive amounts of capital expenditure that are going to local authorities, and how third sector organisations in the partner nursery sector might be able to bid for some of that to invest in their businesses in order to develop extra childcare capacity. I would like more information on that from the Government.
Much has been made about a cost benefit analysis being done on the money that we are investing in childcare. I appreciate that that is vital for audit and accounting purposes, but we know the benefits of good-quality childcare, so putting audit and accounting to one side—not to dismiss it, because the Government should address those issues—let us look at the benefits. I am reminded of Sir Harry Burns, the former chief medical officer, who would be at his wits’ end about being told to provide more evidence on pro-health opportunities. He just used to say, “We know what works. Can we get on and do it?” That was also what Gillian Martin said. If it is good enough for Harry Burns, it is certainly good enough for me.
Jenny Marra made some important points on measuring the quality and benefits of childcare. It is absolutely right to look at it qualitatively. My wee boy who is two years old does one day a week at nursery. We have seen him come on in leaps and bounds in terms of socialising with other kids, and it has been wonderful to see how nursery has helped him. That is my experience; we have to capture such experience in a non-anecdotal and more structured way. On capturing evidence on improvement and benefits, I ask the Scottish Government how it is capturing the views of parents about the difference that they see in development of their children—when the child goes from having no nursery place to getting one, or from having a part-time place to a full-time place at nursery. We capture patients’ opinions about the national health service, so let us capture parents’ opinions on the childcare sector. Such evidence would be very powerful.
We have to iron out a couple of things. Some nurseries have partnership status and others do not, but that can change during the course of a child’s time at that nursery. A kid could start off at a partner nursery with the parent paying for it, but the council could decide overnight that that nursery is no longer a partner nursery, so if the child were to qualify for a childcare place, they would not get partnership funding. We need more stability for parents.
Of course there is room for improvement in this massive and ambitious plan, but like all such things, we will upscale towards the end of the plan. I have every confidence that we will come together as a Parliament, that the SNP Government will deliver the plan and that Parliament will support it.
In November 2014, the SNP pledged to almost double childcare provision from 600 hours a year to 1,140 hours a year by August 2020. In principle, I support the increase in the number of hours provided on a targeted basis, and I speak as someone who has relatively recently availed themselves of the current provision.
I accept that effective provision of childcare to new parents—subject to matters that have been raised by many members—could assist children’s educational attainment and close the attainment gap. However, it also has an economic impact. The challenges around Scottish productivity and growth have been well rehearsed in debates in Parliament, and regardless of one’s view of the causes, I cannot imagine that anybody doubts that removing unnecessary barriers to entering the workforce is a key prerequisite of economic activity.
Further, it is a gendered issue. The Scottish Government’s own figures from the growing up in Scotland study show that as many as 70 per cent of all adult women in Scotland are currently in employment, but the figure falls to 62 per cent for mothers of children 10 months old, and 21 per cent of mothers of five-year-olds have not been in paid work since they had their child.
There is also a socioeconomic angle, which Rachael Hamilton touched on: 66 per cent of mothers of three-year-olds from the most-deprived areas seek work but are unable to find it, but in the least-deprived areas the figure is only 3 per cent. Having a child appears to affect one’s ability to work, particularly for women and people in more deprived areas. Childcare being extended to those who need it most should assist in closing the attainment gap from an early age, but it could also ensure that mothers who want to get back into the workforce are able to do so.
However, that will work only if the childcare is accessible, which is where there is a fundamental underlying problem. If the increased or even the current places are neither accessible nor compatible with work commitments, it can be argued that they become valueless in terms of economic activity.
Let us assume that a parent has a 9-to-5 job. To be of value, the childcare must fit around those hours to allow the primary caregiver to return to work. However, the fair funding for our kids campaign stated just last week that 90 per cent of council nurseries do not provide full-working-day ELC places; just 10 per cent of council nurseries are open between 8am and 6pm or longer, and those are the hours, according to campaigners, during which parents need childcare.
Although 23 councils claim to offer some children full-day places, in fact only 3 per cent of all council nursery children have places starting at 8 am or earlier, and only 2 per cent have places ending at 5.15 or later. I have not even touched on the fact that most local authority nurseries offer places that are available only during school terms. Iain Gray made that point earlier.
What is particularly interesting in the context of economic activity and poverty is that the more-deprived areas seem to have less choice in providers and longer hours, which has a practical impact. According to the fair funding for our kids campaign, 90 per cent of parents say that lack of appropriate childcare is the main barrier that holds back their career. Daniel Johnson reported that 40 per cent of parents feel dissatisfied with their childcare arrangements, but the report that I just mentioned goes on to say that half of that 40 per cent said that the hours that are available are too short or do not suit their working requirements.
Furthermore, of course, parents who need to go back to work and who do not have access to childcare have to pay for the necessary childcare themselves. Scottish Government research has established that two thirds of families with pre-school children have experienced difficulties in finding the money to pay nursery fees. According to a report from last October, on average, childcare costs parents 41 per cent of their salary. Again, it is all very well having the extra hours, but if parents cannot access them or take advantage of them, the perfectly laudable aims are defeated.
Does Liam Kerr agree that it is also important that people who want to train as childminders get access to flexible education? Being a member for North East Scotland, Mr Kerr will know that North East Scotland College has flexible course arrangements for people who want to make the transition into that sector.
I agree with that and think that the point is well made. I will turn to childminders, but I note that the Audit Scotland report makes a point about linking education and training to parents going back to work.
On the solution, we have long said that parents should be able to access their free hours of childcare wherever and whenever they want. The most straightforward way to do that is to give parents the freedom to redeem their entitlement whenever they need it, at approved childcare providers. That would ensure that funding follows the child. It is what families, childcare providers and the Conservative Party have been calling for, so I hope that the SNP will act on that.
On that note, we also look to increase accessibility to a broader range of accredited childcare providers, including childminders. I heard John Swinney say in an intervention earlier that childminders are not excluded from the expansion plans, but just a few months ago the Scottish Childminding Association said that its members are being excluded, and suggested that of the 6,000 childminders in Scotland, only 100 are currently commissioned by local authorities to deliver childcare. At a time when there are fewer childcare providers, fewer qualified teachers—particularly in the north-east—and limited flexibility, it is absurd to ignore childminders who can provide high-quality flexible childcare.
The SNP has made a flagship commitment to improving the hours of childcare, but there is no point in extending hours if they cannot be used effectively. Parents need to be given real choice about the provider that they use, and the flexibility of the hours should be tailored to their needs. That is the sort of innovation that will deliver the real benefit of the hours that have been promised, deliver women back into the economy and deliver access to early learning and childcare that will help to give our children the start that they deserve.
From listening to today’s speeches, it is clear that, no matter what party we are in, we all agree that supporting our children in their earliest years enables them to have the best opportunities in learning and development. The upbringing of our children will help to shape the people that they turn out to be in later life, so the benefit of the time and effort that we give them in the early stage of their development is immeasurable.
As has been clearly outlined during this debate, the SNP is committed to ensuring that all of Scotland’s children get the best start in life, no matter their background. This flagship policy for supporting children during their early years is a massive expansion in good-quality flexible childcare. It is a policy that will help to lift families out of poverty and reduce inequality.
It would be remiss of me not to concede that the expansion will be difficult, but it is a challenge that the Scottish Government has pledged to meet. It is not unusual at this point in the life of any major project for people to have different ideas as to the final outcomes and costs, but what is not in doubt is that the Scottish Government has pledged to fully fund the policy. The plan to nearly double early learning and childcare entitlement is Scotland’s single most transformative infrastructure project, and it will make a vital contribution to our priorities to grow our economy, tackle inequality and close the attainment gap. It may not be as structurally challenging as the Queensferry crossing, but it will be equally demanding. As we have heard, it will require substantial levels of investment in infrastructure over the next three years, alongside the recruitment of up to 20,000 additional qualified workers.
Today’s motion quite rightly argues that the Scottish Government should engage closely with local authorities to deliver on that target. As the Audit Scotland report states,
“The Scottish Government and councils have worked well together to expand provision.”
It is local authorities that deliver early learning and childcare, whether through their own provision or through partnerships with the private and third sectors, so it is vital that the Government and COSLA can continue to work constructively together.
On Saturday, I will be officially opening a partner-provided nursery in my constituency of Rutherglen. ACE Place is an innovative nursery that is committed to supporting our young children. The children in its care spend the majority of their time outdoors, and the particular nursery that I am opening in Burnside has been expanded to take into account the increased childcare provision support by the Scottish Government.
Alison Harkin, the director of ACE Place, told me:
“Every year of a child’s life is precious, however when it comes to their development, the first few years are the most important. Our overriding priority is the health and happiness of our children and if we can achieve this, then we will ensure our children get the best possible start in life.
That is why I welcome the ongoing commitment by the Scottish Government, and their recognition of the role that Private and Third Sector nurseries have in meeting their ambitions for expansion ... The plans are incredibly ambitious and if realised it will be a revolution in early years’ education and childcare in Scotland.”
As an MSP representing a South Lanarkshire constituency, it would be remiss of me if I did not mention today’s events in South Lanarkshire Council headquarters, during the setting of the local authority’s budget. It is rich that the Tories are trying to portray themselves as the party of families and of early childcare. I have with me the text of the Tory amendment for the council budget, which was passed in Hamilton today—thankfully, without the Tory amendment, which contains cut after cut. The SNP administration’s proposals for holiday lunch clubs in areas of high deprivation would have been cut from the budget, as would its proposal for uplifting school clothing grants and automatic enrolment, and the proposed extension of concessions for under-16s clubs. From the Tories amendment, it appears that they wish to remove those new initiatives, all of which would help the most vulnerable people in my constituency and their families, so that they can save households a few pounds per year in council tax. The SNP administration in South Lanarkshire shares the concerns of the SNP in Holyrood that our overriding priority should always be our children, and that should certainly not be compromised for the sake of the richest in our society.
Working towards educational excellence for all and closing the gap in attainment between young people from the most and least deprived communities is a defining mission of the SNP and one that I am extremely proud of.
In closing for Scottish Labour today, I want to thank the Conservative Party for bringing this important debate to the chamber. The Audit Scotland early learning and childcare report is a crucial analysis of where we are as a country in delivering for the needs of children, and of parents. Although the report highlights some good aspects, it does not make good reading for anyone who is hopeful that the policy of almost doubling free early learning and childcare will be ready for 2020.
Four years on from the announcement, and only two away from the proposed implementation, Audit Scotland warns that
“There are significant risks that councils will not be able to expand funded ELC to 1,140 hours by 2020.”
We want to ensure that children in early years education and childcare receive the very best start in life. The increased provision of free nursery education is a necessary tool for reducing inequality and narrowing the attainment gap that follows far too many children as they move into primary and secondary education and on into adult life. High-quality, affordable early learning and childcare are essential for children from poorer backgrounds. However, the reality is that nursery fees in the UK are some of the highest in Europe and, within the UK, Scotland’s fees are higher than those in many regions of England.
The savings in monthly childcare costs will be a welcome relief for many, as will be creating the opportunity for parents, especially mothers, to return to the workplace. When women have the opportunity to return to the workplace, it should not have to be in a reduced capacity in terms of hours, role or status. The reality is that three quarters of women continue to play the role of primary care giver, meaning that they are too often restricted in the type of employment that they can access. A contributing factor to that is the availability and flexibility of early learning and childcare.
The recent findings of the fair funding for our kids campaign show that only one in 10 council nurseries is open from 8 am to 6 pm—other speakers in the debate have highlighted that issue too. That situation might be suitable for a minority of parents, such as those working in 9-to-5 jobs with a short commuting distance or parents not in work. However, for the majority, nursery hours must be more flexible. Many parents who work in shift patterns or on zero-hours contracts will find themselves with additional problems in balancing their childcare commitments. Many parents are lucky to have a support system of friends and family who can help, but we should be doing more to make childcare much more flexible and to create a wraparound system that meets parents’ needs and, most important, their expectations.
The Audit Scotland report warns us that the current uptake of 600 hours of free childcare is lower for vulnerable two-year-olds than it should be. There are issues to do with making parents aware of their entitlement. Again, that has been highlighted in the debate. The Audit Scotland report makes some strong recommendations for promoting childcare hours. However, for those vulnerable children missing out now it could be too little, too late when it comes to improving their life chances.
We will support the SNP amendment. However, it is important to point out that, in highlighting some positives, the amendment ignores the many negative aspects that both the Audit Scotland report and parents have raised as concerns. The SNP needs to come back to the chamber to address those concerns. Action is needed now to ensure that we have a system that works and provides the service that parents want and children need. We need more than a positive spin that gets us through a debate in the chamber by talking about the good and completely ignoring the negative.
The Government’s lack of oversight in planning for the roll-out of the 1,140 hours is a concern. As I said earlier, the policy was announced in 2014 but, with two years left in the timetable, the Audit Scotland report shows the mismatch between the Scottish Government’s financial estimates and those of local government. As councils prepare for cuts in their budgets in the coming weeks, the Scottish Government should be working to ensure that every council is fully funded to meet its childcare policy. That is what Scottish Labour would do. We would create a more flexible, all-age, all-year, wraparound, affordable childcare system that benefits every child.
If I have succeeded in anything this afternoon, without even uttering a word, it has been to rebalance the contents of what might have been approved by Parliament tonight by putting in place positive reflections on the contents of the Audit Scotland report. Mary Fee questioned why the Government amendment has no negative parts. We thought that there were enough in the Conservative motion to begin with, so our amendment simply rebalances the debate.
The debate has been constructive and I thank the Conservatives for bringing it forward, because it has given us an opportunity to reflect on an important report about the roll-out of early learning and childcare. I agree with Iain Gray that the purpose of the roll-out must be not only to contribute to the achievement of the best outcomes for children, but to create greater opportunities for their parents to enter the labour market.
I appreciate Mr Swinney’s point. I wanted to ask him the question that he asked me, and I am glad that his answer was, I think, the same as mine. Does he accept Audit Scotland’s point that sometimes the primacy—if that is the right word—of outcomes for the children are not clear? The Audit Scotland report stated that it is not always
“clear ... which priority ... should be given greater weight.”
Is he suggesting that that will be the case in the future?
Mr Gray will not be surprised to hear that I part company with Audit Scotland on some of its analysis. Given the Government’s wider policy framework and our intense focus on getting it right for every child, it is obvious that that is the policy driver of this agenda. A number of colleagues, including Gillian Martin and Clare Haughey, have made the point that the early years of young people’s lives are utterly critical in the formulation of their cognitive ability. That is crystal clear, so I question why Audit Scotland challenges the Government about the business case and the rationale that we should apply to the policy.
Bob Doris cited Sir Harry Burns, who said—I have heard him make this point numerous times in my ministerial life—that we have looked at all the evidence and we know what we have to do, so we should just get on and do it. That is how I feel about the policy. We are trying to get on and do it, so I question why Audit Scotland labours so extensively on the need for us to have looked at alternative business cases when we know that the evidence tells us that early intervention to support the cognitive development of young people through quality early learning and childcare is invaluable.
I will develop my point a little bit further and then give way.
That brings me to Jenny Marra’s point about outcomes. A survey was undertaken about the impact of the 600 hours. I am not trying to suggest that the 600-hour provision is a panacea—indeed, we are building on that provision, so we cannot believe that it is a panacea—but paragraph 60 of the Audit Scotland report highlights parents’ views that the policy has led to
“improvements in speech and language ... improvements in cognitive development ... improvements in social skills ...improvements in behaviour” and improvements in children’s ability to be ready for school when they start school. Those are some of outcomes that have been achieved as a consequence of the existing policy.
Mr Swinney talks about the evidence of what has happened, what we should be doing to roll out the policy and whether other approaches are necessary. Would not the vulnerable one and two-year-olds benefit incredibly from having targeted early years input and childcare? The uplift of and advantages in care for three and four-year-olds are not demonstrated as they are for the one and two-year-olds.
There is a blend. We plan comprehensive provision for three and four-year-olds and targeted interventions for eligible two-year-olds to meet their needs. However, the Government makes a host of other interventions through our getting it right for every child agenda to ensure that we tackle the vulnerability issues that young people face.
I will talk a little bit about delivery. The Audit Scotland report recognises that we are working well with local authorities to formulate the plans. I welcome that, as well as the contribution of local authorities. However, we have to go through a process of understanding fully and properly the financial estimates of local authorities. If we did not do that, Audit Scotland would be on our backs for not doing it; that would be in its next report. Audit Scotland does not suggest that the Government has its numbers wrong; it suggests that there is a gap, and we are addressing that gap.
I would be failing in my duty to the finance secretary and to Parliament if we did not properly scrutinise those local authority plans to make sure that they are value for money.
If Mr Kerr will forgive me, I have a couple of other points that I need to make before closing.
My intervention during Mr Mundell’s speech was designed to be helpful, because I want childminders and partner providers to be part of the solution. I do not want to see them carved out of this—I say that clearly to Parliament. However, I need local authorities to embrace childminders and partner providers. Colleagues in all parties have colleagues who lead local authorities around the country. Many local authorities are led by my party; the Conservatives and the Labour Party are in the same position. It is important that we use our political influence to encourage our local authority colleagues—
I will happily speak to Mr Mundell later on.
I want to give the clearest signal to Parliament that the Government wants to broaden that participation but we need our local authority partners to be with us in so doing and any support in that respect will be welcome.
The last point that I want to make is about the workforce. We estimate that we will need around 11,000 people—a headcount of 11,000—to deliver the policy. We have made an early start on that and we anticipate training about 3,000 people this year. That will rise in the course of the next two years to ensure that we are ready to implement the policy. It is a big challenge but we are taking forward the very active communication campaigns to ensure that we can motivate individuals to participate in early learning and childcare and in creating the best possible outcomes for the children of our country.
The debate has shown clearly the considerable importance that all parties attach to the expansion of childcare, but it has also shown clearly the extent of the challenges, especially those that are faced as we try to strike the right balance between extending the number of available hours and the qualitative issues around ensuring better accessibility and flexibility, both of which are so important to parents. Those will be the defining issues in whether Scotland succeeds in delivering a world-class childcare system. There is no point in extending hours if they cannot be used effectively—as was mentioned by Jenny Gilruth and Jenny Marra.
There is a supply and demand issue running through the whole debate; we need to accept that there are some tensions, which I will speak more about in a minute. An effective policy ought to be underpinned by a solid evidence base. It is on that that I want to concentrate my early remarks. We cannot hope to know what will allow the most effective delivery of childcare if we have not undertaken the necessary cost benefit analysis and assessed what works and what does not work. The Audit Scotland and Accounts Commission report was scathing in its comment to the effect that although the ambition is in line with national strategic objectives, the Scottish Government did not undertake effective analysis once the 600 hours provision was in place. We are now five years on from that point.
The Scottish Government implemented the increase in hours without comparing the cost and potential outcomes of expanding childcare, and without looking at the different economic models of childcare and how they compare in terms of delivery. In other words, it did not identify what measures would indicate success or what baseline data was available.
The matter is not as simple as that. When we talk about other models of delivering effective childcare, there are models in use all over the world. We choose to look first at those who are most vulnerable and focus on them, but my point is that the Government chose not to and is ploughing on with its policy regardless.
The Government has not evaluated the impact of £650 million of additional funding, so there is, crucially, no evidence to show how increasing the amount of time that three and four-year-olds spend in nursery is advantageous to them. I make the point about evidence because outside bodies have criticised the Scottish Government for a lack of good data in other areas of policy—assessment of curriculum for excellence being an important example.
Likewise, the Audit Scotland report highlighted the fact that the Scottish Government still has much work to do with the Department for Work and Pensions and HMRC to establish exactly where the eligible two-year-olds are, so that they can be the focus of more accurate targeting.
Perhaps one of the most telling parts of the report is the criticism that the Scottish Government has not defined what it means by “high-quality childcare”, so I want to dwell on that. Ask any parent, and we hear that that matter—rightly—has the highest priority. First, parents talk about the need for the right numbers of fully qualified staff. We know that the number of early learning staff has fallen by 44.8 per cent since 2008. Not only is that the main reason behind local authorities’ having projected an additional £160 million in costs above what the Scottish Government has estimated—that is largely to address the staffing shortfall—but there is also the issue of the different staffing ratios that are required for different age groups. Some of that analysis does not appear to have been factored in appropriately.
Likewise, in an age when many professionals feel less secure in their jobs, additional training is required to ensure that staff are fully qualified to meet the modern challenges of early learning. We hear from staff that those are more substantial than many of us might have realised.
Although the quality of the staff is probably the main concern for parents, they are also concerned about the quality of the learning environment. Herein lies the issue about providers. There are now 848 fewer early learning and childcare services than there were in 2008—a decline that has occurred predominantly in the more-deprived areas. That has coincided with a decline in the number of childcare services that are rated “good” or “better”, which now stands at its lowest point in half a decade—and those are just the ones that we know about. Last year it was reported that nursery inspections had fallen by a third since 2011, so there is a strong message there for the Scottish Government about the quality of delivery.
The questions that I have about provision relate to whether the emphasis is in the right place. Our local authorities are not showing strong levels of interest in provision for one-year-olds and two-year-olds. The Conservatives believe that that should be the most important focus, especially when it comes to our most vulnerable children. We base that on extensive research about where early learning makes the most substantial difference.
Related to that is the fear among many private sector providers that local authorities are more likely to concentrate on provision for three-year-olds and four-year-olds, in which it is easier to deliver economies of scale and cost savings than it is in the more staff-intensive provision for one-year-olds and two-year-olds. That imbalance would be unfortunate, so I urge the Scottish Government to think carefully about the potential repercussions.
Once again, I ask the Scottish Government to reconsider the illogicality of its plans to allow private, profit-making nurseries to enjoy the full 100 per cent business rates relief, but not to allow that for not-for-profit nurseries that are within charitable foundations, despite their being in a position to provide additional places to assist local authorities in meeting increased demand. That makes no sense at a time when parents are applying pressure for a better service. Those nurseries can also often offer more flexible hours.
We should also remember that many parents look to ensure that the nursery feeds into their primary school of choice.
The Scottish Conservatives believe that flexibility is of primary importance and that it is therefore crucial that we listen to the providers and parents about what exactly they want when it comes to making the important distinction between choice and flexibility. The two issues are related, but they are also different, and that matters. We want parents to have real choice of provider, but we also want them to enjoy the additional advantage of flexible hours, as the fair funding for our kids campaign has continually argued. Its published research shows that only one in 10 local authority nurseries provides sufficient care to cover the full working day. The fact that there are no public nurseries covering the full stretch from 8 am till 6 pm in 19 out of Scotland’s 32 local authority areas must surely tell us something about the lack of incentives within the system.
If we are to live up to parents’ aspirations for top-quality childcare, flexible access is key. I thought that the Scottish Government was moving in the right direction on the issue, but things seem to have got stuck. On 23 March 2017, when Liz Smith asked Mark McDonald, the then Minister for Childcare and Early Years, what he was proposing when he mentioned the possibility of a childcare account, he said:
“My officials will work in partnership with local authorities to develop the detail of the funding model and the national standard, and I can announce that we will commission a feasibility study to explore potential costs and benefits of introducing an early learning and childcare account in the future.”—[
, 23 March 2017; c 44.]
Liz Smith welcomed that at the time, because the Scottish Conservatives are quite sure that the account-voucher system is the best way of delivering more choice and greater flexibility. In areas where local authorities have moved closer to that system, including Edinburgh, there seem to be more satisfied parents and better provision. Therefore, I ask Maree Todd what progress has been made on the feasibility study. When will we see a childcare account?
The Presiding Officer is indicating that I should wind up.
It is abundantly clear that the latest reports have laid bare the extent of the challenges that we face. I hope that the minister has listened to the comments that have been made and that her sense is not of a Parliament that wants to attack the Government, but of one that wants the proposed expansion of childcare to succeed. However, if we are to achieve that, we need the minister to listen to everybody.
No, I will not take another intervention because I have taken one already and I have lots to say.
I would be delighted if today’s motion signals a change in Conservative Party policy across the UK, because my brother and his wife are considering starting a family and they look to us in Scotland and wish that they could have a commitment to free childcare. A change in direction from the Tories to help women across the UK is long overdue, but maybe it is just too difficult—maybe it is just too radical. Michelle Ballantyne seems to think so—she wants us to take a step back and do lots of reviews and audits. Thank goodness we have the can-do Maree Todd leading the programme.
Frankly, the picture that is coming from Conservative members is one that I do not recognise. In my area of Aberdeenshire, preparations for the flexible provision of 1,140 hours are well under way through a range of partnership approaches involving child minders, private nurseries, Aberdeenshire Council-run nurseries, colleges and schools.
Innovative approaches are also being considered. For example, Garioch sports centre in Inverurie, which is a community-led organisation, is gearing up to provide childcare to meet demand in relation to the target for my area. It already provides after-school care but is currently expanding and recruiting. I was the chair of my local after-school club for three years, and facilitating the expansion of such clubs—taking an existing facility and talent base and realising their potential—could be a real focus.
In the next few weeks, Aberdeenshire Council’s expansion plans will begin to release additional places, starting with nine local school settings and focusing on those who need places most. During the next academic session, the council hopes to add an additional 20 settings, meaning that 30 per cent of local authority nurseries will be offering 1,140-hour places well ahead of the 2020 deadline.
Of course, we need many more people to consider childcare as a career—both adults transitioning from other careers and young people assessing options for their future. As members will know, I worked at North East Scotland College for many years and I am encouraged to hear of its plans to train many of the north-east’s childcare workforce, which of course it has a long history of doing. It is at the forefront of ensuring that we have the highly qualified workforce that we need.
NESCol is a key partner in the early education and childcare academy, which is due to be launched on 6 March at the beach ballroom in Aberdeen. The academy is made up of representatives from Aberdeen City Council, Aberdeenshire Council, Moray Council, Skills Development Scotland, NESCol and the University of Aberdeen, and partners from private nurseries and senior schools. Already, extensive work has been carried out to create a one-stop shop to allow anyone who is interested in an early years career to quickly access the information that they need on the flexible nature of training and education in the area as well as how to progress within the industry.
NESCol has already created an additional class for an HNC in childhood practice. There are currently 60 students, and the college reckons that at least 50 of them will move directly into employment on graduation.
I will end on a personal note. My 14-year-old daughter is currently applying for work experience and has expressed an interest in early years education. I hope that she will be one of the highly qualified workforce of childcare professionals who deliver this key Government policy. I would be really proud if she did that, and it would be testament to her child minders and nursery teachers, Carol Marshall, Susan Steen, Mrs Forsyth and Mrs Thow, who delivered her early years education and who still mean so much to her.
It is with a degree of irony and guilt that I stand up to speak in a childcare debate on a day such as today. My wife is working from home and looking after our two daughters because the school and nursery that we use are closed.
That underlines a brutal reality: although we talk about flexibility in childcare, there is a brutal bottom line of inflexibility, in that parents have to provide childcare because we have to look after our children, so we must flex our work around whatever childcare arrangements we may have available. That is why childcare has such a huge and significant impact on equalities issues. Unless people have access to quality, affordable childcare, they cannot work. If they cannot work, that will impact on the means available to their family and whether their family is in poverty. In addition, many members have spoken about the impact that early years education can have on the attainment gap. That is why the issue is so important.
Iain Gray touched on the independent commission on childcare reform. We should always look back at its recommendations, which included 50 hours a week of year-round childcare that is capped with a sliding scale so that childcare costs do not exceed a certain proportion of family income. Most important, it recommended that childcare should be flexible to parental need, to remove the stress of mixed provision. That should be our benchmark and our ambition.
To those who have decried Opposition members for being critical or negative, I say that we have made our comments not because we want the Government to fail but because we want the Government to succeed. We make the criticisms and comments not because we think that the issue is easy—we know that it is hard—but because we know that the Government needs to be serious and have clear and coherent plans if it is going to be successful. Above all else, we want the Government to bring forward its plans and to have credible proposals, and to ensure that we have the investment that we need and, importantly, measurable outcomes.
There is an issue about the progress and the reality of what has been delivered so far under the Government’s proposals. The provision of 600 hours has delivered a great deal, but any childcare provider or parent will say that, although what has been provided is welcome, there remain the real issues of funding, availability and flexibility.
Two key components in the delivery of childcare are partner nurseries and local authority-funded nurseries, and both sectors have issues. The partner provider sector says that, first and foremost, we should not talk about “free” hours—they are funded hours. In the breakdown of funding, it is clear from the NDNA’s figures that £3.64 per child per hour will not leave much when staff ratios are 4:1 and the living wage has to be paid. That is pretty obvious. The NDNA states that, for every three and four-year-old who is looked after, a partner nursery makes a loss of £1,000 per year. That is an important point, because partner providers make up 20 to 30 per cent of provision and are a critical part of the expansion.
Likewise, there are issues and constraints around local authority provision, particularly in relation to flexibility. The campaign group fair funding for our kids has found that one in 10 local authority nurseries does not operate beyond the hours of 9 to 5, and provision is marked by fixed slots of morning or afternoon sessions. Last year, figures from the financial review of childcare showed that more than half of local authorities could not even provide lunch. When we talk about flexibility, the reality on the ground is that parents have to provide flexibility around the provision that is available to them; flexibility is not provided for parents. That explains why fair funding for our kids found that 40 per cent of parents were dissatisfied with their childcare arrangements.
We should welcome the Audit Scotland report, because it confirms and reinforces many of the findings that many of us have being trying to raise in the chamber for a number of months and years. It reinforces the inflexibility and the complexity in the system that many have found. When we look at the take-up rates for two-year-olds, we see the issues with the intended provision. Above all—this is one of the starkest findings in the Audit Scotland report—we do not know how many three and four-year-olds are benefiting because of the double counting in the Government’s own figures.
The situation has led Audit Scotland to conclude that
“The impact of the expansion on outcomes for children is unclear as the Scottish Government did not plan how to evaluate this” and that
“There is no evidence that the additional investment has improved the quality of ELC services.”
Those are concerning and worrying insights.
The expansion of free early learning and childcare to 1,140 hours is hugely ambitious—it is almost a doubling of capacity. Audit Scotland is clear that there are shortcomings with recruitment. The minister has acknowledged that 11,000 additional staff are required, but we know that the Scottish funding council has provided only 1,000 additional places. On the basis of the minister’s assessments, we need to train 4,000 people a year, but we will be short of that figure by almost two thirds unless we do something radical in the next 12 to 24 months. The situation is similar with buildings—we are short by almost a half in relation to the capital expenditure required.