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We are confident that, by continuing to work closely with our partners in local government, we will deliver the expansion in early learning and childcare entitlement from this August.
We have always recognised that delivering such an ambitious investment for our children will be challenging and not without risk. It is therefore encouraging that, in its report, “Early learning and childcare: Follow-up”, which was published today, Audit Scotland recognises that we are “making steady progress” towards delivery, that
“progress is broadly in line with plans”,
and that “effective national oversight” arrangements are in place.
In its report, Audit Scotland highlighted how much is to be done, including addressing “significant workforce challenges” and that there is “a big risk” in relation to infrastructure construction. At stake are the flexibility and choice that families need, and that Audit Scotland thinks might not be available in August. Audit Scotland said that “it is likely” that delivering flexibility and choice
“will not be fully implemented” in time.
What will that mean for parents who are looking to arrange their work around their important childcare entitlement? Does the minister agree that parents should not receive take-it-or-leave-it offers?
In August 2020, parents will experience a step change in flexibility and choice over where they access their child’s funded early learning and childcare entitlement, as a result of our introducing the funding follows the child approach, which puts into parents’ hands the power to choose the type of childcare and early learning setting that suits their child and family.
For the first time ever, a parent will be able to go to any provider, as long as the provider meets the national standard, is willing to enter into a contract with the local authority and has a place available. Parents will have the power to do that, which means that private nurseries, local authority nurseries and childminders will be able to offer early learning and childcare.
I expect flexibility and choice to continue to expand as the programme is fully implemented, and I expect further change as parents understand the opportunities that will be available to them from August 2020.
Parents deserve to know whether the expansion is on track where they live, because that will determine whether they can get the full benefit of the policy in six months. However, the Government has refused to provide local breakdowns. The National Day Nurseries Association said that such information would
“help demonstrate what is and isn’t working”.
The expansion of early learning and childcare is a national priority. Will the minister accept that people deserve clarity on whether it will be delivered in full where they live and allow us to see local progress reports?
We will deliver in August 2020. We have a strong governance structure in place in the joint delivery board, which Audit Scotland highlighted as “effective governance arrangements”. I expect the programme to be delivered nationally and locally, and for it to be successful.
As a result of our joint delivery board discussions, we publish regular reports. I will be more than happy to highlight to Parliament those reports and updates if the Lib Dem member is not aware of them.
I listened carefully to the minister’s responses. I accept that the funding may follow the child, but surely that is predicated on there being an adequate number of places and teachers in nurseries to deliver on the commitment.
In its report, Audit Scotland said:
“There are significant risks that councils will not be able to expand funded ELC to 1,140 hours by 2020. In particular, it will be difficult to increase the infrastructure and workforce to the levels required, in the limited time available.”
In the light of that, will the minister guarantee that the system will be fully staffed by August 2020 and able to deliver on that commitment?
The Audit Scotland report confirms that we are broadly on track; we are where we expected to be at this point. Undoubtedly, we have a great deal of work to do between now and August 2020, and for that reason, we have put in place robust contingency plans, for example, for the infrastructure investment.
The data for the Audit Scotland report was collected back in October, and, by January, we were 3 per cent ahead of target on the infrastructure completion rate.
Yes, I am confident. Not only are we ahead of the plan, we have robust local contingency plans in place to be sure that we can deliver in August 2020.
On the workforce, we have been expanding the pipeline for a number of years, through college and university places and in this, apprentice week, I have to highlight the success of our apprenticeship recruitment: we aimed for a 10 per cent year-on-year increase and we achieved increases of 21 per cent in the first year and 24 per cent in the second year. Given that more than half the staff are already in place and a number of local authorities have already completed their recruitment drives, I am confident that we will meet the necessary target.
We are now in March. The policy is promised in August, and the key finding of the Audit Scotland report is that, in the period between, we will be required to find half the workforce increase and deliver half the new infrastructure for the whole programme. Does the minister not think that such a finding demands contingency action rather than assurances that everything is fine?
I assure the member that robust contingency plans are in place with a project of this scale and complexity, despite the fact that, by every measure, we are on track and on target to deliver. Of course, it would be foolish not to have developed robust local contingency plans, and we have done so. That gives me a great deal of confidence that we will deliver in August 2020.
The 2020-21 Scottish budget will deliver a year-on-year increase of £201 million in the revenue funding that local authorities receive for the delivery of early learning and childcare. By the end of the current parliamentary session, the local authority annual revenue funding for that will have increased by £567 million on 2016-17 levels.
On local workforce issues, Alasdair Allan is an MSP for a rural area and will recall that an early concern was that rural areas might not have sufficient people to deliver the extra workforce required and that Brexit might have a particular impact on that through reducing our population of European Union nationals. That is clearly a concern to us, but we are finding that a number of people who are employed part time in early learning and childcare in rural areas are keen to go up to full time. I therefore assure the member that we are on track to deliver in rural areas, as well as in more urban ones.
The Audit Scotland report says that flexibility and choice will not be in place by August; paid childcare for children under three is now at risk due to the expansion; there is no robust way of monitoring the staff drain from the private, voluntary and independent sectors to councils; and there was rushed planning and delayed guidance from the outset. How does the minister respond to those very serious concerns?
I will pick up on the point about delays in finalising key guidance, which I hope will provide Alison Harris with a response on many of the issues that her question raised. Back in March 2017—a full three years before implementation—we confirmed that the ELC expansion would be provider neutral, driven by parental choice and delivered across the public, private, third and childminding sectors.
With our local government and third sector partners, we took a joint decision to consult on the national standard, to ensure that everyone who had an interest had time to consider the issues fully and to contribute their views. That means that we are working very closely with partner providers, local authorities and everyone involved in team ELC, whose level of commitment across Scotland is huge. All of that gives me the confidence to say that we will undoubtedly deliver.