In October last year, when the Scottish Conservatives last brought this topic to the chamber, we highlighted some concerning and urgent issues regarding the implementation of the expansion to 1,140 hours of funded childcare. Those issues focused mainly on the private, voluntary and independent—PVI—sector. The problems were many, but four key issues kept appearing: a lack of access to capital funding for expansion in the PVI sector; a lack of partnership between local authorities and the PVI sector; a material variation in the revenue funding rates that are offered to partner providers across local authorities; and the staff drain from the PVI sector to councils.
So, what has changed? The Scottish Government and the minister will say that they have taken action to address those key issues. However, that has come far too late in the implementation period and, for the most part, has been of little substance with not much effect.
In December 2018, the Scottish Government published a delivery support plan for partner providers, but only two of the new measures in the document’s 20 pages actually tried to address the key problems that we highlighted in October. Therefore, the four key issues are still very much outstanding.
On access to capital funding for the PVI sector, there has been some progress—but bear with me. Back in October, the majority of local authorities had allocated no capital funding to the PVI sector’s expansion to 1,140 funded hours. I asked the minister to clarify the position on capital funding to each local authority. On 14 November, her team wrote to all councils to say that they were permitted to use capital funding for PVI sector expansion, but that that was subject to
“legal and financial restrictions on ability to use capital funding”.
That is little help when the confusion around the legal and financial restrictions has often been the very reason why funding is not allocated.
The recent establishment of the early learning and childcare partnership forum has allowed for some progress in that respect. Councils such as Angus Council and Moray Council have successfully devised a working method of allocating capital funding and have been able to share that process with other local authorities. It seems inconceivable that it took until late 2018 before a successful method of allocating capital funding to the PVI sector was shared. Moreover, it took numerous calls from the Scottish Conservatives and other stakeholders before the Government intervened to help in that regard, even though the issue concerned something that should have been planned for when the policy was announced several years ago. Despite the Scottish Government’s letter, I have been informed that some councils are still not allocating capital funding. Therefore, the lack of access to capital funding, which was brought up last October, is still an issue nearly six months later.
Is the member aware that, in Aberdeen City Council’s budget discussions, it was recommended that funding be approved for the delivery of early learning and childcare expansion and that chief officers approved the business case for projects related to early learning and childcare—[
.] The projects are east Torry new build, Northfield public park—
The picture across Scotland is variable, and I am listening to the private sector.
The next major problem with roll-out that we raised was the lack of partnership between local authorities and the PVI sector. The ELC partnership forum has at least introduced a dialogue between councils and the PVI sector where, in some cases, none had existed. However, one provider recently told me that some local authorities are unwilling to meet funded providers who are already in partnership or, indeed, are willing to meet only when a council-run nursery needs holiday cover.
Partnership is vital to the success of the 1,140 hours policy. I know that the minister agrees that partnership is vital, but it is still not happening in far too many cases, and that is putting the policy in jeopardy. This morning, the minister said that everything is on target and that the policy will be delivered on time. That is the opposite of what the PVI sector is telling us. Who is wrong, minister?
The third key problem is the huge variations in revenue funding rates for the PVI sector. The total revenue funding from the Scottish Government is rising, which obviously is welcome, but significant variations in funding rates across local authorities still exist. The variations are creating a postcode lottery for partner providers. That has implications for partners if the funding rate is lower in their authority. They are prevented by the Scottish Government from charging top-up fees to bridge the funding gaps, but the funding rate alone is not sustainable for their businesses to succeed.
Will Alison Harris clarify a point for me? It is currently unlawful, as the member has said, to charge parents and carers top-up fees for a child’s statutory early learning and childcare hours. That long-standing legal position is laid out clearly in statutory guidance passed by the Parliament in 2014. The position is reiterated in the new national standard to be introduced from August 2020. Does the member agree that statutory early learning and childcare hours should be free at the point of access, or—
Yes, I agree, but the policy must be properly funded.
The variations in funding rates have resulted in some providers now considering pulling out of the partnership; indeed, some already have, as we saw with St George’s school for girls in Edinburgh last week.
The final key issue is the staff drain from the PVI sector to local authorities. The Government says that it is encouraging local authorities to promote from within council staffing pools, but staffing is still a major issue.
Last week, a job was posted on the myjobscotland website for a childcare practitioner at North Lanarkshire Council. The typical salary for an entry-level practitioner role is about £20,500, but the posting advertised for an entry-level practitioner with a salary ranging from £25,000 to £29,000. There is no way that a PVI sector nursery can compete with that level of salary. Which job do members think that a practitioner working in the industry would go for?
The situation is having real knock-on effects on businesses. Recently, one provider lost a manager, a depute, a supervisor and two qualified staff from one setting in a matter of weeks, with all of the staff moving to local authority services for more money, and who can blame them? Meanwhile, the PVI sector’s hands are tied, with no top-ups allowed, and providers cannot compete because of the variation in funding rates around Scotland. The implementation of the policy is frustrating in many ways, because we keep hearing from the Scottish National Party that everything is on track, the partnership approach is working and everyone is happy, but that is just not the case.
The motion calls for the Scottish Government to urgently intervene to fix the flaws in implementation. If it does not, there will be many more examples of businesses withdrawing from partnerships or leaving the sector altogether, which would be to the detriment of children and parents around Scotland.
The minister has acknowledged that the expansion cannot happen without the PVI sector and, with August 2020 around the corner, there is not much time left to fix this. That is why I hope that the whole Parliament will support my motion.
That the Parliament is committed to the delivery of 1,140 hours of funded childcare for all three- and four-year-olds and eligible two-year-olds by August 2020; recognises the growing concerns that are being expressed by private, voluntary and independent (PVI) providers with regard to the implementation of this policy; believes, in light of the most recent evidence from PVI sector providers, some of whom have chosen to end their partnerships with local authorities altogether, that the problems have not yet been addressed, and calls on the Scottish Ministers to take urgent action to address these flaws in implementation.
I will speak more slowly, in that case.
In partnership with local government, we have made an ambitious commitment to almost double the funded early learning and childcare entitlement for all three and four-year-olds, and for eligible two-year-olds from August 2020. It is heartening that today’s motion recognises and celebrates the commitment of members from across Parliament to that transformative policy.
The earliest years of life are crucial for every child, and we all want every single one of Scotland’s children to grow up in a country where they feel loved, safe and respected and where they are able to reach their full potential.
Evidence tells us that if our early learning and childcare are to give children the best start in life, and contribute to closing the poverty-related attainment gap, they must be of high quality. A child’s statutory funded hours must also be free at the point of access, so that no child is held back due to their household’s circumstances.
We do not shy away from the scale of the challenge that we face together in respect of achieving our ambition for 2020: no single part of the system can achieve it alone. Meaningful and genuine partnership working is fundamental to the success of the expansion. We want parents and carers to be able to choose from a range of setting types that offer different patterns of provision, and which all meet the national standard. That means local authorities working in partnership with a range of early learning and childcare settings in addition to working with the nurseries that they run in-house.
Partnership working is not always easy, but the fact that we are making good progress together in our preparations for August 2020 is testament to the commitment, passion and determination of nurseries, childminders, representative organisations and local authorities around Scotland.
I certainly agree. I regularly meet representative bodies: I will meet Purnima Tanuku of the National Day Nurseries Association later this month.
We have put in place, to oversee progress across all aspects of the expansion to 1,140 hours, a joint delivery board, which I chair jointly with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities spokesperson for children and young people. The work of the board is informed by regular submissions of data and intelligence from local authorities on progress in delivery in a number of key areas. We published the first progress report in December 2018, which showed that local authorities are, broadly, meeting forecast delivery progress and remain on track.
It is important to be clear that the expanded entitlement to 1,140 hours will come into force from August 2020: legislation to underpin the expanded entitlement will be introduced in Parliament later in this parliamentary session. We are on a journey to 2020. Local authorities have been asked to phase in the expanded offer and to ensure that the children who stand to gain most from the extra funded early learning and childcare are the first to benefit.
As I said, I regularly meet representatives of private nurseries. I was in a private nursery on Monday this week and, last week, I met people from private nurseries who are members of a group called 2020 together. My door is open, and I am more than happy to hear from, and to work, with private nurseries in order to improve their partnership relationship with local authorities.
In the previous debate on the issue, the minister said that
“Quality sits front and centre of our vision”,—[
, 31 October 2018; c 53.]
which is something to which we all aspire. We are getting a lot of evidence that the independent, voluntary and private sectors do not feel that it can deliver that quality, because the minister’s policy does not give them sufficient investment.
Through the multiyear funding that we agreed last year with local authorities, I am confident that the rates will increase, that they will be sustainable and that the policy is deliverable by 2020. The transition period is hugely important. It allows time for local authorities and partners to work together to refine local plans for provision of 1,140 hours. With 18 months to go until full national roll-out, it is unfair to accuse local authorities of already failing to achieve the ambition to provide 1,140 hours.
I am grateful to the minister for giving way. Is she aware that Child Watch in north Ayr will close in March, which is in part due to South Ayrshire Council providing the poor funding rate of £3.50 per hour? Can the minister intervene in that case, which will mean the loss of a vital facility that serves approximately 200 children?
I am happy to meet John Scott to discuss the matter and to hear more detail. I cannot comment on the individual case: it is not one that I am aware of. However, I would be happy to hear from him and to work with him to solve the matter.
Today is an opportunity for me to share with Parliament some examples of positive progress in partnership working.
The last time we debated the topic, North Lanarkshire Council was the focus of everyone’s attention. It has made incredible progress in strengthening partnership working, which has led to all funded providers in the area being involved in the phased roll-out of 1,140 hours from August 2019. The council has also invested additional revenue funding from the Scottish Government in creating a new grant scheme—as Parliament asked for—which is supporting private providers to prepare for provision of 1,140 hours.
We have ambitious aspirations to ensure that our children realise their full potential. Neither COSLA nor the Scottish Government underestimates the scale of the challenge that is involved in achieving our ambition, but we are committed to working in meaningful and genuine partnership in order to achieve that ambition for 2020.
I move amendment S5M-16122.2, to leave out from “recognises” to end and insert:
“agrees that a child’s early learning and childcare entitlement should be free at the point of access; notes the important contribution of private, voluntary and independent providers and childminders to the expansion of funded early learning and childcare and the implementation of Funding Follows the Child, which will ensure more choice for parents, and calls on the Scottish Government, COSLA and all parties to continue to work tirelessly to promote meaningful partnership working across the country in the interests of children and their families.”
Presiding Officer, I thank the Scottish Conservatives for bringing this subject back to the chamber for debate, following a similar debate in October last year.
At the outset, I state our support for the policy of the Scottish Government, as we have done in the past. The debate is not about opposing the ambition to deliver 1,140 funded hours; it is about expressing the level of confidence that we have in the Scottish Government to meet the 2020 deadline and to deliver for children and families, with the backing of all early years providers. Our level of confidence about delivery is not because we dislike for any one party or any one organisation, but is based on the feedback that we receive from providers, parents and bodies including the NDNA and Audit Scotland.
Scottish Labour believes that childcare should be flexible, affordable and of high quality for all ages, all year round. The delivery of 1,140 funded hours will be an important step in meeting the needs of parents and children.
I repeat what I said in October: our childcare system is in need of urgent reform. The current system would never have been designed as it is from scratch. However, we are at a point at which the Scottish Government’s policy can be delivered only by using the current mix of providers, so it is vital that we address the problems that remain for them.
The flexibility in the policy is of particular concern. The Scottish Government wants to allow local authorities and partner providers to decide how flexible the service they provide is, but we must ensure that that does not lead to a postcode lottery with regard to the early learning and childcare services that parents and carers can access.
Partner providers have once again contacted me ahead of the debate: I appreciate all their comments and the concerns that they have reasonably set out. At the heart of those concerns is frustration about the lack of parity between private and council providers.
First, there is a postcode lottery in Scotland, with local authorities having set different rates for funded providers. The NDNA is calling on the Scottish Government to rerun the Ipsos MORI survey that was carried out in 2016 and identified a sustainable rate of £5.31 per hour. By the time the policy is fully introduced, that figure will be four years out of date. Also, it was based on the 600 funded hours model. That is grotesquely unfair on the private nursery sector, which is expected to pay the living wage to the staff who deliver the funded entitlement.
Further to that, concerns have been raised that the current plans for expansion could lead to a two-tier system in which some early learning and childcare providers pay the living wage and some do not. Instead, there should be, among providers, parity on wages as well as on terms and conditions.
Unison and the Scottish Trades Union Congress have also highlighted disparity in pay between the private, voluntary and public sectors, and Unison has questioned why early years practitioners would put themselves through training only to get less pay than they would get in jobs that require lower qualifications.
At the heart of Labour’s amendment is the acknowledgment that local authorities are under severe financial pressure in delivering a range of public services. Although a £1 billion deal has been agreed between COSLA and the Scottish Government for delivery of the policy, we are concerned that underfunding councils for delivery will have major consequences on other services that are delivered by councils.
Lastly, if we are serious about tackling the poverty-related attainment gap, we must be serious about addressing the wider issues of poverty. We need also to address job growth, job quality and low wages, otherwise the policy of providing 1,140 hours will do nothing to address the problems that affect children of the lowest earners, who should be a priority for everyone in the chamber.
I move amendment 16122.1, to insert after “addressed”:
“; acknowledges the financial pressures faced by councils in delivering local services”.
It is entirely reasonable for Parliament to press Government on the implementation of this broadly agreed policy, given the scale of the moneys that are to be invested in the area and the challenge of that implementation. As many people know, there is a big difference between endless ministerial visits and meetings and the action that is needed to make a policy work.
This debate would not be necessary if MSPs of all political persuasions across the Parliament were not hearing of practical concerns that currently exist. One of those came up at the Education and Skills Committee meeting this morning, at which the committee heard evidence on additional support needs. When asked what training was taking place for staff who undertake early learning and childcare across the sector, the witnesses were not aware of any training or support.
If the policy is to work, it strikes me as important that, given that one in six children in primary 1 classes across Scotland have some additional support needs, the progress through early learning into primary 1 should allow for better monitoring and flagging up of those young people’s needs. As far as I understand it, that issue does not appear to have been addressed at all, but I am happy to be corrected when the minister winds up the debate
Numerous issues have come to light since the policy was announced, and it is not clear to Parliament, never mind to all the practitioners, that they have yet been fully addressed. As recently as January, reports illustrated that private nurseries were pulling out of council funding arrangements for three and four-year-olds because the new extended hours scheme that the Government was offering was not financially viable. Nurseries complained that the Government funding would not cover staffing costs and that they were barred from asking parents to top up fees to make the difference—a point that has just been clarified from the front bench.
City of Edinburgh Council has confirmed that two nurseries have announced their intention to end their Government partnership from 2020. Just before the debate, Willie Rennie told me that, last week, the nursery in Cowdenbeath that his son attended before he went to school closed, also citing the challenges of losing staff to the council nursery. As Alison Harris, rightly, said, who can blame people for choosing to move on when a better salary can be gained elsewhere? The challenge is a significant one—not just in Fife or Edinburgh but, I suspect, right across the country. I know that that is the case in Shetland, too. The Government will have to find a way to address that.
The other day, Professor Aline-Wendy Dunlop of the University of Strathclyde’s school of education said:
“If the government has the ambition to put equity for all children with their closing-the-gap agenda, they can’t afford any further attrition in ... teacher numbers” in the early years sector. That seems to me to be a pretty fair assessment. In January, City of Edinburgh Council announced its plans to replace nursery teachers with early years practitioners in order to save money and tackle teacher shortages. A raft of issues have been raised in response to what is currently going on.
I hope that the Government will accept the representations that are being made to members by organisations such as the Scottish Childminding Association, recognise that there has been a decrease of 4 per cent in the number of childminders between 2017 and 2018, and make serious proposals to address such issues before this policy becomes too difficult to implement.
This morning, in a BBC radio interview, the minister said unequivocally—she has repeated it this afternoon—that she is wholly confident that the early years policy will be delivered, and delivered on time. However, in our debate on the issue in October 2018, she admitted that there were problems, so I am keen to see whether, in her closing remarks, she will explain to the Parliament what convinces her that the policy will be delivered, in the light of the evidence that all parties, including the SNP, are receiving from various private, voluntary and independent providers.
I come back to what the National Day Nurseries Association has said about the lower rates that are being paid to partner providers, the lack of access to capital funding, the lack of full involvement of the private, voluntary and independent sector, and the imbalance that it believes exists because local authorities are much more likely to want to concentrate on the provision for three and four-year-olds—for which it is much easier to deliver economies of scale and cost savings—in comparison with the more staff-intensive provision for one and two-year-olds. That issue is very much coming to the fore as I speak.
I thank the minister for that information, but it is at odds with what we are being told by many providers. [
.] The minister does not want to hear that, but I say to her that they feel very strongly that they are not in a position to deliver the policy. The minister has said several times that the Scottish Government and COSLA are working hard on the policy to ensure that it will be delivered, but Scottish Conservatives—and, I am sure, members of the other political parties—are finding that the evidence points in the other direction.
I see that the minister is shaking her head, but I say to her that we have a lot of casework on the issue. We could give her a whole chapter on that and could spend all day debating the casework that we have received. People such as Mrs Alex Hems from the nursery at St George’s school for girls, which was mentioned by my colleague Alison Harris, are withdrawing from partnerships. Surely that is not a good basis on which the policy can be formed.
I want to be very clear in asking the minister this question: if we are trying to deliver greater choice and flexibility, which we all want to be able to do, does the Scottish Government recognise that, if we do not sort out such issues, the very opposite will happen?
If it is a level playing field that the minister wants, I wonder whether she will give us some update on or answer to the discriminatory anomaly of non-profit-making charitable nurseries in the independent sector being liable to be hit by the withdrawal of business rates relief while private sector providers, which in theory could be making profits, are entitled to it. Not only does that make no logical sense, it does not help with choice and provision, especially if some of these groups pull out of implementing the policy. I would be interested in the minister telling us a bit more about that when she sums up.
If we accept that there is a very significant supply and demand issue here, what the Parliament is telling the Scottish Government is that, on the supply side, we are not as confident as the minister seems to be that this policy will be delivered either on time or with the flexibility, the choice and, most important, the quality that parents want. The minister needs to address that issue.
I will finish there, but I would be grateful if the minister could, in summing up, address the points that I have raised, because they are bothering an awful lot of people in the private, voluntary and independent sectors.
I am delighted to speak in the debate, just as I was when this issue was last brought to the chamber. At the time, I had just joined the Education and Skills Committee, and one of my first duties as convener of the committee was to attend a forum in Rutherglen town hall on 28 October 2018. At that meeting, I had an opportunity to speak to private sector providers, local authorities, childminders and parents who had concerns and issues that they wanted to feed into the committee’s scrutiny of the area. In these debates, it is often easy to forget these kinds of things, but what struck me at that meeting was the overwhelming support of everyone in the room for the delivery of 1,140 hours and their feeling that this was a transformative, ambitious and welcome policy from the Scottish Government. However, they realised that it had to be delivered in partnership.
I would be glad if the minister could tell us about the action that was taken at the time on some of the issues and concerns that were raised at the forum and which have been echoed in the chamber this afternoon. She listened to the concerns of childminders and private providers, and the early learning and childcare partnership forum, which has been introduced, provides a welcome way for people to feed into the process.
In implementing this transformative childcare policy for Scotland, we must also protect the interests of the people who are delivering it and ensure that everyone who is working to deliver the Scottish Government’s policy objective is paid the real living wage. That is highly important. We must also remember the number of modern apprenticeships and apprenticeship opportunities that are being given not only to young women but to young men and, indeed, the concerted effort to improve the number of young men coming into this area. We need only think about the opportunities that are available to and the doors that open for young people who take up a career in care.
The minister mentioned North Lanarkshire Council and the changes that it has made in the past year. I commend the council for introducing the care academy, which is actively going into schools and speaking to young people about the possibility of foundation apprenticeships, modern apprenticeships and opportunities in the care sector.
I am sorry, but no. It is a very short debate and I want to make some progress.
The evaluation that the Government carried out of the trials, which were discussed at length at the meeting that I have mentioned, found that the expansion was positively received by staff and parents and highlighted the importance of good communication with parents, sharing practice and building relationships with partner providers, including childminders. It stated that a
“focus on high-quality professional learning for the existing and new ELC workforce is essential.”
I believe that at the heart of this process is the issue of quality and delivering a really beneficial service for our young people.
I agree with Tavish Scott that it is very important that we scrutinise the process and the Government’s delivery of the model but, as the minister said, it is a journey and we are learning from it. The most important thing that I have heard in the debate has been the minister saying that her door is open to anyone with concerns and that she will meet private providers in the near future. It is important that progress is made in the area.
I am happy to contribute briefly to this debate on early years provision, but I again reflect, as I did the last time that the Opposition brought a debate on education, that we need the Government to give some of its time to discussing the wide range of issues in relation to education and childcare so that we are not constrained and so that we can have a deeper conversation.
I say to Clare Adamson that signing up to the policy and saying that we are in favour of increased provision is the easy bit; the challenge is to ensure that it is deliverable. It is simply not good enough for a Government minister to say that there is no problem, when we are all being told that there is a problem. If the Government wants meaningful partnership, it should not just lodge an amendment to urge itself and others
“to work tirelessly to promote meaningful partnership working across the country”.
I do not know why the Government feels the need to encourage itself to seek meaningful partnership working, but meaningful partnership means listening to people, responding to them and believing them when they say that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. I accept that some of the issue may simply be about negotiations with the private sector and the voluntary sector but, from the representations that have been made to me and others, there is no doubt that there is a problem. It may be an unintended consequence, but it is not sufficient for the minister to cross her fingers, hope for the best and say that, if we believe enough, it will happen.
Concerns have been raised by Audit Scotland, local authorities, the voluntary sector and the private sector as well as childcare groups, which are the very groups that were formed to impose on the public mind the need for a change in childcare provision. All those bodies are highlighting issues, so we need to address those issues. If we are to rely on private and voluntary sector providers to deliver the hours that we all want, we need to have confidence that those providers can do what is asked of them and that the way in which their funding is provided is accurate and meaningful. It is equally important that the pressure on local authorities is properly understood. We cannot cut millions of pounds from local authorities such as Glasgow City Council and then expect them to take on extra burdens such as the ones involved in the transformation of childcare.
We need to understand the benefits of increased hours. There are two different policy purposes, which I will address separately in my remaining time. We want to support parents and carers to work. Too many families have fragile work. For example, a mother might work during the day as a nurse and a father might work at night as a taxi driver. The early years provision could be transformative for such people, so it is essential that it is flexible and available locally. That is the challenge. The half-day provision that has too often been given in the past by local authorities is not good enough.
The minister highlighted the other policy imperative when she talked about the consequential benefits that the increase in hours could have with regard to closing the poverty-related attainment gap. However, simply offering the hours is not enough for some of our most vulnerable children and families. Without a proper and effective strategy for reaching the families whose children would most benefit from early learning, a policy of increasing hours will not contribute to closing the attainment gap. Those people will not simply fetch up at the nursery on their own. I am interested in whether any analysis is being done of the extent to which, where there is increased provision, the poorest or most vulnerable families are taking it up. That is critical if we are to close the attainment gap.
It is a contradiction in policy terms to increase hours but, at the same time, through cutting local government funding, to lose the services that can work with the most vulnerable families in our communities. For example, I am proud of the work of Home-Start Glasgow South, the south-west Glasgow carers centre and others that support vulnerable families to access services. However, we know that there is increased pressure on those groups and that resources are limited, which means that they are chasing funding at the very time when their intervention could make the most difference.
If the policy is to be poverty proofed, it needs to be put in the context of the Government’s broader spending decisions. I urge the minister, given her commitment on childcare, to ensure that those choices are addressed as well as the specific provision.
We know that the transformational policy of rolling out free, flexible childcare to 1,140 hours will bring phenomenal benefits and huge opportunities for children and families throughout Scotland. No one can argue that giving children the best-quality early years education is a bad thing, and I think that members of all parties agree that giving parents the choice to shape childcare to suit their lifestyles can be only a good thing.
Alison Harris’s motion says:
“growing concerns ... are being expressed by private, voluntary and independent ... providers with regard to the implementation of this policy”.
As I said in the debate that we held on the subject last autumn, a project of such size and complexity was never going to be plain sailing during the planning stages, with so many variables at play in local authorities. I do not think that anyone could have reasonably expected the project to be otherwise.
During the previous debate, we heard about a disconnect between some private care providers and local authorities. That is something that I have witnessed in my constituency. However, last month, at a meeting with the early years and education director at East Dunbartonshire Council, I was reassured that much progress has been made and the council is on track to iron out the remaining issues. Most private partnerships are now on board and are happy with how the roll-out is progressing.
I am genuinely sorry to hear that that is not happening in other areas, and I agree with Mary Fee that this should not become a postcode lottery.
The situation might not be perfect, and there were certainly teething problems in my constituency, but regular meetings with stakeholders and focus groups—that is, better communication—have largely sorted them out. It is incumbent on MSPs to engage with local authorities in our constituencies and regions, if we are not already doing so, to follow progress on issues to do with the roll-out.
I am aware that some private providers have concerns, particularly about the agreed rate that is being offered by local authorities. I hope that such concerns can be resolved quickly. During my visits to private providers, I learned that although they want to pay the living wage, the funding allocation makes that difficult for some. Providers also had concerns that pay was leading to an exodus of trained staff to local authorities.
The Government has been at pains to stress that private providers should be in equal partnership with local authorities. We know that private providers are vital in ensuring that the roll-out succeeds.
The Scottish Government has engaged with the independent schools sector throughout the process, but, as we heard, two independent schools have announced their intention to withdraw from partnership from August 2020, because they will be unable to charge parents top-up fees.
The fact is that it is unlawful to charge parents and carers top-up fees for a child’s statutory early learning and childcare hours. That is the long-standing legal position, which is laid out clearly in statutory guidance.
I understand that it is the legal position, but does the member understand the practical position, which is that it is difficult for a nursery to provide care for children when it is not getting enough funding to pay staff and keep the nursery open?
Of course I understand that, but the guidelines are there, and other arrangements must be made to help such nurseries. I understand the difficulties that they are in.
As the minister said, the guidelines will be reiterated in the new national standard for early learning providers, which is to be introduced from August 2020. Parents and carers should not be required to pay top-up fees or buy additional hours to access their child’s funded early years entitlement.
The Government is on track to deliver, despite the issues that still prevail. As I have said before, failure is not an option for this initiative, and we have to work together to make it happen. It will transform family lives and give our children the best possible start in life.
I am grateful to have the opportunity to debate the early years childcare policy again.
How often do we hear the phrase, “the right policy, poorly implemented” in political discussions? The early years policy is so crucial and has such far-reaching consequences, in so many ways, that the Scottish Government does not have the luxury of not getting it right first time.
Let me be clear. The Scottish Conservatives fully support the principles of the policy, just as the partnership nurseries welcome its intentions. The problem is, of course, as the Scottish Conservatives have said in the chamber on many occasions, that good intentions are not being consistently reflected in practice on the ground.
Partnership nursery after partnership nursery has raised concerns with MSPs, as we have heard in the debate. The minister will remember that Alison Harris and I tried to bring those concerns directly to her by arranging a meeting between her and partnership nurseries from 24 council areas. The matter is far too important for us to be playing party politics with it. With that in mind, we thought that the minister would be much more likely to respond constructively if we kept politics out of it. However, the minister had the audacity to suggest that her colleagues—that is, Alison Harris and me—just did not understand the nuances of the policy. How condescending.
Let me tell the minister that we understand the issues all too well. Why? Because Conservative members continue to listen to what partnership nurseries are saying. We understand that the inequalities between the pay structures of council-run facilities and those of partnership nurseries are causing the mass exodus of qualified and dedicated staff from partnership nurseries to council nurseries.
It is obvious, from advertisements for childcare, that there is a lack of equality in the eyes of certain councils, given the lack of information for parents on the variety of options that are available to them. The Scottish Government claims to be delivering choice, but it is delivering the exact opposite. The minister has confirmed that.
We understand that, in some cases, quality childcare that has been provided by partnership nurseries for decades is under threat. We understand that, if we lose partnership nurseries, that quality will be very difficult to replace. More fundamentally, we understand that, without the full integration of partnership nurseries, the policy cannot be successful.
Experienced staff who have long-term relationships with the children in their charge are leaving partnership nurseries, to the detriment of all concerned. I am most concerned about the ability of the childcare sector to ensure adequate cover for under three-year-olds. Lack of cover will impact parents who want to go back to work, as Liz Smith highlighted.
The Care Inspectorate is downgrading nurseries because of the turnover of staff, and there is nothing that partnership nurseries can do about it. They need to accept the funding rates that they are given. From listening to partnership nurseries, we know that they feel sidelined, ignored and treated as an afterthought in the process.
There is a huge disparity in approach across councils. In South Ayrshire, for example, the 1,140 hours will be available for families from Scottish index of multiple deprivation decile 1 areas and perhaps for some families in SIMD decile 2 areas. However, some nurseries have no children in those areas, so they will be excluded. That is not what the Government’s policy document says should happen.
Let us be clear: the Scottish Government’s policy is not being implemented properly, as outlined in the Government’s framework. The Government cannot duck responsibility and leave it to councils to deliver childcare. This crucial policy must work first time round; there is no time to tinker around the edges. If the Scottish Government does not get it right first time, it will find that, when it tries again, the partnership nursery infrastructure, which is crucial to the success of the policy, has collapsed.
It is time for the minister and the SNP Government to get their heads out of the sand and listen to what is happening on the ground. They must make the changes to the policy that are needed for it to be successful. Until they do that, the Scottish Conservatives will continue to give partnership nurseries and parents the voice that they need, and we will continue to press the minister and the Scottish Government to accept their responsibilities.
On Monday, I visited Townhead primary school, in my constituency. It was clear from that visit that the school has a very strong early years ethos—through promoting outdoor learning, for example—and it was a privilege to be taken on a tour of the facilities by the enthusiastic Ms Cowan. We spoke about the potential development of a new local authority nursery on the campus. Such a nursery seems to have been generally welcomed by the community and will meet the needs of youngsters in the area. That is just one example of the amazing early years work that is going on across my constituency and Scotland as a whole. I need to mention my own wee boy’s nursery, which I cannot thank enough for all the work that it does.
As the minister outlined, the Scottish Government is clearly making notable progress towards implementing the fully funded 1,140 hours in the expansion of early learning and childcare. As others have said, the Scottish Government has found that the overwhelming majority of parents are satisfied with the quality of funded provision and with the benefits for their children. The data that has been gathered shows that we are currently on track to meet that ambitious aim.
Despite a slight shortfall in recruitment, more than 11,000 children are enjoying access to more than 600 hours of learning. The Government is tackling that shortfall in recruitment. There has been talk of the vacancy rate being below the national average, with about 11,000 additional workers being required. I welcome the Government’s initiatives, such as the men in early years challenge fund, which seeks to attract more males into the profession via funding for colleges. I applaud the Scottish Government’s work to offer 1,500 additional places on higher national certificate courses in 2018-19. We will see more practitioners being trained up through vocational training routes that are in place at nurseries across the country. We also have a national recruitment campaign that will attract school leavers and people who are looking for a different career path. That is all good news, but, from the Tory speeches and motion, we would not think that there is any good news at all.
That is not to say that there are not difficulties, as has been outlined by the minister and other speakers—even SNP speakers. Lochview and Parkview nurseries are excellent facilities in my constituency that I have mentioned in the chamber before. I agree with what the minister and my colleague Clare Adamson have said about North Lanarkshire Council. It is an example of a council that has turned round its engagement with private sector nurseries over the past few months.
I do not think that I have time.
North Lanarkshire Council has turned round that engagement to the extent that it and the private sector nurseries now work together. In discussions, nursery managers are still raising the concerns that I think Alison Harris raised about the disparity between wages in the private sector and those in the local authority sector, and they are looking to the council to address that issue through those discussions.
I want to mention the give them time campaign and how it fits with the motion that we are debating today. I recently lodged a motion to take the campaign forward, and I thank members for signing my motion and the minister for her engagement with the group. The campaign is based on the fairly simple principle that the choice to defer a child starting P1 is for parents or carers, not local authorities. The group is campaigning not for automatic deferral but for the choice to defer. Unfortunately, parental experience of deferral is inconsistent across local authorities, with many councils being negative and obstructive when it comes to funding nursery places for children whose parents choose to defer. I will go into that in more detail if I am lucky enough to get a members’ business debate on my motion.
In the meantime—
As many members have said, this is a debate that we have had before, most recently in October. It is a pity that we have to keep returning to it, because the minister was right when she said that there is much agreement across the chamber that high-quality, flexible and affordable childcare is critical. The expansion to 1,140 hours is a policy that is supported right across the chamber. There is also agreement that that childcare will have to be provided by a mix of providers if the policy is to be delivered at all and if it is to be delivered with the flexibility that parents will wish to see.
There is agreement, too, that that means that we need to pursue common standards—common training and qualification levels—and the payment of the real living wage to those who deliver funded hours, whatever sector they work in.
We also agree with what the minister said this morning on “Good Morning Scotland”: the delivery of the policy is challenging. Many of those who have spoken today have said that although they agree with the minister, they think that that is rather an understatement.
There are some authoritative voices that agree that delivery of the policy is extremely challenging. We know that Audit Scotland has expressed considerable concerns, particularly about the ability to recruit the required workforce. It is updating its work, and it will be interesting to see what it will say. Unison, which organises in the sector, has raised concerns about the disparity in wage levels between the public and private sectors and the consequences of that—that issue has featured in the debate. The NDNA is still telling us that around half its members say that they will not be able to be involved in the 1,140-hour expansion at all. We do not need the NDNA to tell us that, because we all have nurseries in our constituencies that are telling us all the things that have been discussed and debated today.
A nursery in a colleague’s constituency told her that, over the past 18 months, it has lost three of its most-qualified members of staff to the state sector because they are pursuing better pay. An email from a partner provider nursery to another colleague talks about three contiguous local authorities—all with similar demographic and socioeconomic profiles—that offer partner providers between £4.76 and £5.55 per hour. That is a significant difference, and members can understand why providers are concerned by that. Providers are also being offered different numbers of hours and transition arrangements. There are problems, and there are voices that are raising real concerns. Johann Lamont is right to say that it is not good enough just to shrug those off.
Although there is an agreement with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities about funding for the policy, we must understand that the funding is less than the sum of what individual local authorities are asking for in their plans. We must also understand the local government context at the moment, which is one of squeezed budgets. All that members are asking for in the debate is some acknowledgement of all that.
The minister has said repeatedly that her door is open. However, the trouble is that her ears and her mind seem to be closed to the problems that we are told exist. Both the Tory motion and our amendment are measured and mild, to say the least. They do not denounce the policy and they do not demand that ministers be dragged to the tumbrils so that we can see heads roll. They ask only for a little humility and a willingness to listen to and acknowledge the concerns and evidence of councils and providers, and to seek to address the problems before they compromise the policy, which commands support across the chamber. Surely, that is not too much to ask.
Let me begin by assuring the chamber that I am listening and that I am willing to address the problems that have been mentioned today. I thank colleagues across Parliament for today’s debate. As I said earlier, it is heartening to have heard throughout the debate that shared commitment, across Parliament, to this transformative policy ambition.
We are 18 months away from a national roll-out of 1,140 hours for all three and four-year-olds and eligible two-year-olds, and we are on a journey with our partners in local government and in early learning and childcare settings the length and breadth of Scotland.
I do not underestimate the challenges that are involved, but I am determined and confident that, together, we will deliver for Scotland’s children and families.
Absolutely. There has been much discussion this afternoon about what progress the data does or does not show. I point colleagues to the early learning and childcare expansion delivery progress reports that were published by the joint delivery board. The board is working with the Improvement Service and the Scottish Futures Trust to collect data on the progress of the delivery of expansion programmes across all councils. That is a rich data set that covers all aspects of the expansion.
The first of those reports, which was published in December 2018, covered the period from 1 May to 30 September 2018. It demonstrated that local authorities are broadly meeting forecasts for delivery progress and remain on track to deliver. Indeed, the number of children who are benefiting from additional hours is exceeding local authority projections. I am hugely proud that more than 11,000 children are already benefiting from access to more than 600 hours of funded early learning and childcare, including 1,100 eligible two-year-olds.
That figure is 26 per cent higher than we anticipated. We are already hearing about the positive impacts for children, their families and the practitioners who work with them.
I understand what the minister is saying about the rich data set and the numbers that she has. However, does she know how many children are waiting to go into the 1,140 hours? In addition, of that number how many local authority places are still available, and how much is reliant on the private sector? That is where the gap is.
I assure Michelle Ballantyne that, at the start of the expansion, the proportion of the market that the partner providers occupied was around 23 per cent and that, at the time of the completion of the expansion, it will be around 23 per cent. In the meantime, we have not committed to delivering 1,140 hours until 2020.
To answer Ms Lamont’s point about Glasgow City Council, it signed off plans very recently to accelerate the expansion of early learning and childcare. From August this year, families with a household income of up to £45,000—that is, 90 per cent of families in the area—will be able to access 900 hours of funded early learning and childcare in local authority and private settings.
I think that everyone in the chamber—or nearly everyone; I certainly expect my Labour colleagues to do so—will welcome the fact that up to 8,000 staff in 960 partner provider settings will benefit from a real living wage. That is a largely female workforce.
On the point that Mr Scott raised about ASN training, there is a £2 million inclusion fund that allows settings to bid for funding to support children with additional support needs and to access ELC, and there are funds for staff to receive appropriate training, equipment and adaptations. The most recent funding round closed on 22 February.
On the point that my Conservative colleagues raised about rates relief for independent school nurseries, the non-domestic rates bill will remove that relief and end the inequality. It is unfair that independent schools that are charities benefit from non-domestic rates charity relief and council schools do not qualify. That will be ended.
I appreciate the valuable contribution that the national representative organisations have made. As I said in an intervention, I look forward to meeting the chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association later this month. There is continued dialogue with colleagues at Early Years Scotland, and I will speak at its conference later this year. Later this month, the Scottish Childminding Association, the Care and Learning Alliance and the Care Inspectorate will all support a dedicated summit for local authority colleagues on involving childminders in the 1,140 hours offer.
Flexibility and choice for families are hugely important, and I am grateful to all those organisations for their involvement.
My door is open to anyone who wants to talk about early learning and childcare. In my role, I have the opportunity to visit settings throughout Scotland regularly, and it is incredibly valuable to hear at first hand about progress and challenges.
I am pleased to close the debate on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives.
The message from the debate is clear: the Scottish National Party’s flagship policy is under pressure and, as with many issues under the Government, the rhetoric that comes from the minister does not match the reality on the ground. I say gently, as I do not want to make things too political, that the Government cannot on one hand try to claim the credit for a noble policy ambition and on the other hand just ignore its shortcomings and challenges. That is the Government at its worst, and parents and young people deserve better. It is time for the minister to take responsibility for ensuring that the 1,140 hours provision is the success that many families across Scotland need it to be.
The problem is that the minister has ignored the problems that members across the chamber have raised over the past year, and the task is becoming harder because trust is breaking down. We have heard numerous examples this afternoon, but I will focus on a few from my constituency that sum up the debate that we are having.
It is all very well to say that the policy is going well in some places, but it is meant to be about universal access to 1,140 hours of provision in every local authority area in Scotland. Ahead of the debate, a nursery owner got in touch with me to say:
“The situation in Dumfries & Galloway is ... fraught. There is no consultation nor any trust or partnership ... we are committed to performing high quality early learning and child care but unless something is done immediately there is a high chance of businesses closing.”
Another nursery has been in touch to tell me that, despite having invested thousands of pounds in opening a new nursery following the closure of the only other childcare facility in the town, and meeting an otherwise unmet need among working parents, it has been prevented from offering funded places because the local authority has taken the decision not to commission any new providers where there is an existing local authority nursery.
On that particular issue, in Dumfries and Galloway the share of provision from partner providers and childminders at the start of the expansion in 2016-17 was 38 per cent. At the time of completion in 2021-22, the share is expected to increase to 40 per cent, and of course, the number of hours available will be greater.
That gets right to the nub of the issue. If those partner providers are not there, the policy will fail. It is all very well to talk up the policy, but, as an angry parent who got in touch with me said, the refusal to allow that nursery to open and offer funded places when it is the only provider to offer childcare for 51 weeks of the year is discriminatory to single parents. There are people who will not be able to go to work because it will be impossible for them to obtain the childcare that they have been promised.
Another parent believes that the nursery in question is best placed to deliver outcomes for their child, who requires additional support and will benefit from being in a smaller environment.
The next issue is perhaps even worse. A nursery has been told that its business lease—the nursery is in part of a school, in which it has operated for the past 13 years—is to be terminated. When the nursery asked why, it turns out that it is to make room for a local authority nursery.
Those three examples follow a case that I raised with the minister before Christmas, in which a nursery in Annan that had been asked to deliver 1,140 hours in January was still trying to find out from the council at 4pm on 21 December what its funded rates would be. That does not sound like partnership working to me.
I have chosen not to name the nurseries in question, because I do not want to further alarm parents. However, is the minister willing to personally investigate those unresolved cases and to give a guarantee that the policy that is delivered on the ground is the same policy that the Government has announced? Does the minister accept that such serious, systematic issues and failings at this stage, in one local authority area, are enough of a problem for the Scottish Government to step in, or are we meant to wait until it is too late?
Even the Scottish Government’s own deputy director of early learning and childcare appears to recognise the problem and said in a recent email to directors of education:
“there is a continuing sense at forum meetings that not all providers feel that they are being equally treated by their commissioning local authorities.”
That same official was concerned to hear that the national standard requirements were being incorrectly interpreted in some areas.
If this really is a national policy, when will we see national leadership from the Scottish Government to iron out the differences and to ensure that the whole sector is valued and that the existing skill base and talents offered by the private and voluntary sector are put to maximum use?
The time for warm words and positive aspirations is over. If the policy is going to deliver on its potential, we need action. We need firm commitments from the minister that she is going to intervene and get the policy back on track. Is the minister ready to take full ownership of the policy or would the Government rather blame individual local authorities and focus on regional inconsistencies?
Like the Scottish Conservatives, parents and young people would rather just see the policy fixed, and I urge members to support our motion at decision time.