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From August this year, universal funded early learning and childcare for three, four and vulnerable two-year-olds will increase from 600 to 1,140 hours per child, per year. The Scottish Government promises to provide high-quality and flexible early learning that is accessible and affordable for all families. For the most part, the policy was well intentioned, has been well received, enjoys broad political support and is viewed as a positive step towards encouraging parents back into the workplace and closing the attainment gap, which is vital.
So far, so good. It is hard to disagree with any of that, I hear members say, “So why it is urgent that we have this debate?” Two years ago, Audit Scotland published “Early learning and childcare”, which was a comprehensive report that looked at the increase in provision from 475 to 600 hours per year. It flagged several concerns about the proposals to increase that to 1,140 hours. On page 5 of the 2018 report—right up front—it said:
“There are significant risks that councils will not be able to expand ... to 1,140 hours ... In particular it will be difficult to increase the infrastructure and workforce to the levels required, in the limited time available.”
Just last week, Audit Scotland published “Early learning and childcare: Follow-up”. On page 5 of that report—right up front again—it states:
“These plans are critically dependent on achieving much in a short time ... This creates ... significant risks around getting enough people and buildings in place to deliver the expansion ... it is likely that some aspects of the policy, such as delivering flexibility and choice, will not be ... implemented by August 2020.”
Therein lies the answer to why we are having the debate. Two years ago, detailed, well-researched and independent commentary from a respected institution highlighted the key challenges that the Government faced. Two years on, those same risks are repeated, almost word for word, in the 2020 report.
Against the helpful backdrop of political consensus on the policy, today’s debate is crucial in bringing to the attention of ministers the fact that, out there in the real world, there are real concerns. There is genuine good will in the chamber to support the roll-out of the additional hours of provision, but the Government ignores our concerns at its peril.
Following the initial expansion of early years provision in other parts of the United Kingdom, there are many lessons to be learned. Following the release of two in-depth Audit Scotland reports on the deliverability of the policy, one would think that the Scottish Government was armed with more than enough best practice, historical learnings and reality checks to have, at the very least, the modesty to admit that the policy is proving to be an almighty and challenging promise to deliver. However, in the absence of such modesty, as the Government’s amendment predictably and disappointingly illustrates, the issues that we highlight today will be ignored.
Our motion positively welcomes the Government’s ambition and rightfully acknowledges the cross-party support that that ambition continues to receive. In our motion, we point ministers in the direction of Audit Scotland’s report, which notes some basic but important elements of the roll-out that pose a risk to its success. Those comments mirror the concerns of stakeholders who we have spoken to in the past few weeks.
Many eyes are on us today, such is the interest in getting it right. I say to those on the Government benches, “Please listen and let us help you to get it right.”
There is a lot to cover, so I have chosen a few themes that strike me as the most pertinent and most in need of being the focus of our attention. First, Audit Scotland’s report focuses on concerns over the infrastructure and workforce requirements to deliver the policy fully and on time. The second theme is sustainable funding and the role that funded providers will play, and the third is how the policy is being communicated by local authorities to early years providers.
Audit Scotland’s report raises serious concerns about whether local authorities will have the staff, capital infrastructure and networks in place to deliver the Government’s ambition in five short months. By September 2019, the number of staff who had been recruited to meet council-delivered demand was around 4,300, which is about half of the 8,200 staff that they will need to be fully staffed. By any measure, that is some way off target, and that is before we discuss the funded provider sector, which is also struggling as many staff move from private to council settings.
The minister will be keen to wax lyrical about what the Scottish Government has done so far and, today, she will no doubt point towards the increase in training opportunities and Government initiatives that are under way to improve recruitment. That is all very welcome, but the numbers speak for themselves. What started as an absolute guarantee from the minister to deliver the policy by August 2020 last week turned into the comment that:
“We are confident that ... we will deliver ... this August.”—[
, 3 March 2020; c 4.]
Confidence is one thing; the ability to deliver is another. How the Government is going to double its recruitment numbers in a few short months is beyond me.
The people are not there and neither is the infrastructure. We are some way behind in the provision of the physical classrooms and buildings, the shared back-office systems, and the billing and financial reconciliation processes. Audit Scotland could not have been clearer on that. It said that
“Any delays to this will impact on service delivery”,
which we are already starting to see. In Renfrewshire, delays to a major refurbishment of Lochwinnoch nursery have local councillors worried about whether they will cope with the increased demand that is placed on them. A council-run nursery in North Ayrshire had 60 applicants for just seven places. The cracks are already beginning to show.
The problem with loading capacity-building projects into the final few months means that any delay to those projects runs the risk of derailing delivery at the last moment. The Government talks about contingency planning in its amendment, which is surely a thinly veiled admission that all is not well. What are the so-called contingency plans and why do we need them?
On the face of it, as I said, the policy sounds all well and good. Few parents will complain at their nursery bills dropping from £700 to £200 a month, which leads me to a crucial point in the debate: funding and sustainability. The Scottish Government was eager to promise that local authorities will pay a sustainable rate to funded providers that will cover the true cost of running the service and providing a living wage to staff and allow for future investment and expansion in premises. However, unless someone has been living in a cave for the past six months, they will know that that is not playing out as intended.
In part, that is because some local authorities were underfunded from the outset. The Scottish Government tasked local authorities with setting out their financial projections for how much the expansion would cost to deliver in revenue and capital terms. Local authorities diligently costed the expansion and submitted their figures to the Scottish Government. However, 12 councils found that they will receive less revenue funding than they asked for, and 18 councils received less capital funding than they estimated was needed to increase capacity, as was the case for South Lanarkshire Council.
However, the big elephant in the room is the issue of funding and the sustainability of the rate that funded providers are being offered to deliver the additional hours in return for signing up to the scheme. Today, many nurseries survive only by topping up the subsidised 600 hours per child per year rate; they have to be up front with parents about the hourly rate that they will charge and about what they will get for their money. Under the new contract, providers will have to deliver the funded hours at the agreed rate of subsidy, with no top-ups or extras. For many, that rate is less than the cost of providing the care and learning. Therefore, we need to have a sensible discussion about what constitutes a sustainable funding rate and why there is so much unexplainable divergence across Scotland.
To make ends meet, providers will face stark choices, none of which appeals to them very much. They can increase the rate that they charge for additional hours—the hours above the 1,140—and some have already done so by as much as 15 per cent, which will hit hardest those families who need more hours.
To make ends meet, providers could reduce the quality of service. As one nursery described, at the moment, parents get bells and whistles, high-quality, freshly prepared food and tonnes of extra-curricular activities. With the new rate, the nursery might have to charge extra for those services or reduce the quality of the experience. We know who the losers are in that equation, as the people the funded hours seek to help can least afford the extras. Many providers will give preference to applicants who want full-time places or require more hours, which will hit parents who want to work or study part time.
The Scottish Government promised a “provider neutral” approach to ensure that funding follows the child through whichever means of care the parents choose. The Government will stick to those lines today but providers have no way of tracking the child, money or hours.
The third point that I will raise is on communication, consultation and the roll-out of the policy. Providers raise their concerns with us and with the Scottish Government. The Scottish Government is failing in its duty to foster relationships between providers and the funding authorities. In its stakeholder outreach, the Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee found that there is major tension between local authorities and many providers. Many private and third sector nurseries feel as though they are being ignored by decision makers. The Government knows that there is tension, but it cannot abdicate its responsibility to ensure that all providers of early learning and childcare are funded properly, as it claims that the policy will do.
What is the point of expanding early years funding? The Government says that it is to improve the attainment of our children, to encourage parents back into work and study, and to improve family wellbeing. Those are admirable aims, but they must also be measurable.
The Audit Scotland report rightly raises concerns about the absence of a robust strategy or the baseline data that is needed in order to analyse properly the short, medium and long-term success of the policy. If we cannot confidently analyse outcomes, how will we know whether the investment has offered value for money?
I have barely scratched the surface of the ground that we need to cover today. Since the expansion was first mooted by ministers, ELC providers have been forthcoming and vocal about their issues around recruitment and sustainability and their concerns about maintaining the high levels of quality of care that they want to provide. All those concerns have been vindicated in two Audit Scotland reports.
The Scottish Conservatives will work constructively with the Government to help it deliver that policy, but that requires the Government to work constructively with those who are tasked with delivering it. The nothing-to-see attitude in the Government’s amendment is unsustainable and untenable. I will take no joy in coming back to the chamber in five months’ time to say to the minister, “I told you so,” but, unless the members on the Government benches listen carefully to what is being said here today, I fear that I might have to do just that.
That the Parliament recognises the strong cross-party support for the expansion of funded childcare to 1,140 hours; expresses its concern however, regarding the findings of the most recent report by the Auditor General for Scotland and the Accounts Commission,
Early learning and childcare Follow-up
, which states that certain risks remain around buildings, staffing and the sustainability of the private, voluntary and independent sectors; is concerned that the report notes that it is likely that flexibility and choice for parents will not be fully implemented by August 2020, and that any delays to the expansion will impact service delivery and families who are planning to use these services, and demands that the Scottish Government urgently addresses these concerns.
In September last year, 50,000 children across Scotland were already benefiting from additional high-quality early learning and childcare—high-quality learning and care that we know, from international evidence, can transform their lifelong outcomes.
The expansion is already happening. Nurseries have been, and continue to be, extended, refurbished and built. Staff at all levels have been, and continue to be, recruited. However, the most important thing—the reason why the Parliament supports the policy—is that children are already benefiting, and many more will benefit as of this August. Yes, there is still much to do. However, we are confident that by continuing to work closely with our partners in local government—as we have done from the beginning—we will have a successful delivery of the expansion of early learning and childcare in Scotland.
In its report last week,
Audit Scotland recognised the progress that we have made. I want to start by reading out the first two lines of the key messages in that report, which say:
“The Scottish Government and councils are making steady progress to deliver the expansion of funded early learning and childcare (ELC). At a national level, progress is broadly in line with plans to deliver the increased hours by August 2020.”
As I will go on to explain during the debate, I am absolutely confident that we will deliver in August 2020, and I will give my reasoning for that.
The report goes on to remark that there is
“effective national oversight of the expansion”.
It is right that Parliament debates the challenges in delivering such an ambitious transformation programme, but first let us recognise what has already been achieved. That progress is testament to the hard work and commitment of team ELC.
I want to put on record some of the results of that hard work and commitment to date:
50,000 children already benefiting from additional hours; 4,310 full-time equivalent staff in post, a year before delivery, with hundreds more having been recruited since the September data collection; around 5,000 additional college and university places in ELC over the past three academic years; year-on-year growth in ELC modern apprenticeships, with more than 2,000 new starts last year; 361 capital projects already complete; and private and third sector partners now expected to deliver 28 per cent of total places, which is up four percentage points on original forecasts. That is real progress, with real achievements, created through real partnership across the whole system.
The minister will be aware that the Peedie Breeks nursery in Orkney is scheduled to close in July. What consultation has she had with the local council about meeting the gap there? Is she still confident that the expanded-hours target will be met in Orkney by August, given the closure of that important nursery?
From my communication with the local authority, I understand that it is confident that places are available in the system already, despite the fact that that nursery has to close because of the dereliction order on the building that it operates from.
I have always recognised that delivering such a major transformation programme is not without risk. Effectively managing risk is key to successful delivery of any major public reform. Audit Scotland has highlighted two key areas of risk, around infrastructure and workforce. We have not only identified those risks but have designed robust actions to address and mitigate them. I will take each in turn.
On i nfrastructure, the data on capital projects in the Audit Scotland report is from October 2019. Significant progress has been made since then. Councils now tell us that, as of January 2020, 40 per cent of all capital projects are already complete, which is 3 per cent ahead of projections. Good risk management demands good contingency planning. Again, there is clear progress since October.
In January, councils had robust contingency plans in place for all critical projects that are due to complete this summer.
As Jamie Greene will be aware, members are perfectly at liberty to explore the robust contingency plans with the local authorities in their areas. I have been assured by my work—and the joint delivery board has absolutely been assured—that there are robust contingency plans in place for critical infrastructure.
Why does the member not ask his local authority? Why does he not work with his local authority, just as I am doing?
I turn to the workforce. It bears repeating that over half of the required workforce has already been recruited, and I am sure that Parliament will agree that prudent use of public money requires local and national Government to plan and phase recruitment so that staff are in post for when they are needed.
In March 2018, I asked the minister whether she would guarantee that local authorities would not be short of staff. She said:
“I will absolutely give a guarantee that we will find ourselves with enough staff by 2020.”—[
, 1 March 2018; c 2.]
Does she stand by that guarantee?
Yes—I guarantee that we will not find ourselves short of staff by August 2020.
I know that there are concerns about movement of staff from private and third sector settings to local authorities. I assure all providers that everything that we do nationally to support the ELC workforce is done to support every sector—private, public and voluntary. The creation of more training places, free advertising for private providers and councils growing their own are all part of the solution.
We will come on to the issue of childminders, but I note that childminders are expected to more than double the proportion of ELC that they provide in the national picture. There are more childminders registered as partner providers with the local authorities than ever before, and this is an opportunity for me to highlight yet again that childminding is absolutely a fabulous choice for any family who want to use their childcare hours with a childminder.
There is more that we can do, and I am listening and will act. Our updated delivery support plan will include further actions to support our partner providers across the country and address recruitment and retention challenges.
I will say a few words on partnership. No single part of our early learning and childcare system could deliver the policy alone, and that is why it is encouraging to see Audit Scotland conclude that
“the Scottish Government, COSLA, councils and other stakeholders are continuing to work well together”.
I genuinely believe that we are on track because we are working effectively together, and that “we” is broad, as it includes the Government, councils, public bodies, private and voluntary nurseries, our childminders and more. It is team ELC.
I know that there remains much work to do, but I am confident that, with the continued close partnership working that has characterised the expansion so far, we are on course to deliver the most generous, high-quality early learning and childcare offer in the UK, which can transform the lives of our children.
I know that this Parliament cares as deeply as I do about the future of our citizens in Scotland. I know that we agree with this investment in our citizens’ earliest years because of the benefits that it will bring to children, their families and their parents. I challenge members who contribute to the debate to ensure that children remain at the heart of their contributions and at the heart of their scrutiny of our progress in building a system of high-quality, expanded early learning and childcare.
The policy is not about buildings, recruitment, hours or even the flexibility of those hours for those things’ own sake; it is about improving children’s lives. From day 1, it has had quality at its heart because we know that we will improve children’s lives only if their experience of ELC day in, day out is of the highest quality. The benefits will be felt in every community in Scotland, and it is right that there is support across Parliament for such a transformational policy.
I move amendment S5M-21177.3, to leave out from “recognises” to end and insert:
“welcomes the findings of the most recent report by the Auditor General for Scotland and the Accounts Commission,
Early learning and childcare Follow-up
, that ‘the Scottish Government and councils are making steady progress to deliver the expansion of funded early learning and childcare’; notes that the Scottish Government remains committed to working closely and effectively in partnership with councils to ensure that the expansion to 1,140 hours will be delivered from August 2020; recognises that a major and ambitious transformation programme is always subject to risk and challenges, but that the Scottish Government and councils have robust plans and contingencies in place to address these risks and challenges, and places on record its appreciation of the hard work and commitment of thousands of early learning and childcare professionals across Scotland who are working tirelessly to deliver the expansion while offering high-quality learning and care to young children.”
I welcome the opportunity to open the debate for Scottish Labour. We have long supported the ambitions behind the early learning and childcare expansion to 1,140 funded hours. With only five months until the expansion’s deadline, the Audit Scotland report is a timely intervention.
Scottish Labour welcomes the finding of the follow-up report into early learning and childcare, as we welcomed the initial report in 2018. Both reports show the scale of the expansion of funded ELC and the challenges to be faced then and now. We thank the Conservatives for using their debating time to discuss the Audit Scotland report and the overall expansion, once again. We will support the motion this evening and we ask for support for our amendment, which seeks to raise a crucial issue surrounding payment of the living wage.
The Audit Scotland report highlighted a range of risks and issues with the expansion, on which the Tory motion reflects. However, we believe that it is vital to close what we see as a loophole, which Audit Scotland highlighted. Legal advice shows that private providers may not have to pay their staff the living wage. We want the Scottish Government to acknowledge that loophole and set out how it plans to address it in the coming months.
The Audit Scotland report includes a range of recommendations based on its findings. We hope that the Scottish Government and councils act on the recommendations to minimise consequences that put the expansion at risk. The most significant challenges to the expansion are recruitment of staff and building of infrastructure projects. With only a matter of months until the August 2020 deadline, it is disappointing that those problems continue to be raised, which shows that the initial policy—welcome as it was—was hastily thrown together by ministers and introduced without any real action plans behind it.
In the next four to five months, the number of additional staff that will be required in council settings is estimated to be more than 2,200, which is about 27 per cent of the number of full-time equivalent staff required for the whole expansion. That is a major challenge for councils, but it is not the only recruitment challenge. Partner providers have reported a series of problems with recruitment and retention; councils expect them to play a larger role in the expansion, which means that those challenges have become more problematic.
In the West Scotland region, I have heard anecdotal evidence that some private nursery staff are leaving for council-run nurseries, and that is not restricted to my region. The Audit Scotland report points out the worries of funded providers, which they and other organisations have reported many times in the past few years.
The Conservatives will support the Labour amendment, which makes a very valid point. The reality is that funded providers in the private sector are struggling to deliver on the new rates that have been made available to them. Does Mary Fee agree that they have the ambition to pay their staff more to try to retain them and stop them from moving to council sectors, but that they need to be adequately funded in the first place?
I am grateful to Jamie Greene for his intervention. It is obvious that funders and providers need to be able to pay their staff the living wage and that they need to be properly supported and funded by local authorities. That issue needs to be examined further, as we go forward.
The anecdotal evidence is that some staff are returning to the private sector after a few months. That might be slightly helpful to some providers; however, it raises further questions about the sustainability of funded providers and the recruitment and retention of council-run services. The movement of staff between sectors—for which the planning should have started long before now, so that effective plans could be in place—needs to be better monitored at national and local levels. The recruitment and retention challenges for funded providers risk the sustainability of those services—if they are not sustainable, that would be a great loss to staff and to children and, most importantly, their families.
The biggest risk of the expansion surrounds the infrastructure projects that are due for completion before August 2020—that is only five months from now. Audit Scotland has told us that the infrastructure risk has risen to the maximum level. Half of the places that are expected to be created will come through infrastructure projects that are due to be ready between July and August. According to the Audit Scotland report, that equates to 303 projects, and we are warned that 250 of those are “critical” to meeting the expected demand.
We have also found out that there are a lack of contingency plans in place for many of the projects. Audit Scotland has told us that 83 are expected to be completed in the short space of time before August. For another 39 projects, we do not have such assurances.
Audit Scotland highlighted that Brexit would have an impact on the building work. However, we also face a greater threat that was not realised in the report: the potential spread of the coronavirus. I accept that the Scottish Government, like the rest of us, would not have factored a global pandemic into its planning. However, it knew the risks of the infrastructure programme in 2018, when Audit Scotland released its initial report. Two years later, those risks are the most pressing issue—with only a matter of months before the deadline.
Audit Scotland tells us that the expansion was ambitious. We have concerns that the speed of the expansion might have been poorly conceived. The expansion poses risks to the sustainability of partner providers and childminders. It is teetering on the edge, and the only way that we will find out about its success or failure will be through the experience of children and their families.
The Scottish Government has five months to get it right, and five months to prevent families from being let down. It must listen to the recommendations from Audit Scotland and to the Parliament today.
Scottish Labour wants to see the best quality childcare, led by committed, dedicated and well-paid staff.
I move amendment S5M-21177.1, to insert after “independent sectors;”:
“notes with regret what has been identified by Audit Scotland as a possible loophole that prevents staff being paid the real living wage;”.
I am grateful to the Scottish Conservatives for using their business time to enable us to debate progress in the expansion of funded childcare.
If we deliver the policy properly and fully—that means the hours and the flexibility—the lives of more children and families can be transformed. Families are, and more will be, able to spend more on food, housing and leisure. People might be able to afford to work fewer hours and families could spend more time together.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child tells us that a child has a right to develop
“to the maximum extent possible.”
One way in which we can help our youngest citizens to develop to that “maximum extent possible” is by ensuring that they and their families have access to high-quality early learning and childcare that are delivered by well-trained staff who are paid at least the living wage, and in buildings that really work for the people who work and learn in them. That is—it has to be—a partnership effort in which local authorities and the independent and voluntary sectors are at the heart of delivering Government policy. However, the Government needs to be absolutely clear that the buildings and workforce exist to deliver the transformative policy.
The minister suggested that if we wish to learn more about the robust contingency plans we should ask local authorities. However, I expect that the minister will have greatest oversight of the plans, and should be able to explain that to Parliament.
As we have heard, and according to Audit Scotland, infrastructure poses the largest risk to the offering of 1,140 hours. Its 2018 report found that
“getting enough buildings and facilities ... in place to deliver the increase in hours was a risk”.
It has now said that that
“remains the case” and is
“very likely to occur and will have a very high impact”.
The data that councils have provided shows that only around 30 per cent of infrastructure projects were complete by October last year. It is certainly the case that much of what is in the Scottish Government’s plans rests on the ability to achieve a great deal in a very short space of time. Audit Scotland said in its report that
“Almost half of the places to be created through infrastructure development are due to be ready between July and August 2020”.
That very challenging timescale creates its own pressures. It not only increases the likelihood that a delay will directly affect the services that are available in August 2020, but means that a large volume of new places might be being registered at once, which could create capacity issues for the Care Inspectorate.
Buildings are where the important work of childcare takes place, but as we have heard, it is the workforce who make our nurseries by looking after our youngest children and helping them to develop. Important workforce challenges remain in all sectors: in September 2019, councils still needed to recruit about half the additional staff who will be required for the expansion.
Moreover, as Mary Fee was quite right to say, Brexit is likely to impact on delivery of the policy. It is estimated that non-UK European Union nationals account for about 7 per cent of the daycare workforce. Given the significant number of additional staff who must be recruited in order to achieve delivery of 1,140 hours per child, any reduction in the workforce could significantly delay plans. I note that the Tory motion does not mention that.
The excellent briefing that Close the Gap has provided for today’s debate stresses the need to end the extreme gender segregation in the ELC workforce in order for the policy to be delivered. Close the Gap said:
“If more men are to work in the care sector there needs to be an economic imperative to do so, with appropriately remunerated jobs with clear progression pathways as evidence that it is a good career choice. Women continue to comprise 97% of the ELC workforce”.
I argue that those women continue to be undervalued and underpaid.
Scotland is striving to be a better place for children and young people to grow up in, so initiatives such as the baby box and the best start grant are warmly welcomed. However, the debate is taking place in the context of increasing child poverty, Therefore, each and every measure that we take to improve the lives of Scotland’s youngest people is important.
I wish that we had more time to consider the production and sharing of food in nursery schools. Why are we building nursery schools that do not have kitchens? I also wish that we had time to consider the impact of expansion on closing the attainment gap.
I will support the Conservative motion this afternoon; it is factual. I understand why the minister focused on the positive findings in the report—there are many—and I agree with her that delivery will be challenging. However, I am still unconvinced that she fully appreciates the scale of the challenge that we face.
I do not have much time left. I must thank the people who work in childcare. I volunteered—some time ago—in my daughter’s nursery school. At the time, there was no flexibility; my daughter attended for two and a half hours per day. I used to go in on a Thursday morning, when I would help to prepare snacks and would read stories. At the end of those two and a half hours, I was always absolutely exhausted, so I appreciate how hard, albeit rewarding, the work is. Everyone who works in the sector deserves fair pay and the best training and on-going support.
I have been contacted by constituents who are concerned about the on-going lack of flexibility. One mum told me that she wants to work two full days but has been offered five mornings of childcare: the offer does not match her requirements. Nurseries in my region and outwith it have brought up the issue of the sustainable rate: if we want to deliver the policy, it has to be sustainably funded.
I appreciate that I must draw my remarks to a close, Presiding Officer.
I thank Jamie Greene for giving Parliament the opportunity to debate the Government’s progress in expanding early learning and childcare. T he expansion is an important policy that my party wants to be fully realised. High-quality childcare provision is essential in giving all young people the best start in life; it is one of the best investments that we can make. However, as members have discussed in Parliament before, there are many issues that raise questions not about the direction of travel but about how we are getting there.
The guiding principles of the ELC expansion are quality, affordability, flexibility and accessibility. As members have said, Audit Scotland reports that it is likely that flexibility and choice for parents will not be fully implemented by August 2020. Just this week, I was contacted by a parent who said that, come August, their child will not be using her full 1,140 hours entitlement at a local authority nursery, and that they would like to use the remainder of the hours during school holidays at a private nursery that will be a partner provider. However, the local authority has told them that they cannot use the remaining hours at that nursery, so they will have to pay for care themselves or remove the child from a nursery in which she is settled, and enrol her full time at the private nursery. That does not represent flexibility or affordability.
There is an urgent need for the Government to clarify guidance to local authorities to ensure that they are informing parents correctly. That is another example of the “Take it or leave it” approach that I am worried will be the experience of too many parents from August.
I noted the minister’s careful choice of words during topical questions last week. She said:
“I expect flexibility and choice to continue to expand”.—[
, 3 March 2020; c 5.]
Parents will not be satisfied with having to wait until some date in the distant future for childcare hours that work for them. Parents need to know what will be available to them in their local authority so that they can make plans.
August is only five months away. The Government has data from every local authority on the progress that it is making towards being ready for August 2020. It is frustrating that that important information is not in the public domain. In its most recent progress report in December, the Improvement Service said:
“there is significant variability seen across the country”.
That is not detailed enough: we need to be able to hold ministers to account. Scottish Liberal Democrats have lodged a series of parliamentary questions to try to get the information. I asked the minister last week whether she will allow us to see the data. We have been told that the Government has no plans to place a copy of the information in the Scottish Parliament information centre, and that withholding the data is in the public interest. I reject the idea that hiding the data is in the public interest. Will the Minister commit today to publishing the data?
I have another question to ask the minister. Right now, parents who choose to defer their child’s entry to school will be paying for childcare because their local authority did not approve funding for another year of ELC. Others will be choosing to send their children to school against their better judgment because they cannot afford to pay for childcare. I have written to the minister to ask that parents who have had to pay for childcare be reimbursed. Has the minister considered that proposal? Why cannot a Scottish statutory instrument be laid in Parliament this year that would guarantee that parents who exercise their right to defer will automatically receive funding?
We cannot end up in a rush to the finish line. As Mary Fee pointed out, we now know that 250 infrastructure projects that are critical to meeting demand are due to be completed between June and August, but that 83 of those projects have no contingency plan. Between April and September, councils will need to recruit 27 per cent of the additional staff who will be needed. Quality must continue to be at the forefront if we are to improve outcomes for our youngest children.
I support the motion and call on the Government to urgently address the issues that are being highlighted this afternoon.
I welcome the opportunity to debate the policy, because it is one of the most important in our most recent manifesto. The expansion to 1,140 hours of childcare will be transformational for the lives of many of our citizens. Nothing that we do as legislators or politicians is more important than that.
In supporting our communities, it is absolutely vital that we tackle the attainment gap and reduce poverty. The policy will allow more parents to get into work and give them the opportunity to take advantage of the workplace. It will also ensure that the highest-quality education is given to our young people at the earliest opportunity.
I repeat the statement that the minister quoted from the report:
“The Scottish Government and councils are making steady progress to deliver the expansion of funded early learning and childcare ... At a national level, progress is broadly in line with plans to deliver the increased hours by August 2020.”
Progress is already being made, and we can look to the 50,000 children who are already in receipt of expanded childcare.
I am sorry; it is not up to me to promote Clare Adamson.
In a previous debate, you raised concerns about the sector in your constituency. Are you now comforted by what has been said, and are you happy that the expansion will be delivered in your constituency, despite what you said the last time we debated the matter?
I believe that every member in the chamber is absolutely focused on delivering the best for our young people. Doing so involves scrutiny and taking on board what has been said by Audit Scotland. I go back to its point that we are making the steady progress that was expected. Members should believe that if progress had stalled and we were in a worse position than was set out in the previous Audit Scotland report, the new report would say so.
It is disingenuous of politicians to demand guarantees right now. As a population, we are facing one of our biggest challenges in that we do not know what will happen with the coronavirus. It could impact on all sorts of areas. To pretend that it is not a risk is also completely and utterly disingenuous.
I thank Mary Fee and Alison Johnstone for acknowledging that Brexit has also had an impact on how we deliver this policy, including in respect of recruitment of people to the building trade, who are required in order that we can deliver the capital investments. Without free movement of people, we cannot encourage people to come to Scotland to work in what will be a transformational childcare opportunity.
Yes, there are challenges. As convener of the Education and Skills Committee, I have listened to our focus groups and to the concerns of childminders and private providers. We took those concerns to the Government and it has listened. It is working with those parties on finding solutions. It is incumbent on us all to acknowledge the progress that has been made and the work that has been done, and to make parents realise that it is an amazing opportunity for their young people that we are working as hard as we can to deliver.
The policy is important, because its anticipated outcomes are about having early learning and childcare of the highest quality. That means that we have to look to the fair work agenda and ensure that people are paid well for the work that they do. That is crucial for our young people. I make no apology for the equal pay guarantee that is being asked of private providers. I take on board Mary Fee’s concerns in that regard, but we feel very positive about it. If there are differences between the local authorities that are paying the real living wage and the private sector, business models will need to be examined. People must have a fair-work entitlement attached to their employment.
We are trying to make the scheme affordable for all parents. Recently, there has been budget setting and there has been talk about tax changes and about who pays more and who pays less tax. The policy is a £4,500 investment in each of our young people.
I know from discussions with my children’s friends and the children of my friends who will benefit, or are already benefiting from the expanded hours—sadly, not from discussions with my own friends, because I am a bit outwith the generation that has young children—that the policy has made an immense difference to the capabilities of their families, because they have secure and high-quality funded places for their children. Flexibility exists and is important. The fact that the model of the funding following the child is built into the policy gives parents flexibility and the chance to choose what is best for them.
At the beginning of the debate, Jamie Greene set out the background and the reasons for the concern. All too often, a policy that sounds good on paper is hard to implement in practice: it might create unintended consequences, or it might challenge the very things that it seeks to promote.
The 1,140 hours policy has broad support, because we know that a good start in life can make an enormous difference to a child’s life chances, both socially and economically. However, to deliver the desired aims, we must ensure that the policy buttresses the work and capabilities of providers in the public, private and voluntary sectors. The policy is teetering on the edge of failing to achieve its goals. Although I have listened to the minister’s repeated assurances that all is well, I respectfully suggest to her that that obstinate position fails to engage with some of what is underpinning the weaknesses of the roll-out. As a result, she might be endangering the very things that the policy seeks to deliver.
I have visited many nurseries, and I see excellent progress on the provision of good-quality environments and early learning education. I agree that there is huge commitment by local authorities and by private and third sector providers to giving our children the best start. Quality of delivery for children was always at the heart of nurseries. I remind the minister that the underpinning of quality standards in the policy came later. Many providers were working without clarity about roles or quality standards long before the standards came in. She has had to rely on the good will of those partners during the roll-out.
Flexibility and choice were at the heart of the original proposition, but they are now threatened with being lost if actions are not taken. The principle was that funding would follow the child—a point repeated by the previous speaker. However, parents who work know that they can need childcare from the first year of their child’s life, and they require hours that are flexible and can cover a full working day and travel time. Wraparound care that is accessible allows them to be confident that their children will thrive.
Absolutely, and that is where I have most of my concerns about the roll-out of the policy.
Local authority provision is inevitably focused on the three to four-year-old age group, and less than 10 per cent of it is the 8 am to 6 pm provision that working parents—particularly lone women who need a full-time job—might require.
When the Government handed control of the delivery and funding of the 1,140 hours policy to local authorities—without a plan, I hasten to add—it made the market subordinate to local authorities’ priorities and needs. As a result, parental choice and flexibility were put at risk, not through ill will, but due to the challenges of delivering the policy.
Local authorities now have just over five months to recruit 2,000 full-time equivalent staff in order to meet the Government’s target. More pressingly, the current timetable requires nearly 50 per cent of funded places to be made available over the course of just one month—between July and August this year. Where does the minister think those staff are going to come from?
While local authorities invest in new facilities and offer competitive salaries to attract the staff that they need, the Scottish Government has made it clear that more than a quarter of additional funded hours will need to be delivered by private funded providers.
With partner provider contracts and payment rates decided and set locally, we now see inconsistencies right across Scotland. Similarly, the financial templates for funding were developed individually by councils but were adjusted by the Scottish Government using population figures from six years ago, meaning that councils with rapidly growing populations are now being unnecessarily squeezed. Midlothian Council, for example, has been awarded 24 per cent less funding than its original financial template required.
I know that the minister will stand up at the end of the debate and say that the funding packages were agreed by COSLA. That is absolutely true, but that does not change the reality on the ground. For many nurseries, the funded partnership rates are set below the normal rate that they would have charged in the marketplace—a rate that would sustain their businesses. That is compounded by three-year funding templates that do not provide for inflationary increases. That reality will have consequences.
The cost of childcare for under-threes will potentially have to increase to cover running costs. Local authorities are not investing in that area. Nurseries—particularly those in the third and private sectors—will struggle to generate enough revenue surpluses to maintain and improve their services, especially when replacing equipment and facilities.
We may see a loss of innovation in the sector following a decline in revenue. It is important to remember that the principles of Montessori, Steiner and outdoor learning have all—through the flexibility of the private sector—influenced our state provision.
Senior experienced staff have faced the downgrading of their roles or are leaving the service because they do not meet the new national qualification requirements—in some cases, despite their having excellent reports from inspectors.
Many nurseries that I have spoken to have reported facing the loss of up to 50 per cent of their staff as they found themselves unable to compete with local authority salaries. They do not blame their workers for leaving and moving to higher-paid jobs, but that situation threatens to snuff out parental choice, which is one of the most enlightened principles of the 1,140 hours expansion. If a range of providers are unable to meet the staffing demands of the policy, parents will have no choice but to access their funded hours from a limited pool of providers that may be unable to deliver the flexibility that is promised by the policy. That will stifle parents’ ability to tailor childcare to the needs of their children and force them to make difficult decisions about their family life.
If I were to accept the Government’s argument, which has been made in the chamber, that there is no more money to fully fund the needs of nurseries, the Government must consider whether its policy restrictions—not allowing top-up fees, or independent nurseries being unable to choose how many funded hours they offer during their opening hours—will destroy the very policy that it has set out to deliver.
The transformation in early years learning that is planned for this year is hugely important and, despite the gloom and doom that we have just heard from Michelle Ballantyne, I am pleased that the Conservative Party has brought the debate to the chamber.
The Conservative Party’s motion
“recognises the strong cross-party support” for the policy of 1,140 hours of free childcare and acknowledges that we all want the best start in life for our children. Indeed, the policy provides an historic opportunity for Scotland. 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 term and the long term.
An initiative of such magnitude will have and has had its ups and downs along the way. However, nothing in the Audit Scotland report suggests that the 1,140 hours expansion cannot be delivered on time, and the minister has said that she is confident that, from this August, all three and four-year-olds and around a quarter of two-year-olds will benefit. In fact, of the 10 recommendations in the report, one has already been completed and a further seven refer to work that we already had under way before Audit Scotland reported in October last year. Local authorities have worked constructively with the Government to make that happen, and they should be commended for their hard work in implementing a transformational but fairly complex process.
The Audit Scotland report quite rightly highlighted that there might be some risk of delays in certain areas to do with buildings and staffing, but it recognised that huge progress had been made.
That should have been addressed during the negotiations—as we know, things were done through COSLA—and it will have to be addressed. I understand that there are issues in that area, but that should not compromise such an amazing and fantastic initiative.
As I was saying, the Audit Scotland report quite rightly highlighted the risk of delay. However, in my own constituency of Strathkelvin and Bearsden, huge progress has been made since the report was published in October last year. As the minister said, it is also important to remember that, in many areas—my own constituency included—the 1,140 hours provision has been operating successfully in pilot projects in selected nurseries.
The Scottish Government has engaged with the people on whom we depend to make the policy work. It has also addressed earlier concerns, many of which members have debated in the past couple of years. At this stage, many of the practical elements around buildings and process are in the hands of local authorities, although of course our door would always be open so that we can listen to authorities that might experience difficulties on aspects of the policy’s implementation.
On staffing, members will know that the Government has embarked on a massive recruitment drive to train early years practitioners. That process is on-going. There is no doubt that qualified early years practitioners are a highly skilled and vital profession. Gone are the days when nursery teachers or childminders were thought of as glorified babysitters. Our children deserve better, and we are giving them the best. Quality of teaching matters and, among many other things, an understanding of the importance of trauma-informed learning is vital to the role. I agree entirely with Mary Fee that private providers should be able to pay the living wage and that all early years practitioners should be paid it. Increased flexibility will allow families to make choices and huge savings in childcare costs. Amazing benefits to children’s social development and wellbeing will be gained from this transformative policy.
It might sound like a cliché, but it is true: the Scottish Government is striving to make Scotland the best country in the world in which to be a child and to grow up. Policies such as the baby box and the expansion of early years provision are of paramount importance to that aim, and will be crucial in growing our economy, closing the attainment gap and tackling inequality.
This issue is about our children’s and our grandchildren’s futures, and it really is more important than politics. Let us not cast doubt on this ground-breaking initiative; let us embrace it and work together to overcome any challenges that arise. Future generations of families will benefit so much from our policy. I say again that I am proud that, through it, Scotland is leading the way.
At the beginning of her speech, Rona Mackay accused Opposition parties of casting “doom and gloom”. I say respectfully to her that we are not. The reality is that we are months away from delivery of the 1,140 hours provision, and we will need a quantum leap in the capacity of our system in order for us to deliver it.
The minister talked of 50,000 children already receiving 1,140 hours of care, but she did not acknowledge that that is only 40 per cent of the number who will require to receive it in August alone. She also mentioned the number of staff who have been recruited and who are in place, but she did not acknowledge that, at the start of this year, only half of the staff that we need to deliver the provision had been recruited. Some 30 per cent of the staff that we still need will have to be recruited over the summer.
On top of that, only 30 per cent of the additional buildings that will be required have been built. Although the minister talked about contingency plans being in place, a fifth of all the buildings that are incomplete do not have such plans. The reality—and the reason why we are having the debate—is that we will need to double our capacity in five months in order to deliver the provision.
I said that that is nonsense. Daniel Johnson might be talking about Scotland in general, but we have heard from Rona Mackay about the situation in her area. In my area, more than 60 per cent has already been delivered and the rest will be delivered by August, and the same is true in Stirling. Therefore, what Mr Johnson asserts is not true across the country.
There might be places that are prepared, but Audit Scotland’s report is very clear and the numbers that I have quoted come directly from it: those are the figures for the whole system. Therefore, we must ask ourselves whether such a leap is achievable or advisable—that is the important point in the debate.
I absolutely agree with members on the Government benches about one thing: nothing is more important than the start that we give our children. The benefit to our children and their families of delivering the policy could be huge; likewise, it could hugely benefit the aim of tackling poverty, in terms of both children’s experiences and enabling their families to get to work. Those things will benefit us all.
We ask whether it is reasonable for a guarantee to be provided. The reality is that we are only months away from delivery, so it is only right that Opposition members should question whether it can all be delivered.
Let us look at the detail. Nothing is more graphic than exhibit six on page 23, which shows the number of buildings that have been completed and those that need to be built before the policy is delivered. There is a cliff edge over the summer, and there needs to be a huge leap, given that 20 per cent of the buildings will not have been completed by the start of August—and that is if we stay on track. The contingency issue is pressing because, even if we stay on plan, we will not have the capacity that we need. The position in relation to the workforce is similar. Only half the number of staff are in place, and 27 per cent will need to be recruited over the summer. Those are the facts and figures from the report.
The number of training places across multiple routes have not increased significantly since 2014. That is why the report points to the fact that there is cannibalisation within the sector, with independent providers losing staff to local authority providers. Overall, we have to question the impact that all of that has on quality, because that is what matters. Quality suffers when there is such rapid expansion and staff are poached from one setting to another.
Quality is also in question when we look at the funding of the policy. In too many settings and in too many local authority areas, the underlying assumption is that the rate that will be paid is £5.31 per child per hour. That figure was arrived at in 2016—four years ago. Even if we take that most simple assumption, the living wage has increased by more than 10 per cent since then—yet £5.31 is still the rate that is being used in many local authorities. That has an impact on the quality that can be delivered. It also assumes a staff to children ratio of 6:1 and makes no allowances for supervision, administrative or training requirements, sickness absence or the fact that partner providers in the third and independent sectors very often provide childcare year round.
We have to ask whether that rate is sustainable and whether it will deliver quality. That is why we hear of situations such as those that Beatrice Wishart and Michelle Ballantyne outlined. I have also heard from partner providers that they face too many requirements—they tell me that they feel straight-jacketed by local authority requirements. That leads to the situation that Beatrice Wishart outlined where, essentially, parents have all or nothing—they take all their provision from one provider or none at all. Quite simply, a provider, whether in the local authority setting or in the independent sector, cannot afford to provide care unless parents take all their provision through that one provider.
Ultimately, the Government needs to come forward with a clear and evidence-based assessment of where we are on the policy. It needs to outline how the living wage will be delivered. Funding the policy adequately, and making sure that it is funded properly across all providers, is the only way that we will deliver quality. We are five months away from the policy’s delivery date but there is a mountain to climb and we need clarity and honesty from the Government. We all want the policy to succeed, but there are an awful lot of reasons why the Labour Party doubts that the Government will succeed.
It gives me great pleasure to speak in this debate. Jamie Green started off by saying that this is a policy that is broadly supported cross-party; other members have also mentioned that and they are right.
The motion and the Government amendment are not as far apart as they might seem. That is also the case for the debate so far. The Tory motion discusses “certain risks” in relation to buildings and staff and the Government amendment talks about “making steady progress”. Perhaps, as everybody has said, we need to work together on the issue.
I will make a bit of progress, but I might come back to the member.
I want to focus on what constituents are saying to me. Generally, as we have heard, people are positive; they are making plans and feel that the policy will benefit them, their families and their work life balance. Indeed, I am of the age where I have children of nursery age myself, as do many of my friends. I know from the general talk among us and other folk that most people feel that the policy is very good.
However, I am glad that the minister has recognised that it is an ambitious task that will not be easy to deliver in full. We need time.
In my area of North Lanarkshire, the struggle has been real. Just weeks ago, I had to write to the chief executive of North Lanarkshire Council after many constituents had contacted me. Their main issue was that many council nurseries were offering provision from 8 till 12.45 or 1.30 till 6, which meant that they might have to move to another nursery that offered a full day’s provision. I think that the council has a patch-up arrangement, whereby some nurseries offer a full day of provision and some offer provision only in the hours that I mentioned. Members might think that that is no big deal, but it could involve parents taking their child out of the nursery that they are in, where they are settled in a routine. It might mean splitting up siblings.
Not at the moment, because I want to finish my point.
It could also mean children going to a nursery that is not in the catchment area of the school that they will go to. People also raised concerns about the hours of childcare provision in North Lanarkshire being spread out over 48 hours and not aligned with school holidays. I am still waiting for a response from North Lanarkshire Council. I want to make it clear that I am not having a dig at NLC. The council is in a difficult situation, and it needs to do something to make the system work. My partner and I accepted that we would not get our first preference and moved on to something that works.
However, we should not put the blame at the Government’s door, as other parties have sought to do. We in this chamber talk about local decision making a great deal, but when it does not work excellently in various areas, we are up in arms. I come back to the point that I made at the outset. If we are to make this groundbreaking policy work, all of us must work together, across parties and at all levels of government.
I apologise, but I want to make progress.
I have also been contacted by local private nurseries, whose situation I raised in Parliament, as the minister might recall. My representations led to a number of measures and interventions being agreed to by the Government and North Lanarkshire Council that led to improved relationships between those providers and NLC. From speaking to some of the nurseries concerned, I know that there has been improvement. Issues remain, though, and, as Rona Mackay said, we need to get this right.
I thank Mr MacGregor for giving way. He is right to say that there is cross-party support for the policy. Why, therefore, is the Government seeking to delete the wording of my motion from “That the Parliament” and to replace it in its entirety? Which bit of the Audit Scotland report that I quoted does Mr MacGregor disagree with? Why does he think that the Government wants to delete what the motion says?
Rather than being to do with what the report says, I think that it is more a question of emphasis. I would say that the emphasis of the Tory motion is negative. [
.]. That is my opinion—I am entitled to it. The motion offers a negative narrative about a positive policy. The narrative of the Government’s amendment is positive. I said at the start of my speech that it is possible to find some common ground between the motion and the Government’s amendment.
We celebrated international women’s day at the weekend, and I want to take some time to talk about the gendered nature of childcare in Scotland, as members such as Alison Johnstone have done. It is gendered in that women are still doing more of the day-to-day care of children. Members will be aware of my campaign for increased paternal leave to bridge that gap. The gendered nature of childcare represents a major barrier to work and study, which is why it is so important that we get right the policy of expanded provision.
For the purposes of this debate, we are talking about the childcare workforce and the stereotypical perception that women are more naturally suited to childcare work, which results in significant overrepresentation of women among the early learning and childcare workforce. That point has already been well made. Therefore, it is not hard to understand why childcare provision has become a critical policy area for addressing the gender pay gap. Historically, the sector has often been characterised by low pay and poor working conditions that further aggravate the gender pay gap. I welcome the steps that the Scottish Government has taken to address the situation, which include the provision of 2,000 additional college and university places in the 2019-20 academic year and measures to improve the uptake of ELC modern apprenticeships.
I am delighted that the Government’s amendment pays tribute to our dedicated staff and workforce; I hope that that alone will mean that it gets the support of the chamber. I do not see how it cannot, because neither the motion nor Labour’s amendment recognises that.
I want to end by mentioning a nursery that I visited last week—the Stepping Stones family learning centre in Stepps—because I said that I would do so the next time I spoke in the chamber. I recommend that the minister visit it, if she has time. I was there for world book day. I was pretty nervous about reading to a bunch of nursery-aged kids who were not my own, but it is good for us as MSPs to learn about and see the great work that our early learning practitioners do day in, day out. There are many positive things about the learning centre, including the play-based approach that is used in the nursery and the outdoor experiences that the children get from using the local forest. That fantastic centre is reflective of centres across my constituency, but I do not have time to mention them all, because I see that the Presiding Officer is signalling for me to stop.
I support the Government’s amendment, and I hope that we can all work together to make this policy work.
I am pleased to once again have the opportunity to speak about the progress of the roll-out of this vital service. As Jamie Greene said at the start of his speech, it is true to say that the roll-out of 1,140 hours of free childcare to all three and four-year-olds and disadvantaged two-year-olds has the full support of every MSP from every party in the chamber. The implementation of the programme has the potential to be transformative in many ways, including by helping with the battle to tackle inequality, poverty and the stubborn attainment gap. It could be a major factor in tackling issues relating to activity and social inclusion, healthy eating and health education. I was pleased to hear Alison Johnstone talk about the potential for nurseries to grow their own food, although the idea of building nurseries without kitchens is alien to me. Members know how passionate I am about our youth having access to such activities.
When we discuss the mental health crisis, the drug and alcohol addiction crisis and all the ill-health statistics that Scotland has an unwanted lead on, we should recognise that all the solutions begin with early intervention so that people get a better start in life. Those are the real implications of getting the policy right, and it shows how crucial it is to get the delivery of the programme right.
However, in recognising that every party supported the introduction of 1,140 hours of free childcare, we also have to highlight the unprecedented fact that every party except the Scottish National Party has voted in the chamber to highlight their concerns about how the policy is being implemented. This is not a political issue. It is far too important to play politics with, because we all want the policy to work.
For two years, we have been raising the concerns of partner nurseries with the minister. Alison Harris and I facilitated a meeting with the minister and representatives of partner nurseries, but we were told quite unceremoniously that we just did not understand. The Scottish Conservatives used their debating time last year to raise such concerns again, but all we got was the response, “Everything is fine—you just don’t understand.”
Now we have an Audit Scotland report that tells us exactly what we have been telling the minister for the past two years: there is a staffing shortage, and aggressive recruitment campaigns by local authorities have encouraged staff to migrate across from private nurseries, which have spent time and effort developing that talent and delivering quality care. A local nursery close to where I live is sitting at less than half capacity because of the number of staff who have left, while the local authority is building another nursery just down the road.
The Audit Scotland report says that choice is being taken away from parents, which is exactly the opposite of what the policy is supposed to deliver. It is supposed to be a partnership, with capacity being built across the sector, but the danger is that years of dedication and experience in providing quality childcare could be lost. If we lose that capacity and experience, replacing it will not be easy or quick.
The positives are significant, as I have said, but the potential impact of getting the implementation wrong is just as significant. There could be inequality across regions, depending on the behaviour of different councils. The impact of not getting wraparound, flexible care on parents’ ability to work and earn will be stark.
The minister recognises the importance of the policy and the potential for it to be transformative, but if partnership nurseries are forced to close, there will not be the capacity to deliver this transformative policy. That would drive inequality, and I find it incredible to hear the minister continue to use the same old nothing-to-see-here line in the face of all the evidence. The sector is telling us otherwise.
We have consistently tried to bring the concerns of partnership nurseries to the minister to highlight that there is a postcode lottery around Scotland and that capital spend on partnership nurseries is secondary to the spend on council facilities. It might be working in the minister’s back yard, but the Audit Scotland report will surely cause her to finally lift her head out of the sand and take a proper look at what is happening in the sector—and not at what she wants to happen.
It is vital that the policy works for every community. If the minister will not listen to the members of this Parliament or the sector itself, will she listen to Audit Scotland and, even at this late stage, take the measures that its report asks for? I hope that it is not too late for her to take the actions that are required.
Presiding Officer, I hope that you will bear with me as I give a history lesson of sorts.
When my children were young, which obviously was not yesterday, there was no childcare unless someone lived close to family members who could watch their kids or they could afford a nanny; neither of those options was available to me. All that was available was a morning or afternoon session, one day a week, in a local church. As Alison Johnstone did, I used to go along and make sandwiches and so on. It was just somewhere to go with the kids. Socialisation was considered important, as well as the other aspects of childcare.
However, those sessions did not run on public holidays or in the school holidays, and nothing else was available at those times. The only thing that I could do was to set up a play scheme in my local area. I worked with the community, which was fantastic, and the local authority gave us some funding. We went on to be successful. However, through time, the funding was withdrawn and we could not continue with the play schemes. Trying to get some money to continue the play schemes led me to join a political party—the SNP—and I was asked to stand for the council. I won that council election by 16 votes. I suppose that we could say that lack of childcare brought me to the political world and the Scottish Parliament—some might say that that is a good thing and some might say that it is not quite so good.
In stark contrast to those days—thanks to previous Governments, but predominantly thanks to this SNP Government—we now have universal free early years childcare, which supports modern families. I am not saying that I was not modern, but at that time there was not a lot of childcare.
Since it was elected, the SNP Government has introduced some of the most forward-thinking and innovative improvements to early years and childcare. In 2007, free childcare hours were sitting at just 12.5 hours a week. That was increased to 16 hours a week for all three and four-year-olds and the provision was extended to two-year-olds from low-income families, which was important. The Government now wants to go further, increasing free childcare hours to 30 hours per week, which is 1,140 hours a year.
Does Sandra White agree that although we refer to the provision as 30 hours a week, if someone works full time and gets six weeks of annual leave, it drops to just over 24 hours a week and, if we include travelling time, that means that that person could work for only 22 hours a week?
I take on board what Michelle Ballantyne said. That is one of the reasons why I have been a consistent supporter of childcare. I do not want to keep going back to when I was younger and my kids were young, but what we have now is an improvement on what we had then. Michelle Ballantyne mentioned travelling time, and such aspects have to be looked at.
As I said, the Government wants to increase the provision to 1,140 hours a year, and we can all agree that that will have a transformational impact on families and children around the country. It will be difficult to implement—the Government has admitted that—and the scale and ambition of the policy will prove to be challenging.
No one disagrees with the Audit Scotland report; “disagree” is a strong word. I am concerned that the Conservative motion is not ambitious; it is an attacking motion. If, instead of using words such as “demands” and “urgently”, the amendment had said something like “work with other parties”, it might have come across a wee bit better. That is my concern. As I said, the expansion will be challenging but it is ambitious and we are a party of ambition—for our children and for Scotland; that is lacking in the motion.
I agree with what Mary Fee said in her amendment with regard to “the real living wage”, but I disagree with what Brian Whittle said. He talked more about the private sector than about kids being looked after in any other sector.
The private sector is raising the issues, because it is supposed to be in a partnership. That is important, because in order to deliver the capacity, the sectors need to work in tandem. I raised the partnership because that is not happening and it is important to deliver across the sector.
Brian Whittle has constantly mentioned the private sector. If the public sector—local government—is proposing nurseries in children’s academies and better salaries and conditions, it is up to the private sector to match that and not to ask the public sector to go lower. That is what I took out of what Mr Whittle said. Maybe we could have less talk about the private sector and more praise for what is coming forward from local government.
We should be proud of the policy and we should look forward to its delivery. We should be ambitious; Audit Scotland said that maybe we were too ambitious, but I have always said that, if I had not fought against the lack of childcare and had the ambition to do something, I might not be standing here today. Mr Whittle might say that that would have been a good thing; I am sure that he would not.
As I said, everyone thinks that all children should have access to quality early years childcare and education. Despite the challenges that it faces, this Government has the ambition to provide that.
Much evidence is available for policy makers, which supports the view that early learning and childcare are crucial for all children; that is why I support the actions and direction that the Government and local authorities in Scotland are taking.
The early years are a critical time, when children’s rapidly developing brains are ripe for learning; recent research suggests that up to 90 per cent of brain development has already taken place before a child starts primary school. The amount and nature of stimulation and interaction that children receive in those years make all the difference, which is why access to quality early learning is so important. Therefore, that policy is the right thing to do and the emphasis on good quality must be at the fore of the provision. However, that cannot be delivered on the cheap.
Given the current early years provision and the level to which we are trying to move it forward, there are big challenges to overcome with regard to the facilities and staff that will be needed.
I will make two points about the concerns in the Conservative motion, which notes from the Audit Scotland report that choice and flexibility
“will not be fully implemented by August 2020”.
First, the Conservatives should be making the case for the end to austerity and cuts and for investment in capital and revenue funding from the UK Government. There is no point in defending failed Tory austerity and then coming here and making massive demands that cannot be delivered because of failed Tory austerity.
Secondly, when I look at what is happening in Fife, I have to say that there is a mixed picture of provision; there are many communities in which the kind of flexibility and choice that is envisaged will not be available by August, mainly because there is not enough money to invest in the necessary infrastructure.
This ambitious programme will take time, but we should be in no doubt about the fact that it is absolutely the right thing to do.
I want to address the amendment in Mary Fee’s name. If there is one thing that we know for certain, it is that the quality of the staff will be crucial for the success of the early years programme. That must mean putting in place a minimum standard of qualifications, making clear that to work in early years is to have a career that rewards people with training, skills, qualifications and, ultimately, decent pay. That point is picked up in the briefing from Close the Gap. It says:
“In the Early Learning Childcare contexts ... the low pay and poor working conditions found in the sector were a key theme identified in the independent review of Scottish Early Learning Childcare workforce and out of school care workforce, with more than three quarters of practitioner and stakeholder organisations’ responses highlighting tackling the low rate of pay as being important for raising the status of the workforce”.
It goes on to say:
“The undervaluation of work done by women, such as in Early Learning childcare, is a key strand linking together the cause of the gender pay gap, occupational segregation, women’s unequal share in caring, and pay discrimination”.
I believe that, with the right levels of investment, an increasing amount of early years childcare can and should be provided directly by the public and third sectors. However, for now, we should be clear that minimum standards for pay and qualifications should be introduced across all sectors.
I will end where I began. The policy is the right thing to do for our children and our communities. A report on research that was conducted by the European Commission says:
“This interest in the early years is inspired by a rapidly expanding body of scientific research in different disciplines that points to substantial economic, social, educational and developmental benefits of participating in high-quality early childhood education and care. These benefits are not limited to the children involved, but extend to society at large. At the level of the individual, participation in high-quality early childhood education and care is associated with higher earnings, greater educational attainment, improved social integration and better health, among other advantages. Moreover, for parents, it is found to encourage labour market participation, especially of mothers, in addition to educational and other impacts. At the societal level, there are ample potential benefits as well, ranging from reduced spending on welfare and lower crime rates to higher tax revenues and improved social cohesion. In other words, the benefits are both widespread and long-lasting.”
The policy is the right thing to do. There are massive challenges, but we are making massive strides in the right direction, thanks to all the staff out there who are working to make this happen. We need more resources. Let us try to get them going in through the public sector.
There is no question but that the Audit Scotland report raises concerns, and that is quite right. Members have raised concerns in the chamber, and that is quite right, too. It is their right to challenge the Government on the policy. However, the Tory party’s motion is nothing more than a poorly disguised hit job on a policy that will be transformative for the children who live in this country. The motion is designed to unduly worry and concern families across Scotland, as if they did not have enough to worry and be concerned about as things stand.
Nothing in the Audit Scotland report suggests that the expansion to 1,140 funded hours cannot be delivered on time, yet the Tories in this Parliament see fit to undermine the significant progress that is being made to introduce a bold and hugely progressive policy that will almost double the amount of childcare that is available for two, three and four-year-olds. It will be double the amount that is currently on offer to hard-working families in England from the Tory UK Government.
It is easy for the Tories to cherry pick from the Audit Scotland report, completely ignoring the fact that it clearly states that
“The Scottish Government and councils are making steady progress to deliver the expansion of funded early learning and childcare” and that we are on course to meet
“plans to deliver the increased hours by August 2020.”
Jamie Greene’s motion raises concerns about buildings. In terms of infrastructure, we are ahead of what councils predicted this time last year, with 40 per cent of all projects being completed, providing over 6,000 new places for children. Additionally, the Scottish Government has already implemented the Audit Scotland recommendation on contingency planning.
Does the member acknowledge that the Audit Scotland report makes it clear that we will be 20 per cent short in the buildings delivered by August and that the other buildings will not be delivered until a year after the policy is meant to be implemented? Does he acknowledge that 20 per cent figure?
I must move on.
The Scottish Government has already implemented the Audit Scotland recommendation on contingency planning, with all local authorities putting in place plans for capital projects that are due to be completed this summer.
I have a concern—I do not think that this has been mentioned so far, but if it has been, I will apologise—about some of the plans, given that the situation that we face with the coronavirus is bound to have an impact throughout the economy.
However, returning to the report, I note that seven of the 10 recommendations refer to work that was already under way before it was published and one refers to work that is already complete. That is decisive action by a Government that is not only committed but able to deliver the expansion by August, not least in relation to staffing and the sustainability of both the private and third sectors.
We have heard a lot about staffing levels. In my area, the local authority started an early years academy. Tranches of apprentices have been taken on in each of the past three years and the local authority has ensured that existing staff have gone for additional qualifications. That is decisive action by the local authority.
On staffing levels, let us not forget the circumstances in which we are attempting to roll out the expansion. Over 7 per cent of childcare workers in Scotland come from the EU. Due to Scotland being dragged out of the EU against our will by a hard-right Tory UK Government, it will now inevitably become harder to recruit the skilled childcare workers that we will need. [
.] I know that the Tories do not like it, but facts are chiels that winna ding. The point is explicitly made in the Audit Scotland report that the Tories keep referring to. The Government put forward plans for a sensible immigration plan for Scotland that would have assisted in the recruitment of childcare workers for the expansion. Will the Tory MSPs now back our calls or will they continue to stand up for their Westminster bosses?
Despite all that, we are on track to meet the required numbers by August, with over half of the total requirement already being met in September last year. The report welcomes the progress that councils are making to recruit the workforce that is needed to deliver the expansion. As the minister has pointed out in the chamber, the apprentice recruitment process has been successful, with increases of 21 per cent in the first year and 24 per cent in the second. Training opportunities and routes into the childcare sector have been increased, and we now have a record 40,000-strong workforce. Many people—in my constituency, the majority of people—are already benefiting from the expansion in childcare.
I will not. I have taken one already.
The sustainability of private and third sector partners is a key element of the flexibility that is offered by the expansion, and ensuring their future is a key priority. That is why local authorities continue to work with them to recruit additional staff and to help with advertising and retention. Taking those things together, we can see that the Government is working well with partners, reacting and adapting where necessary to address concerns and deliver on the expansion by August this year.
We know that childcare can be one of the most expensive items in the household budgets of many families with small children, and the costs hit those who are on low incomes—and are least able to afford it—the hardest. Come August, for the first time ever, parents of eligible two, three and four-year-olds will have 1,140 hours of childcare that will save them up to £4,500 per child per year. That is completely transformative and, as part of wider progress in Scottish welfare, it will have a material impact on the lives of millions of people across Scotland.
The expansion will tackle child poverty, improve the wellbeing of children and parents and support parents into work, study or training. The value of the expansion cannot be overstated.
No. I refer for the third time to the paragraph in the Audit Scotland report that says that there is nothing that will make this impossible to deliver by August this year. It is in the Audit Scotland report—it might be an idea for the Conservatives to read the report and see if they agree with it.
The truth is that the Tories in the chamber are unable to imagine implementing policies that would improve the lives of the low paid. Under the watch of their colleagues at Westminster, the welfare state entitlements and opportunities for ordinary working people have been slashed. England has the highest levels of child poverty—and who governs in England? While the Government here has worked to protect Scots from the worst of the Tory UK Government, the UK Government has imposed a welfare system that has left 1.4 million people destitute. The SNP Scottish Government is introducing the revolutionary Scottish child payment, but the Tories have instead introduced the bedroom tax and rape clause—policies that target the most vulnerable in our communities. It is no coincidence that child poverty in Scotland has dropped the most. Policies such as the expansion of childcare hours help to empower families living in Scotland—[
.] Apparently, child poverty has increased in England due to the SNP. That is new from the Tories—try to work out the logic.
The policy frees up valuable time for parents to provide for their children or to undertake studies or reskill. For the Tories, politics is all about maintaining inequality, imposing austerity and cutting taxes for the rich. It is no surprise that they seek to undermine the work of this Government to improve the lives of those who live here. This childcare policy is the most progressive and ambitious in the UK and will provide the flexible support that families in Scotland deserve, unlocking new opportunities for the many. I am pleased to speak in support of the Government amendment.
I will get the debate back on track to the matter in hand. Jamie Greene made very clear that, exactly two years ago, the Scottish Conservatives used our chamber business to debate the findings of the 2018 Audit Scotland report. We did so because we believed that some of the findings needed urgent attention from the Scottish Government. Two years and another Audit Scotland report on, it is very clear that, right across the chamber, members believe that a considerable number of issues stand in the way of the successful implementation of this flagship policy.
No one doubts the considerable importance that all parties in the chamber attach to the expansion of childcare and I am very surprised that the Scottish Government chose to lodge an amendment to take out that line in the Conservative motion. However, surely one of the key challenges is to strike the right balance between extending the number of hours that are available and addressing the qualitative issues by ensuring that there is much better accessibility and flexibility. Both of those are so important to parents—in fact, I think that parents would argue that they are the most important issues. They will be the defining issues in terms of whether Scotland succeeds in delivering the policy that is—quite rightly—the minister‘s ambition. I accept that it is her ambition—the problem is how we deliver it.
We know from the 2018 Audit Scotland report that there was genuine concern about the mismatch between demand and supply and that, although the ambition of the childcare policy was in line with national strategic objectives, the Scottish Government had 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 would compare in terms of delivery. In other words, it had not identified exactly which measures would indicate success or what baseline data was available. The Scottish Government had not defined what it meant by high-quality childcare, which is crucial for parents.
As a matter of priority, parents will, quite rightly, talk about the right numbers of qualified staff. My colleague Liam Kerr quoted to the minister the phrase that she has used: she said that she would give an absolute
“guarantee that we will find ourselves with enough staff by 2020.”—[
, 1 March 2018; c 2.]
His question was about the minister’s words. She was confident that that was going to be the case, but she could not provide the evidence to support it. I challenge her to provide that evidence when she sums up. I do not think that the evidence is there. If we consider what happened between 2008 and 2018, we find that there was a considerable reduction in the number of staff who were involved in the sector.
Nor should we forget that there is an additional cost to the training. We still need answers before we can be sure about what the minister has confidently predicted.
The quality of staff is probably the biggest concern for parents. However, the learning environment is also a concern, and therein lies the issue about providers and the building space that is available. There are fewer early learning centres and childcare services than there were a decade ago. That decline has, unfortunately, occurred predominantly in the more deprived areas. It has coincided with the decline in the number of childcare services that are rated good or better, which now stands lower than it was a decade ago. That concerns me, because it reflects not just the quantity but the quality of the hours that are available.
Related to that is the major point about provision, which many members have talked about. The fear among private sector providers is that local authorities are in a position to call the tune. It is not a genuine partnership for so many of them in the way that they want it to be—and it has to be. The minister was right to say that if we are going to make this policy work, it has to be a combined effort from the private, public and voluntary sectors, but it will not work if there is not a level playing field for all of them.
The Scottish Conservatives firmly believe that the issue of primary importance is provision and ensuring that there is a genuine understanding among local authorities that they will not be able to deliver unless they engage with the private sector to provide flexibility, accessibility and the number of hours. As the minister knows, that point was made by the fair funding for our kids campaign, which was so influential in providing evidence in earlier stages.
It is abundantly clear that the latest report has laid bare the extent of the challenges that we face, and the failures on the part of the Scottish Government to address them. It highlighted that some progress has been made; but that is not what we are arguing about. There has been some progress, and the minister was right to highlight that. However, as Daniel Johnson rightly pointed out, there is not nearly as much progress as there will have to be to deliver this policy. On that basis, the Conservatives are arguing strongly that the minister must listen with considerable care to what is being said, not by us in the chamber, but by the sector, because, at the end of the day, those people are the ones who are on the ground and who have to deliver the policy.
I respect Liz Smith and am glad that she acknowledged the progress that has been made. She began her remarks by referencing the 2018 Audit Scotland report. However, the Scottish Government acted quickly to address the points that were made in that 2018 report—in particular, the gap that it highlighted between local authority and Scottish Government estimates. By April 2018—three months after the Audit Scotland report was published—an agreement was reached with COSLA on a multiyear revenue and capital package to fully fund the expansion to 1,140 hours.
Audit Scotland has recognised that the Scottish Government, COSLA and other stakeholders continue to work well together at national level. It is important to point out that the most recent Audit Scotland report refers to capital projects in October 2019, and that significant progress was made in the last quarter that is not referenced in the report. In January 2020, 40 per cent of projects were complete, which will provide 6,100 new places—3 per cent ahead of what councils predicted last year.
What Joan McAlpine has said is quite correct. However, that progress is not the progress that we need in order to deliver the policy in August. That is the issue. That is why a second recently published Audit Scotland report flags up some of the exact same issues that existed in 2018. Does the member acknowledge that?
The Government has already implemented Audit Scotland’s recommendation on contingency planning, which relates to the point that Liz Smith made. All councils now have contingency plans for all critical capital projects that are due for completion in summer 2020.
We should get back to the core of what we are debating, which is that access to high-quality care and education is foundational to a child’s development and their ability to achieve their potential. It also provides invaluable opportunities for parents to study, train or work at times when it would be impossible to do so without access to childcare.
The difference that early learning can make to a child can be huge, especially when it comes to boosting confidence and social skills. Providing a child with high-quality childcare gives them access to a variety of activities and experiences that might otherwise be unavailable.
An important part of the expansion is the move to increase children’s access to outdoor play and learning, which is made possible through funding of more than £860,000 for Inspiring Scotland to support that charity’s work with local authorities and the ELC sector on expanding outdoor learning spaces. That is a really exciting project.
By delivering expansion of funded childcare to 1,140 hours, we are unlocking a crucial component in closing the poverty-related attainment gap. I repeat what Keith Brown said: we are miles ahead of what is happening in Tory-run England. The Scottish Government has been working with councils to ensure that nurseries in Scotland’s most deprived areas will benefit from having an equity and excellence lead—an additional graduate post for highly qualified candidates. That commitment has led to the creation of 435 new graduate-level posts.
The progress that has been made towards our highly ambitious target to expand early learning and childcare has begun to benefit many children and families. It is encouraging to know that 50,000 children are accessing more than the minimum 600 hours of early learning and childcare to which they are currently entitled. Soon, all three and four-year-olds and a quarter of two-year-olds will be able to benefit from almost twice as many funded hours each year.
Central to the expansion is the move towards the funding follows the child approach, which will enable parents to choose from a range of ELC providers. My impression is that considerable progress has been made in that regard over the past two years. The provision of flexible access to options from public, private and third sector providers, as well as childminding settings, gives families the power to choose childcare that best suits their children’s needs.
No. I am about to close.
Private ELC providers will make a larger contribution than was previously forecast—up from 4 per cent to 26 per cent. Considerable progress has been made on flexibility. I used private as well as local authority providers when I had children of nursery age, so I know that flexibility is important.
By working closely with stakeholders, the Scottish Government has finalised the national standard that all providers who deliver funded hours will be required to meet. That will give parents confidence that their child will be offered a high-quality experience.
By investing in our children and prioritising high-quality early learning and childcare, we are providing opportunities for all our children to learn, have fun and thrive. The peevish pessimists who are behind the Conservative motion should bear that in mind.
I congratulate Jamie Greene on bringing the debate to Parliament. A lot is going on in the news, but the motion refers to an important report on an important policy, so it is right that we devote the afternoon to debating it.
Most members have acknowledged the simple fact that the policy has support from members of all parties. It is also the case that members of most parties have significant concerns about delivery of policy, given that parents expect the expanded childcare provision to be delivered and available from August.
The key finding of the Audit Scotland report is that we will, in the period between now and then, be required to find half the workforce increase and to deliver half the new infrastructure for the whole programme. Daniel Johnson pointed out that August is only months away: from my calendar, I see that the Scottish Government has 146 days left to make good on its promise. Time is short. I, for one, hope that the commitments that have been made are delivered, and that the assurances that the minister has given reflect the reality of the situation. Otherwise, parents and members from across the parties will rightly ask why contingency actions were not taken now, rather than assurances being given that everything is fine.
As many others have done, I remind members of the task that has to be done during the next few months. It is required that 34 per cent of places be physically created by July, and that 79 per cent be available by August, after which a further 20 per cent are supposed to be ready. About half the additional staff that it was said at the start of planning will be needed—more than 2,200—are still to be recruited.
We have heard from a number of colleagues and from people in various parts of the country of their concerns about the significant challenges that are being reported—in particular, by independent and third sector providers.
The figures represent a real and considerable challenge for the Scottish Government, and it needs to acknowledge that. Several SNP members have accused colleagues from other parties of doom and gloom, but we are not the people who are expressing the concerns; we are reflecting the concerns that Audit Scotland raised in its report.
I am reminded of an episode of “Yes, Minister”—I cannot remember the detail of the script; it was too long ago—in which Sir Humphrey demonstrates how the most extreme catastrophe can be described in the most diplomatic, polite, laconic and understated language in order to hide its severity. Audit Scotland is a bit like that. No matter how serious the situation it believes it is describing, it will always do so in a way that is positive, polite and diplomatic.
However, Audit Scotland is saying things like,
“plans are critically dependent on achieving much”; that “significant risks” are being created; and that some aspects of the policy
“will not be fully implemented”.
I therefore say to Rona Mackay, who said that nothing suggests that the policy will not be delivered on time, that that is Audit Scotland suggesting that the policy will not be delivered on time. When Audit Scotland has carried out an audit in 2018 and then comes back within 18 months to follow it up, that is Audit Scotland saying that it is not convinced that the initial audit was responded to.
The biscuit goes to Keith Brown, who took the opposite approach from Audit Scotland to language, when he described as a “hit job” a motion that simply quotes Audit Scotland. That is just hyperbole and a refusal to acknowledge what Audit Scotland is saying.
We also have some experience. When funded hours were expanded to 600, it took a long time for that policy to be fully delivered. It is therefore entirely fair to be concerned, especially when we look at the situation with childminders, as Mary Fee said. At the moment, only 4 per cent of childminders are providing funded hours. That represents 404 children. Councils are predicting that they will need childminders to provide funded hours for almost 2,500 children. It is hard to see how we will get to that point.
I agree that councils are doing a lot. My council has an early years academy and held a jobs fair just the other day, but the challenge is huge and it is complicated by what Daniel Johnson described as the “cannibalisation” of the sector. Alex Rowley was right to say that the living wage and conditions are key to getting the policy right.
I will use my final few seconds to talk about an issue that Beatrice Wishart raised. There is a group of parents who will not, under any circumstances, benefit from the 1,140 hours, because they have chosen to defer entry to primary 1 for a child whose birthday is before the turn of the year, and will therefore be refused funding. Parliament has already agreed that that is unacceptable, but since then another cohort of parents who believe that their child is not ready for primary 1 have had to deal with that unacceptable hurdle. I take no pleasure in the fact that my local council is the worst for turning down such requests. However, I have to acknowledge, as my council tells me, that it is simply implementing the law as it stands. It is time that the law was changed. The minister needs to tell us now when and how she will do so, so that the 1,140 hours will be available to every young person prior to primary 1.
The motion is a perfectly reasonable one. It reflects the Audit Scotland report and should be supported. The Government amendment should be rejected.
The benefits of this policy will be transformational, far reaching, long term and felt by children, families, parents and communities. The recent international evidence suggests that the benefit for children is not only lifelong but intergenerational, such that it will benefit the children of those who experience high-quality early learning.
We have been clear from the beginning that the primary driver of the expansion is to improve and reduce gaps in children’s lifelong outcomes. We are investing in high-quality and nurturing early learning and childcare, because it is the foundation from which every child can develop socially, emotionally and educationally, thereby enabling them to reach their full potential, as many members around the chamber have recognised.
Such ambitious change requires proper programme management and governance. If colleagues read the Audit Scotland report carefully and objectively, that is what they would see. The Government cannot be accused of complacency. We are recognising and actively managing the risks.
Paragraph 1 of the report states:
“This creates a number of significant risks around getting enough people and buildings in place to deliver the expansion.”
Paragraph 3 states:
“Important workforce challenges in all sectors remain.”
Paragraph 4 states:
“Putting in place the necessary infrastructure remains a big risk”.
Last week, Audit Scotland made 10 recommendations. Seven of those relate to actions that we had already identified and which Audit Scotland asked us to continue, and we have already implemented an eighth recommendation, which relates to contingency plans for critical capital projects. Our active management of the risks is a team approach, which involves working closely with COSLA, the Improvement Service, the Scottish Futures Trust and, of course, local authorities.
As I said clearly in my opening speech, by January this year, councils had in place robust contingency plans for all critical projects that are due to complete this summer. More than half of the contingency plans involve provision at established ELC facilities, which may mean temporarily bringing more capacity into use at those facilities. Thirty per cent of the contingency plans involve changing the operating model at the existing or nearby nursery, which means that session times and lengths will change. Other contingency plans involve using local authority or community facilities for a short space of time, which might include using spare classrooms or communal spaces in local rooms.
I will come on to that.
Most important, all local authorities are working closely with the Care Inspectorate to ensure that quality is not compromised in any of those contingency plans.
The expansion cannot be delivered without the contribution of the private, third and childminding sectors, which are forecast to deliver more than a quarter of funded provision from August 2020. The principle of provider neutrality is at the heart of the funding-follows-the-child model, because we are putting quality first.
It is important to note that, in its careful scrutiny of the ELC expansion, Audit Scotland does not report concerns about the rate that is paid to funded providers during early phasing, nor the rates that have been set from August 2020 onward. In fact, the rates in Scotland compare very favourably with the rates in the other UK nations. In Wales, the nationally agreed rate of £4.50 per hour is considered commercially viable. Average rates have increased by over 26 per cent in the two years of phasing. Glasgow City Council increased hourly rates for funded providers by more than 50 per cent a year ahead of full implementation.
Last year, we placed in SPICe an overview of all local authorities’ hourly rates for the early phasing of the 1,140 policy. We intend to repeat that exercise for the 2020-21 financial year and to find out from local authorities how they went about setting sustainable rates. I am sure that colleagues will agree that it is important that that information is in the public domain.
Mary Fee raised a concern about childminding. The latest data from the Scottish Childminding Association showed a fourfold increase in the number of childminders who are approved to offer funded early learning and childcare. We are also funding research into the childminding workforce, in partnership with the Care Inspectorate and the Scottish Childminding Association.
Mary Fee is also quite right that, in its report, Audit Scotland commented on the fact that the Scottish Government cannot legislate for the real living wage, because employment law is reserved to the UK Government. That so-called loophole is indeed the case under the current constitutional arrangement, but we are doing everything in our power to create the conditions for a real living wage ELC sector, and setting our ambitions unashamedly high. Our policy framework, which has been developed through careful consideration with the sector, is designed to make it very difficult to deliver funded ELC without meeting the real living wage ambition. Local authorities’ sustainable funding rate for the delivery of funded ELC will reflect the real living wage, thanks to our multiyear funding agreement with COSLA.
From the very beginning, this expansion has focused continuously on improving the quality of ELC that our children experience. Our plan for doing that, “Expansion of early learning and childcare in Scotland: Quality Action Plan,” was published in October 2017. Within the next few months, we will have delivered all the 15 actions that it contains in order to support the workforce, our children’s learning environments, play pedagogy, home learning and family learning. We have been relentless in maintaining a focus on quality as the expansion progresses.
The International Council of Education Advisers has recognised Scotland’s potential to be world leading in this field. Quality is so central to our offer that it can happen only thanks to the dedication and hard work of front-line staff up and down the country, caring for children, adapting to change and welcoming new members to their team. It is also thanks to local authority teams managing the expansion in their areas and leading at local level one of the biggest social infrastructure transformation programmes in public services in recent years.
It is also thanks to early learning and childcare providers across the private, third, childminding and public sectors, who demonstrate professionalism and passion every day. Let me finish with some provider testimonials, because I would like to add more balanced testimonials to the debate. A playgroup in Argyll and Bute told us:
“We have received lots of support within our setting with funding for better resources in order to obtain better outcomes for children.”
A playgroup in Edinburgh said:
“Two years ago, we were at the point”—[
So the Conservatives do not want to hear the providers’ view.
The playgroup in Edinburgh said:
“Two years ago, we were at the point of closing the nursery. Our numbers were forecasted to be low going into August 2018, and having struggled financially for a number of years just to cover our basic running costs, we felt that the group was no longer viable. For many years, we had been relying on fund raising just to bridge the gap, and also on staff goodwill as we could not pay a decent rate for the job, and the whole thing had just reached breaking point.
The pilot scheme for us has meant that, due to the increase in the hourly rate paid by the Council, we have been able to give our staff a decent pay increase, and although we are not able to reach the pay and benefit levels of the council equivalent, we were able to improve our rates.”
A playgroup in Angus said:
“The support we received from Angus Council has helped us upgrade our facilities. We will be having work on the building both interior and exterior, creating exciting new opportunities for outdoor education.”
Although it is right that the Parliament scrutinise and challenge progress in delivering such an important public service, I ask colleagues not to undermine the commitment of those who are working tirelessly to make a success of the expansion in local authorities, ELC settings and supporting organisations across Scotland.
I welcome the Parliament’s support for expanding early learning and childcare, and thank colleagues for their contributions today. I encourage each and every member to support their local authority and local providers as they work to transform children’s lives.
I am happy to close for the Scottish Conservatives in this vital debate on the expansion of funded childcare, and I thank my colleague Jamie Greene for bringing the motion to the chamber. He and other members who spoke in the debate were absolutely right to highlight the grave concerns that were noted in last week’s Audit Scotland report. I will touch on a few of those concerns in my speech.
H ere we are in our final five months before the Scottish Government’s ambition to expand funded childcare to 1,140 hours becomes a requirement for local authorities across Scotland. Today, we have heard about the many problems that are being faced in relation to the roll-out. Not least of those, as was evidenced in the Audit Scotland report, is the sheer lack of adequate planning that was done before initiating such a policy commitment. Mary Fee and many other members mentioned that.
During the roll-out, I have focused on the exclusion of the private, voluntary and independent—or PVI—sector. The minister no doubt takes the view that progress reports show that there is a greater proportion of PVI sector involvement in the policy’s delivery than was originally planned, and she will undoubtedly have that charted as a success. However, I have spent a great deal of time working with the PVI sector, and I assure the minister that it is still feeling excluded from the expansion, despite there being just five months to go.
That point leads me to reiterate two things. First, the context is crucial. When reports talk about the originally planned level of PVI sector involvement, it is important to note that the bar for that was very low in many local authority areas. I remember meeting council officials who were shocked by the very idea that PVI sector nurseries would want to be included in the capital expansion programme.
Secondly, the proportion of entitlement that is being delivered in PVI settings does not equate to the level of partnership or engagement that was intended, even at the outset. The revenue funding rates that councils offer partner providers for delivering the entitlement hours are a basic and fundamental aspect of provision.
Let us focus on the most common planned rate for August 2020, which is £5.31 per child per hour of entitlement. That figure was derived from a 2016 report that was based on cost estimates at the time, but costs have changed since 2016. For example, the requirement to pay the real living wage was not taken into account in 2016.
Although £5.31 is the most frequently offered rate, we see a varying picture across Scotland. In
Perth and Kinross, for example, the rate was £4.00 and the planned rate, reflecting increases from August 2020, will be £5.05. In comparison, West Lothian Council will pay providers £6.80 per child per hour from the beginning of the new financial year. After accounting for the cost of providing meals, that could mean that an independent nursery in Perth would receive almost £2,000 less per child per year than one based in Linlithgow, for example. That just does not strike me as being fair—it is not a level playing field. Even if we consider that those different rates will have different cost provisions, such a differential is just wrong and surely cannot be acceptable.
It is no secret that there has been a mass exodus of PVI sector workers moving across to council-led nurseries. In large part, that has been due to the low funding rates that have been offered in the PVI sector, which cannot compete with council-offered salary levels, as my colleague Brian Whittle mentioned in his contribution. I remember that, last year, North Lanarkshire Council advertised a vacancy for an entry-level practitioner at an annual salary of £26,000 to £29,000, which was almost £10,000 more than the market average at that time.
I will have to keep going—I am sorry.
I have heard, at first hand, how some nurseries are struggling to break even. In December last year, figures revealed that, between the start of 2018 and September 2019, more than 150 nurseries in the PVI sector were forced to close their businesses. That was not a temporary measure; it was permanent. Businesses failed and parents were left in the lurch. Let us not forget that the PVI sector provides more than 25 per cent of the places that the Government will need for children in the roll-out.
Towards the end of last year, I conducted a survey that was aimed at the PVI sector throughout Scotland. The response to one of the questions showed that just one in five providers—20 per cent—actually believed that the 1,140 hours model would leave their business in a sustainable position. Some 80 per cent were unsure whether they would be able to remain in business due to the current expansion—let us think about that statistic for a minute.
The reality is that, despite my questioning, the minister remains vague when it comes to offering any support, advice or guidance. Members will have heard me mention businesses being lost and parents being left in the lurch. The more important question is: what about the children? Where do they go when those businesses are forced to close? Where is the flexibility in those circumstances? Where is consideration given to the flexibility that means that a parent’s four-year-old daughter receives her entitlement hours at the same nursery as her one-year-old little brother?
I know that the Scottish Government’s intention was to maintain and enhance flexibility but, sadly and without question, it is going the other way as a consequence of the roll-out. As Beatrice Wishart said, flexibility will reduce. Scottish Conservatives have long argued that flexibility should be given greater focus. It is almost exclusively the PVI sector that currently provides such flexibility, but that flexibility will also be a casualty of the roll-out. That might not have been the Government’s original intention, but the Audit Scotland report also highlights the risk to flexibility that the expansion poses.
Just last week, in this very chamber, I asked the minister about the report’s finding that flexibility and choice will not be in place by August. I asked about the report’s exposure of the lack of any meaningful attempt to monitor the staffing drain from the PVI sector to councils, which I have raised many times over the past two years. I also asked about uncertainty over the future of paid childcare for children under three, and about planning and guidance having been rushed from the outset. The minister did not respond on flexibility or staffing, or indeed on the provision for under-threes. Instead, everything was downplayed and assurances were given that all would be well. That has been the Government’s approach from the beginning.
I say to the minister that ignoring such problems will not make them go away. It is time to change that approach and tackle things head on. Alison Johnstone was absolutely correct to mention the scale of the challenges that the sector faces. In its present form, the roll-out is simply not working as planned. Meaningful and genuine partnership is not happening. Business sustainability is at risk, which ultimately affects places for children. Many speakers across the chamber have mentioned the severe staffing issues, and flexibility and choice are not likely to be in place by August 2020. Indeed, there are significant infrastructure problems.
This is actually very sad. The implementation of the policy is flawed, not the policy in principle. “Team ELC”? Seriously, minister? If the Scottish Government does not willingly accept that, the message is very clear: we have a Scottish Government that is set to fail our children and early years—[
.] Yes, we have. Let us make that right before it is too late. That is why I will support the motion in the name of my colleague Jamie Greene.