Today’s debate marks a significant milestone towards improving the lives and futures of Scotland’s children and families. The Scottish Government’s ambition is for all of Scotland’s children to grow up in a country where they feel loved, safe and respected, and where they are able to reach their full potential. That ambition sits at the heart of our commitment to expanding the funded early learning and childcare entitlement, and it drives our new policies for early learning and school-age childcare in our programme for government.
Universally accessible and high-quality ELC can make a huge difference to children’s lives. It helps to provide children with skills and confidence to carry into school education and is a cornerstone for closing the poverty-related attainment gap between children from the most and least deprived communities.
I am therefore pleased to confirm that, since 1 August, all three and four-year-olds in Scotland, and those two-year-olds who need it most, have been eligible for 1,140 hours of funded early learning and childcare, which is saving parents up to £4,900 per year for each eligible child.
That long-held ambition was first set out in the “One Scotland” programme for government in 2014-15. I am really proud that Scotland is the only part of the United Kingdom to offer the equivalent of 1,140 hours to all eligible children regardless of their parents’ working status, thereby putting children first.
The minister and I have had an exchange in the Education, Children and Young People Committee about this, but has she made any progress on getting more eligible two-year-olds to take up their entitlement, because only about one in three is currently accessing it? Does she have an update on that provision?
I will touch on that in my closing remarks. I am sure that Mr Rennie will welcome the statistics that show that the number of eligible two-year-olds accessing their entitlement has increased by 27 per cent, from 4,711 in August 2020 to 5,954 in August 2021. However, there is still work that we can do.
All councils now offer 1,140 hours of funded ELC to all eligible children. Figures that were published in October by the Improvement Service show that, at the end of August, nearly 91,000 children in Scotland were accessing funded early learning and childcare. Of those 91,000 children, 97 per cent are accessing expanded provision and 87 per cent—nearly 80,000 children—are choosing to take up the full 1,140 hours.
It has been an enormous undertaking to get to this point, particularly in the middle of a global pandemic. That is testament to what can be achieved through joint working between national and local government and other valued partners across the sector. It is worth reflecting on how we have made it work.
In April 2018, the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities reached a landmark multiyear funding agreement to fully fund the expansion. By 2021-22, annual revenue investment has increased by £567 million from 2016-17 levels, bringing total Scottish Government funding for early learning and childcare in 2021-22 to about £1 billion.
I hear what the minister says about the year-on-year increases in funding, but in 2012, when the policy was first introduced, 6,009 two-year-olds accessed the provision, so there are now fewer children accessing it than there were at the start—that is not a policy that is working well.
I disagree with Mr Mundell, because the policy is working well, as evidenced by the increase, as I mentioned, in the past year of the number of eligible two-year-olds who have accessed their entitlement.
The increase in funded provision was intended for August 2020, but the Covid-19 pandemic and national lockdown meant that that could not be achieved. Building work and staff recruitment had to be paused to give local authorities much-needed time to focus on the immediate pandemic response.
I know how incredibly difficult that time was for families and for the countless businesses, organisations and individuals that make up the ELC sector. I am hugely grateful to staff for their resilience and hard work in keeping services open for vulnerable families and key workers and for all their work since to keep services open and people safe.
We prioritised a return to ELC for all children as soon as it was safe to do so, because childcare is fundamental to our children’s development and family wellbeing, as well as to parents’ ability to work, train and study. Even in the face of the pandemic, local authorities, private and third sector providers and childminders made incredible progress to ensure that 1,140 hours, which is almost double the previous entitlement of 600 hours per year, could be offered to all eligible children from the start of the new term in August 2021.
Our local authorities have also made huge strides in developing the infrastructure required for the expansion. The Scottish Government has provided £476 million of capital funding over the past four years to refurbish, repurpose and extend existing nursery settings, as well as providing 160 new-build facilities across Scotland.
The impact of that capital funding cannot be overstated. The £476 million is enabling the creation of 22,000 additional physical spaces through more than 900 capital projects across Scotland that will support the delivery of good-quality flexible accessible and affordable early learning and childcare provision.
More than 82 per cent of the infrastructure is being delivered through refurbishments, extensions and outdoor facilities, in keeping with the programme aspirations of making best use of existing facilities and aligning with the net zero agenda.
The infrastructure programme has also supported local economies and the construction industry, with more than 50 per cent of the construction projects being delivered by small and medium-sized contractors.
At the heart of this are, of course, the children and the experiences that they will gain from attending high-quality ELC. Through the national standard and our world-leading curriculum, local authorities and settings have put quality at the heart of the 1,140 hours programme by thinking about what children will need to make their ELC experience comfortable, suitable and lots of fun.
The expansion would not have happened without the joint efforts of the public sector, providers in the private and third sectors and childminders. I know that childminders and providers in the third and private sectors continue to report challenges in relation to recruitment, retention and sustainability, and I am committed to continuing to work with the sector to identify and implement solutions.
Data shows that, in August, about 32 per cent of funded places were provided by the private and third sectors and by childminders. That is much greater than the 26 per cent that was projected at the start of the expansion, and it demonstrates our commitment to provider neutrality.
The expansion has been supported by a transformational expansion of the workforce.
I take issue with that, given the expansion that there has been by our local authority partners. It is about parental choice and where parents wish to send their children. Allowing the funding to follow the child means that parents have that choice.
The number of enrolments across college and vocational routes grew significantly between the academic years 2017-18 and 2019-20, with particularly high growth of 41 per cent in the number of modern apprenticeship starts. Broken down by academic year, that represents a significant exceeding of our target to achieve 10 per cent growth in the number of starts year on year. We have also seen a 26 per cent increase in the number of childcare staff registering with the Scottish Social Services Council since expansion planning commenced in 2016.
Beyond those benefits for today’s children and their futures, and beyond the enormous expansions in infrastructure and workforce, the programme is about expanding support to families, particularly those experiencing the most disadvantage. As well as improving children’s outcomes in the long term, we expect that the increase in flexibility, in relation to how the funded entitlement is delivered and where children can access their entitlement, will allow more families to access ELC in a way that meets their needs. That can open up routes into study, training and sustainable employment, and out of poverty—transforming lives now.
Our work continues, and we continue to work closely with local government and the sector to embed the benefits of the expansion—improving children’s outcomes, increasing opportunities to access work, training or study and improving family wellbeing.
We have set out our ambition to provide funded early learning to all one and two-year-olds, starting in this parliamentary session with children from low-income households. This year, we will begin engagement with families, the early learning sector and academic experts to design how the new offer will work in practice, with a focus on developing an offer that will contribute to supporting the wellbeing of the whole family.
To support families further, we have committed to expanding access to childcare further by building a system of wraparound school-age childcare through provision of care before and after school and in the holidays. Those on the lowest incomes will pay nothing, and others will make fair and affordable contributions. That offer underlines and demonstrates our determination to tackle child poverty, as it will remove the barriers that childcare costs present for parents on low incomes, helping them to take up and sustain employment. It will also reduce inequalities in access to a range of activities around the school day, particularly for children who will benefit most.
This wide-ranging programme of work—what has already been achieved and the work that is still to come—underlines the Scottish Government’s commitment to improving the lives and futures of Scotland’s young people. I look forward to hearing the contributions from across the chamber this afternoon.
I welcome the opportunity to open the debate on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives. I draw members’ attention to my entry in the register of members’ interests; I am a serving councillor on North Lanarkshire Council.
The Scottish Government’s policy to expand childcare through the 1,140-hour programme received widespread support, as it had the potential to improve the lives of families across Scotland by making childcare more accessible. Any childcare policy that puts a child at the centre is welcome, as it will allow parents to go back to work to sooner, as well as exposing children to a safe environment where they will learn necessary skills.
However, the postponement of the rolling out of the policy and the failure to address some of the serious and urgent concerns that have been raised have left many parents and providers in the private, voluntary and independent sector feeling let down. Despite today’s claim by the Scottish National Party Government that it is focused on the expansion of childcare, it appears that it is failing the early learning and childcare sector through its declining standards and inability to show any signs of leadership to make necessary improvements.
In August this year, the SNP finally increased the amount of free early learning and childcare that is provided from 600 to 1,140 hours—
Does the member not recognise that we have been in the midst of a global pandemic and that local authorities that were delivering some of the building projects and some of the increased staffing had to focus their attention on other issues?
Issues were raised about the early learning and childcare programme back in 2019, if not before. I am sure that my colleague Brian Whittle and others will say more about that. I will not accept any excuses regarding the pandemic.
Through its unpopular decision, which resulted in hundreds of complaints from parents to ministers, the SNP managed to turn a positive flagship policy into a postcode lottery. Regardless of the excuses that the SNP Government will use today, some of which we have already heard, it was running months, if not years behind in implementing delivery of the necessary infrastructure way before the pandemic hit.
During the previous parliamentary session, my Conservative colleagues continually warned the Scottish Government of concerns relating to the private, voluntary and independent sector. That prompted a response from the First Minister, who admitted that she was aware of the concerns of private providers and the implications that the 1,140-hour policy could have for their businesses. She promised that the PVI sector would be involved in the process and that the policy could not be delivered without its valuable contributions.
I have spoken to private nurseries up and down the country. Many do not believe that the Scottish Government has included them fully in the roll-out of its important policy. The Scottish Government must accept that there are still issues with the provision of 1,140 hours of free early learning and childcare. If it fails to act now, we will be heading for a childcare system that is not fit for purpose.
One of the main issues that private nurseries have raised with me relates to the staffing crisis that is developing throughout the childcare sector, for which there are a few reasons. Two of those relate to the ratio of council-owned facilities to private nurseries and the number of new housing estates that have been built without consideration for childcare demand. One of the main reasons is that private nurseries continually lose out to local authority nurseries. I am unconvinced that some local authorities gave thought to the repercussions that the strategy they adopted could have for their 1,140-hour PVI partners. After all, local authorities can offer better pay, working hours and benefits in hand. That has left the private nurseries in a continuous recruitment drive, as they keep losing their staff.
The pay gap between a nursery worker in a council-run nursery and a nursery worker in a private facility will only increase, and that leaves some in the sector feeling undervalued. If the Scottish Government had set out a fair-pay model to begin with, that would have ensured that, regardless of which nursery a worker worked for, they would be paid the same as someone else who was doing the same job.
Another key problem is the huge variations in revenue funding rates for the PVI sector.
No, thank you. I would like to make progress.
The total revenue funding from the Scottish Government is increasing, but significant variations in funding rates across local authorities still exist. Those variations have created an unfair system that benefits only some private providers. That has implications for partners if the funding rate is lower in their authority area.
The Scottish Government needs to address that to ensure that all private providers are treated the same, regardless of where their nursery is based. The truth is that the 1,140-hour policy document is littered with discrepancies that benefit local government at the expense of the private sector. That cannot and should not be allowed to continue if we are looking to create an equal playing field between private nurseries and local government ones.
Moving away from the PVI sector, I note that a concern has been raised by parents in relation to obtaining a place at their chosen nursery. That might seem odd, given that provision has expanded to 1,140 hours, but some local authorities have refused funding to parents on the basis that they have selected a private nursery over a council-run facility. Not only does that defeat the purpose of parental choice, it raises serious concerns about the influence that some local authorities have over where children are placed. That situation—[Interruption.]
That situation has undoubtedly been created because of the Government’s lack of leadership and inability to provide guidance to ensure that all councils were following similar practices.
If I compare the previous experiences to the needs set out by Upstart Scotland, it will highlight how far the Scottish Government needs to go to get things back on track. Upstart Scotland asks for children to be valued the same; sustainable hourly rates to be paid to the PVI sector; realisation by local authorities that using what they have is more sustainable than reinventing the wheel; a level playing field for the sector’s workforce; true partnership working; and a model that allows outcomes for all children to be shaped to meet their individual needs. I do not see any of that reflected in the concerns that have been brought to my attention, which should set off alarm bells for the minister. Perhaps the Government could look at the plans that the Scottish Conservatives launched in our manifesto, which would give parents flexibility in support as well as provide that wraparound childcare without leaving the PVI sector behind.
The 1,140-hour policy still has potential but, as with everything that the Scottish Government touches, it is falling apart. I urge the minister to get a grip of what could be a developing crisis and put young people and families at the heart of childcare policies.
I welcome the opportunity to debate early learning, because I hope that we can all agree on the importance of that time in a person’s life. As Montessori so appropriately put it:
“Free the child’s potential, and you transform him into the world.”
I echo the thanks given to all the staff across the early learning sector who have worked so hard during these Covid times.
We are talking about a time when the seeds of a young person’s imagination, empathy and friendships are sown and nurtured; a time when a child’s experiences will ripple through their lives, possibly forgotten in detail but ever-present and influential in the decisions and choices that they make. Those decisions will influence their educational achievement, lifelong health, potential for economic productivity and whether they become responsible citizens in successful communities and successful parents of the next generation.
We in Scottish Labour understand the busy time that we are going through because of COP26, but it is disappointing, though not surprising, that something as important as education and, in particular, early years childcare has been given a debate-only slot that does not allow for the Government to be held to account with a vote. It would be truly shameful if a Government sought to avoid scrutiny of its provision for our children because the eyes of the nation were elsewhere.
Scottish Labour agrees that investment in childcare is a key part of and building block for our economic recovery. That would have been the case even without the shadow of Covid, but is now more so because of it. The planned expansion of childcare provision must go ahead this year as promised, but it must deliver the flexibility and availability that parents and families genuinely need. The Scottish Government’s expansion to 1,140 hours, while much needed, has caused problems across the sector thanks to the lack of professional training, capacity and basic infrastructure to accompany the policy. We want to see an expansion of childcare, but it is vital that it is done in a sustainable manner, centred on the needs of the child.
For example, in relation to where the policy meets the Government’s policy on free school meals, is the minister aware of the impending capacity crisis for young people from early years to primary 7 when they sit down for lunch? In many establishments, it means that multiple dinner sittings will have to take place over a long period. Some young people will eat not long after their breakfast and have a long wait until their next meal, or they will have a long morning after breakfast and before their lunch.
The pandemic might have slowed down progress during the past 18 months, but the Scottish Government had years before the pandemic struck to improve the offer on early learning and childcare.
As we begin to look ahead to rebuilding after the pandemic, it is vital that we take the opportunity to look back to what has not worked, what needs urgently addressing, and who has been let down. There needs to be a proper assessment of what has been lost during the pandemic and what needs to be done to repair the damage.
We must not forget our young people on our path back from Covid. As with many edicts on childcare and early years, the policy has come from on high, has not had enough forethought, engagement and planning and, without significantly more time and money, is entirely undeliverable by some local authorities.
I look forward to hearing the policy being fleshed out, because I have several questions for the minister. What research has there been around how the policy will affect the attainment gap? For parents who live and work in different local authority areas, does the funding follow the child? Will the Government create an agreed pathway for training and qualifications for early years staff, as well as funding to allow salary growth? If it is truly an educational child-focused policy, how can the Scottish Government tolerate the fact that those who work in the field feel classed as low skilled and low paid?
The debate is called “1,140 hours and beyond”, but what is meant by “beyond”? A child who was born in the year that the SNP came to power will be in their third or fourth year at high school, and those who began school in the same year will be gearing up to leave, having had almost their entire education under an SNP Government. Rising numbers of teachers have quit the profession, there is a frequent failure to meet the Government’s targets on class size, and the poverty-related attainment gap widens.
Over the past 18 months, the journey from early years to university has been littered with failings. Every child, from four to 18, has missed out on so much during the pandemic, and each school year has had to pass the children on to the next year, in the hope that someone else can pick up the slack. Did they sit formal examinations? Yes. Do they have a certificate to say that they completed their year? Yes. However, does that mean that they received the education that they deserved, that they have come out on the other side with the knowledge bank that they will need, or that they were given the support and experience that they were owed? No; I do not think that it does.
All our young people have that 18-month knowledge and experience gap and, for our youngest in the early years, the foundation blocks that the system relies on—such as transitions into upper rooms and going into school for the first time—have potentially been missed or undertaken without the full support that parents expect.
Obviously, the pandemic is a situation like no other, and there was always going to be a pause while everyone had to quickly adapt and find a new way of continuing, but the problem is that some things never properly moved on from those first urgent, panicked steps. Once we realised that Covid was not going to be over quickly, there was space to look at what was missing and work towards that goal. Instead, we got gaps in the curriculum, students feeling isolated, a fiasco of examinations and grading, and a devastatingly high rise in mental health issues among all our young people.
Who will pick up the responsibility of that knowledge gap and who will fix it? The Scottish Government has been avoiding any discussions on education since the start of this term, because it knows that it should take responsibility for that.
As we look to build back our society, we need to make sure that generations are not lost again, that gaps are filled, and that children, teachers, early years education providers, local authorities and—most importantly—families and young people are given support.
Is the policy economic or educational? The Scottish Government has somehow made one that pleases neither aspect. For parents, it is a question of who they leave their children with, so that they can go to work. We need to ensure that early years staff are given the pay, qualifications and respect to match that responsibility.
Scottish Labour supports the provision of 1,140 childcare hours, but it must be rolled out sustainably and with the genuine flexibility and resource that parents need, and it should not be just another soundbite.
Martin Whitfield has made a powerful point—this debate is probably the first Government-inspired education debate for years. The Opposition has always led education debates, the reason being that the Government did not want the issue debated in the chamber. Therefore, it is a shame that we are having this debate in the shadow of COP26, given that, on the surface, it is a positive development that we have managed to roll out the early education proposals. On the other hand, it should be a much—
I think that Christine Grahame knows very well that the Government now has a majority on the bureau. Therefore, it does not matter what the bureau thinks; there will be a Government debate only when the Government wants one. [Interruption.] I will not take an intervention—as much as I would like to debate the matter endlessly, I only have four minutes.
The economist Professor James Heckman won his Nobel memorial prize for his work on early years, in respect of which he said that we should “invest, develop and sustain” to gain. That was more than 20 years ago, so, despite what we think, Scotland is not ahead of the curve by any means. If we look at Scotland’s yawning poverty-related attainment gap, we see that we have a long way to go.
Nevertheless, the 1,140 hours expansion is a welcome development. For some years, I have been a strong advocate for it. I used to badger Alex Salmond every week to extend provision to two-year-olds, as they were doing in England. Thankfully, he eventually gave in and agreed to the policy.
As always, the problem with this Government is implementation. Despite what the minister says, only a minority of those who are entitled to the provision for two-year-olds are accessing it, and I cannot see a plan from the Government to increase that rate. Thousands of young people who desperately need that education are missing out.
I am looking forward to receiving that letter. When the minister is writing to me, I hope that she will also address the issues around the viability of the sector. I am deeply concerned about the viability of private, independent and voluntary sector nurseries, because in many council areas across the country, their rates have not increased. At a time when costs and wages are going up and Covid responsibilities are increasing, we cannot expect the rates of reimbursement not to go up as well. That is why private nurseries are deeply concerned about whether they will be able to continue operating as they are currently doing.
I have a proposal for the minister. I would like her to look at the approach to transitions between ages at nursery, because it is underutilising their capacity. I know that young people move from one room in nursery to the other when they have their birthday, but that means that we have a one-child, two-spaces dilemma. Many nurseries in my area would be interested in exploring with the minister whether we can consider the proposal to improve capacity in nurseries, which would also ensure that we can get better value for money, provide greater stability for young people and pay the workers a bit more money. That would be a better, more efficient use of the service. I hope that the minister will agree to meet me to discuss the issue, because it is important and requires some exploration.
I will briefly talk about the Give Them Time campaign. The campaign wants greater flexibility for families wishing to hold their child back before they go off to school. I welcome the expansion of the pilots, which is a good thing, and I am glad that Fife is included. However, I cannot understand why we need two years of pilots. Surely we now understand that the policy has been delivered effectively in certain council areas, so we should make it available for the whole country and be done with it.
First, I thank all the early years professionals who have gone above and beyond to help our national health service staff, teachers and key workers all over Scotland get through the pandemic. Of course, early years professionals are key workers, too. I also thank all the people who have had to physically get to work when the rest of us have adapted to working from home, and to all those who worked from home but needed their children to be in nursery to allow them to do that. To them, the early years professionals were, and continue to be, a godsend.
The importance of good-quality early years care and education cannot be overstated. Our early years workforce is the key to so much of what makes our world go round—and never more so than in the past 19 months.
That aspect of their work—the support that they provide to families—is just the tip of the iceberg. As 1,140 hours is being rolled out across the country, I want to highlight the significance of the work that early years education professionals do and the impact that that has on the health, social development, education and wellbeing of our children at this most crucial stage of their lives. This key developmental phase of a child’s life is the building block for their whole lives, and the positive impact of our universal expansion of early years education will be felt in our society in the long term.
Pre-Covid, I met some partner providers who were gearing up for the provision of 1,140 hours. I have had great visits to Flowerpots Childcare in Kingseat and Turriff, and had many discussions with the managers on the expansion from their perspective. I also spoke to the apprentices at Hoodles in Oldmeldrum. I am very much looking forward to a time post-Covid when I can go back into my constituency nurseries to see how the expansion is going, and to do what I can to encourage more young people, particularly young men, to consider working in a nursery as a career. There are great opportunities in Aberdeenshire for school leavers and adults looking for a career change through the introduction of the modern apprenticeship and through the assistant early years practitioner and early years support workers’ roles.
For the existing workforce, there are substantial progression opportunities in Aberdeenshire Council’s ELC service through the introduction of the early years senior practitioner posts. We now have 75 EYSPs in post, and those practitioners are key to providing increased capacity for quality improvement, nurture and, importantly, increased engagement with families.
We have also seen the introduction of six early learning excellence and equity practitioners, who deliver a high level of educational expertise and input to those young children and their families. Those are families who face the greatest disadvantages and for whom additional support will assist in closing the poverty-related attainment gap.
All in all, since 2018, we have seen a total increase in the workforce of 703 part-time and full-time early years staff in Aberdeenshire. That number is set to increase.
I also want to mention the impact of holiday cover and the approach that has been taken to giving parents the hours that suit them and their children. Based on initial feedback from parents, the council undertook a review of the staffing model, and it will ensure that staffing levels increase to allow earlier drop-off and later pick-up times for working parents.
Over the summer, 17 settings across 16 clusters were open in Aberdeenshire to great success, with extremely positive feedback from parents. One mum said that she was delighted that the summer opening would mean that she would not go into debt through pressure to provide activities and experiences for her child during a time when she was working.
Our early years practitioners play an important part in a child’s development and are fundamental to closing the poverty-related attainment gap. Frankly, I am excited to see the future impact on our country’s population as the little ones who are receiving the enhanced early years education grow into adults.
I close by saying that this is the umpteenth time that I have spoken in a Government debate on early years childcare provision over the past few years.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to today’s debate on what I believe is one of the most important and far-reaching pieces of legislation currently on the Scottish Government’s books. The 30 hours of free childcare could be a major tool in the drive to tackle health inequalities and in the health prevention agenda, which I have spoken about many times in the chamber.
Some children are reaching school age two years’ behind in their development compared with their peers. This is an opportunity to finally tackle the stubborn attainment gap before it even starts to open. Furthermore, the policy can be a huge boost to those who want to go back into work following the birth of a child.
The Conservatives recognise the huge significance of the legislation, we support its objectives and we want it to work as well as it possibly can. To achieve the laudable objectives and create the number of places that are needed requires partnership working between local authorities and private nursery providers.
The minister said that the pandemic has been a major inhibitor to the roll-out of free childcare, and I am sure that members across Parliament would agree with that. However, it should have given ministers the time to consider the issues that had been raised on behalf of the sector in the chamber, on many occasions by Conservative members, especially the huge disparity across the country in councils’ relationships with and treatment of private nursery care, which in many cases have been far from ideal.
Having spoken with a number of private nursery owners, it is clear to me that serious concerns about their treatment and the sustainability of the scheme remain. The minister will have examples of where the attitude and approach of local councils is collaborative and reflects the way in which the Scottish Government has set out its delivery plan. However, there seems to have been little progress with ensuring that that picture is uniform across the country.
I have listened to stories of local authorities openly stating that they do not believe in private nursery childcare and intend to bring all childcare in-house. They have no intention of partnering with private childcare nurseries, even if those nurseries have delivered decades of top-quality care and become an integral part of their communities.
Every nursery represented highlighted the issue of local authorities recruiting directly from partnership nurseries into local authority nurseries. Some partnership nurseries are losing so many highly trained good-quality staff that the Care Inspectorate is downgrading them because of an increase in staff turnover. We have local authorities that have been able to pay a higher rate for apprentices than the partnership nurseries can pay for qualified staff, yet the local authorities are asking the partnership nurseries to train their apprentices, so we have the ludicrous situation in which apprentices are being paid more than those who are training them. That is not a partnership.
There are huge discrepancies between what the minister has asked local authorities to deliver and what some are delivering. There are local authorities that are consulting and treating the partnership nurseries as a crucial part of the scaling up of childcare in Scotland but, as I have tried to highlight, a significant number are treating those nurseries as anything but partners, to the point where they now feel under threat. The unintended consequence is pressure on places for children under three. To pick up on Willie Rennie’s point, only one out of three children is currently taking up those places.
In many cases, local authorities are in essence setting themselves up in competition with partnership nurseries, according to those nurseries. For the minister to deliver this crucial policy, she will need all those partnership nurseries. The truth is that she is in danger of losing them and all their years of experience of dedicated care in our communities. Once they are lost, it will be next to impossible to get them back.
It gives me great pleasure to speak in the debate. I have a four-year-old who currently benefits from the 1,140 hours, and I, for one, am very grateful for that. I think that parents up and down the country, and certainly those in my constituency, feel the same, particularly as people strive to find a childcare-work balance, mainly for women and mothers. For me, that is a major part of what the policy does: it breaks down barriers, creates more equality and allows more women to return to work and continue their careers—an argument that has been well made by others in the debate and by Close the Gap in its briefing to MSPs ahead of it.
Some members might know that I did a bit of work in the previous parliamentary session around paternity leave and breaking the presumption that women are the primary caregivers. My experience is that that presumption still exists, and is actually quite prevalent and pervasive in society. It is not one that any individual can take responsibility for, but one that exists in our institutions, in the structures around us, and in us all. I find that it is quite deep rooted and that it creates barriers—I can say that, having become a dad again recently. I believe that the 1,140 hours, as well as the expansion of the policy, will help to tackle that presumption both directly and by gradually changing the mindset in society more generally.
Covid-19 also allows us an opportunity to build back better and differently. Parliament will soon have a choice to make about remote working and how it links in with policies such as the expansion of early learning and childcare. Having a newborn, my family can benefit from the situation and the new technology, but only because of the understanding of my party’s chief whip and my committee convener. In many respects, then, I am the lucky one, but it should not be like that.
Parliament needs to lead the way on family-friendly policies if we are to expect businesses and other bodies to have such policies. On that note, I pay tribute to the many businesses in my constituency that are embracing new ways of working and allowing their employees to fulfil a range of family obligations such as childcare. Although it can be tempting to do what is easiest—as has happened at Westminster—my ask of the Parliament is that we do what is right and lead by example.
I want to comment on the outdoor education aspect of the expansion of early learning and childcare. Gillian Martin mentioned facilities in her constituency. Like her, I have been fortunate to visit facilities in my constituency that have an excellent record of outdoor provision, such as Jigsaw family learning centre in Chryston, Stepping Stones family learning centre in Stepps and Townhead nursery in Coatbridge. The benefits to children of receiving outdoor education at a young age are well known and numerous. I am delighted that the Scottish Government continues to invest in and promote that, because it is important for our children’s future.
I want to mention the Government’s on-going plans to ensure that all children who have deferred access to school are entitled to funded early learning and childcare in that year. There was a written answer on that this week, and I am delighted that Willie Rennie has also raised the issue. It is great that we are making good progress on it. In the previous session of Parliament, I held a members’ business debate on the issue, following contact from the Give Them Time campaign. I am due to meet representatives of the campaign again later this month, when they will update me on their current work in the area. I know that Diane Delaney and others from the campaign are delighted with the recent announcement from the minister.
Personally, I would have liked North Lanarkshire Council to be included in the second phase of the pilot, particularly as councillors there were the first in the country to change the local policy to that effect—Meghan Gallacher, who declared an interest as a councillor in North Lanarkshire Council, was one of them. It would have been good to see North Lanarkshire Council involved in the pilot. I do not know whether the minister will be able to comment on that but, that said, it is good that we seem to be making progress towards the national roll-out in 2023, when it will not matter what local authority children are in.
We can be proud of the Government’s record on early learning and childcare. The Government’s policy has the potential to impact positively on many children and families, and it is doing that now.
I draw members’ attention to my entry in the register of interests, which shows that I am a councillor in East Renfrewshire Council.
This afternoon, we are rightly debating the policy on 1,140 hours of funded early learning and childcare, but the title of the debate goes on to say “and Beyond”. I feel that it is most appropriate for us to focus our attention on the implementation of the current policy and fixing the issues that persist in delivering it, before the Government draws a line and moves into the beyond.
Our first priority must be ensuring that the planned expansion of childcare is embedded this year and that it delivers the flexibility that parents and families require. The 1,140 hours of free early learning and childcare is widely supported across the chamber and across Scotland. From research, we know about the benefits that it brings to children and families, particularly those who live in areas of multiple deprivation. I have seen at first hand the work done in family centres in communities such as Barrhead, Neilston and Thornliebank. In areas such as Auchenback and Dunterlie, I have seen the difference that can be made in developing children and supporting their families through creating anchor institutions that build trust and offer a holistic approach that meets people where they are.
I think in particular of the Sir Harry Burns centre in Auchenback, which is home to a wide range of learning and health opportunities for children and their families. The Arthurlie family centre nursery is based in the building, and activities and opportunities are available from various teams in the council and the health and social care partnership. Activities such as parenting workshops, breastfeeding cafes, speech and language outreach services, baby massage and baby sensory classes and the bookbug programme operate out of the centre every single day.
That is the model that I think of when we talk about expanding early learning and childcare—that is the quality that we all want to see in the expansion. However, the model was largely advanced before the wider agenda on 1,140 hours as a result of the council bringing together partners and developing through collaboration. Despite on-going cuts to local government budgets, councils are striving to deliver and innovate for our youngest citizens.
Early learning and childcare is about more than just the hours that are available; it is about the quality of inputs that children and young people receive and it is about supporting and regenerating communities. However, we know that that is not the experience in every community and that the Government has failed to deliver the planned expansion on time.
We have already heard reference to the impact of the pandemic, but the reality is that the Scottish Government had years before the pandemic to improve the offer on early learning and childcare and to work in meaningful partnership with local authorities to deliver. There are gaps in what has been possible for councils to deliver on the ground. Once again, a policy intention has been announced by the Government but with a lack of meaningful engagement with local authorities on the ground about how it will be delivered, particularly in the face of on-going budget cuts.
Does the member agree that full delivery of the policy will take collaboration between council nurseries and partnership nurseries? As it stands, there is a major disparity across councils in Scotland in the way in which partnership nurseries are treated.
In my time in the council, I met many private providers who felt that it was often difficult for them to enter into partnership with local authorities. We worked hard in East Renfrewshire to make those partnerships available, but there has to be more parity in the funding available to ensure that we have the right provision at the right time and in the right place.
As I said, there has perhaps been insufficient capital and revenue funding. Indeed, my inbox as a councillor has been full of messages from parents who have not always been able to get the flexibility that they need because the funding allocations have led to rigid options across a variety of locations. Often, parents cannot access the provision that they want in the community that they want or, indeed, where they live or work.
With an increasing population of children under five in East Renfrewshire, the council has had to make huge investment in the school estate in order to ensure sufficient places. That has meant building four new family centres and the extension of school buildings to accommodate nursery provision. Other authorities are in the same boat. East Lothian, which my colleague Martin Whitfield knows well, has experienced that. There is a sense that the Government has not always listened to the needs and circumstances of individual local authorities when allocating funding, which has resulted in significant shortfalls.
That is even before we consider the impact of the provision of meals in early learning and childcare settings. As Martin Whitfield alluded to, the forthcoming expansion of free school meals in primary schools will, yet again, have an impact on the space that will be required in the school estate. It is clear that there is something of a lack of joined-up thinking when it comes to what the Government expects local authorities to deliver and when. I hope that the minister reflects on that as part of the on-going review that will be undertaken to determine funding methodologies beyond 2022. Perhaps she may say something about that in her summing up.
In my remaining time, I highlight one further issue that has not been tackled in a joined-up way in the process of expansion, although it was referred to by Meghan Gallacher, Fulton MacGregor and Willie Rennie. The Give Them Time campaign contacted me while I was education convener in East Renfrewshire, asking for funded deferrals for all eligible children. It is clear that there must be a national approach to avoid a postcode lottery, and that councils must be funded to deliver.
I acknowledge that the Government agreed to do that in the previous session of Parliament. I hope that the minister addresses that in her summing up.
We must grasp the issues that are facing the current delivery of 1,140 hours, not least the financial pressures experienced by authorities, and ensure full roll-out before we can consider what is next.
It seems like yesterday that my 17-year-old and 14-year-old were at nursery, and, although there was an element of free childcare at the time, with no family support locally for childcare, I remember the monthly childcare bills being eye watering until my children both started school.
Scotland has moved on, and our early years childcare provision is the envy of many of my friends and family in England, Australia and America. Fast forward 11 years, and I now have a five-year-old daughter who, not so long ago, walked through the nursery doors for the first time. I remember vividly her excitement and wonder as she ran into the classroom to play with the dolls’ house, the toy kitchen and all her friends. We can never underestimate the importance of those early years. We have heard that the first three years of a child’s life are critical for growth and development—physical, emotional and social. It is at that age that children’s minds must be nurtured and nourished, because that plays a significant role in their development and future success.
That Wendy house in the nursery classroom is much more than a place to play. It is a place for children to socialise and form relationships with people other than their family. It combats shyness and gives them confidence. It helps them to develop friendships while learning about trust, teamwork and lending a hand—skills to see them through life.
My five-year-old is the youngest of three, and, although shyness is not a character trait of hers, she is learning that people must share, co-operate and be kind. The early schooling years are when children learn so many important skills outwith the dynamic of the family home. As a child starts to interact with others, they form friendships, develop a sense of personality and start to become aware of themselves, gaining self-esteem and confidence. When a child goes to nursery, they meet children from different backgrounds—from various cultures, nationalities and religions—and that is when they learn to accept differences and to respect others and their beliefs.
Importantly, that time gives our highly skilled early years educators the chance to identify areas in which a child might need support, for which they can tailor and develop programmes and activities. It is therefore crucial that we reach out at that stage to provide affordable and flexible childcare.
The future of our nation and our planet will depend on our children’s success. Only if we provide them with the best start in life can they reach their full potential, create a better, fairer, wealthier, smarter Scotland and become global citizens. We need to inspire the next generation, let it experience the joy that comes from education and give it a thirst for knowledge. We need our children to follow in the footsteps of Scotland’s great thinkers.
I had the privilege of seeing the education system with two hats on—as a mum and as an MSP—and it is clear to see how we are nurturing young minds here. Last week, I visited the children of Barassie primary school in Troon, and Glenburn primary school in Prestwick. I was there to answer questions about Scotland’s route to net zero, and I was amazed and impressed by the children’s questions. I am totally confident that the planet is in good hands with those youngsters.
However, when I look at other parts of the globe, I realise how lucky we are in Scotland. Nearly half of all pre-primary age children around the world are not enrolled in pre-school. Scotland is leading the way by expanding free childcare hours. When we came into Government, the childcare system delivered 412 hours, and we are now providing 1,140 hours per child, saving families up to £4,000 per child a year.
It is also important to note that a lack of affordable and accessible childcare is one of the major barriers to parents’ being able to go to work. By providing that service, we can enable more women, people with disabilities and people from ethnic minorities to prosper in life and make Scotland a fairer country.
Barack Obama summed it up perfectly in his 2013 state of the union address. Early education moulds a child in a way that helps them to tackle all that is thrown at them in life’s journey. Our education system is preparing our youngsters for that journey.
I warmly welcome the expansion of free childcare to 1,140 hours for all eligible children. I am hopeful that the estimated savings of almost £5,000 per year for families who take advantage of the full entitlement will go some way towards addressing child poverty in Scotland, providing much-needed financial security and peace of mind for families—particularly those on low incomes, who are struggling with the on-going cost-of-living crisis.
We recognise that a child’s earliest years are some of their most important, and the Scottish Greens will always work to provide a safe, secure and loving environment for every child in Scotland. The improved availability and consistency of childcare that should come out of that expansion will help to support Scotland’s children—particularly the most vulnerable and those in households with the lowest incomes—providing them with the welcome sense of routine and security that is so important for healthy childhood development.
However, the job is not done. I welcome the minister’s statement that future work will be done to provide funded early learning to one and two-year-olds and to build wraparound childcare for children of school age, both of which initiatives will prioritise families on low incomes. As a Parliament and as a country, we must work in the interests of the poorest, the most vulnerable and the least secure, so I am glad to see that priority is being given to those who most need help.
I hope that those services will, in time, be extended to support all the priority families that are set out in the tackling child poverty delivery plan. That will go a long way towards supporting those who are at the highest risk of poverty, such as young parents, lone parents—who are often women—disabled people and those from minority ethnic backgrounds.
I thank the childcare providers and childcare workers in all sectors, who have been doing an incredible job in ever-changing and unpredictable circumstances over the past 20 months. We must continue to drive up wages and improve terms and conditions across the sector in order to value those in the sector, who have worked so hard, and to attract more people to the role. Of course, until Scotland has full control over employment and workers’ rights, we will be working with one hand tied behind our back. However, with the powers that the Parliament does have, we should be promoting the principles of fair work in everything that we do.
We must do more for workers, including those who are in the childcare sector. It is not enough to offer freely accessible childcare; we must offer high-quality childcare. We need to ensure that staff have the time to participate in continuing professional development so that they can progress towards promoted posts, such as the early years senior practitioner, or develop their skills further. Those staff are inspiring young minds and they deserve to be recognised for the incredible work that they do.
We warmly welcome the steps that have been taken so far to expand the provision of early learning and childcare and to make Scotland one of the best places to grow up in. However, as I said, the work is not done. We cannot be complacent. We must always work towards a better future for Scotland’s young people.
I hope that I am no longer speaking to myself.
Years ago, when giving evidence to the then Health and Sport Committee, Harry Burns, the former chief medical officer for Scotland, said that inequality begins in the womb. That inequality can be addressed by taking on poverty and by education. In passing, therefore, let me praise the baby box, which every new parent may apply for. As a way of welcoming every newborn to Scotland, it is practical and educational. In its first three years, it was given to 144,000 homes, which is a 93 per cent uptake—a good start.
It is as plain as a pikestaff that, the earlier that society can start to support a child’s development in the broadest sense, the better. In my long-gone former days as a secondary school teacher in a small rural school that was adjacent to its primary, I would watch the primary school children from my window at playtime, and I could see which children were already struggling long before they crossed the threshold of my classroom. Indeed, entire families could be identified, generation after generation, as being already on an unequal and, frankly, failing path.
Among the other supports, which are too many to list fully in this short speech, the provision of free nursery care, which is now at 1,140 hours per year for all three-year-olds onwards, is excellent, extending almost threefold what the SNP Government inherited. It is to be applauded. That is not the end, however. In the current parliamentary session, wraparound childcare is to be extended to all school-age children before and after school, and free of charge to the poorest families.
I say to Fulton MacGregor that I have the privilege—I wonder whether it is a privilege—of being a granny and watching my youngest granddaughter benefit from nursery provision. I see the pictures of her out on woodland walks with her friends and the drawings that she brings home, and I hear her jumbled-up, excited account of the day’s events. It has given her confidence and social skills. The other day, she even passed me the cucumber slices before she dug into them herself. Mind you, she still has a little to learn—she passed them one by one and not in the dish. I have no doubt that that will come, but the sharing came about partly because of nursery. Her parents, who are now working from home, are finding it testing to do so with an energetic three-year-old scrambling about their feet and demanding attention, but they are lucky compared to the single parent who is stuck in a flat with no real access to outdoor space. For them, nursery provision is vital.
And we are not talking just about nursery provision. For those who qualify, we now have a national £120 minimum school clothing grant for primary school and a £150 clothing grant for secondary school. The stigma of being visibly poor can thereby be alleviated. Of course, in Penicuik, at Ladywood and elsewhere, there is a supply of preloved local school uniforms. There is also now an after-school club, school’s out, which was first provided in Peebles and has now been extended to Penicuik. Add to that the free school meals for P1 to P4 pupils, and we, as a society, are on the right track. Children cannot learn on an empty stomach.
The SNP is—as, I hope, we all are in Parliament—determined that every child, regardless of their circumstances, should get the best start in life. The ambition of Scotland and of members of this Parliament, whichever side of the chamber we sit on, should be to make this the best place in the world to grow up in. With baby boxes, free nursery provision, free school meals and school clothing grants, there is so much to level up, to use a prevailing phrase for which certain members of the Opposition have a fondness.
All too often, a policy that sounds good on paper is hard to implement in practice. Perhaps that statement is what best sums up the 1,140 hours policy.
Let me be clear from the start: if there is one thing on which we can all agree, it is that a good start in life can make an enormous difference to a child’s quality of life later on, both socially and economically. That is why the intentions of the 1,140 hours policy received widespread support. I am pleased to see that the Scottish Government is in the process of designing plans to expand the policy to one and two-year-old children, but we must draw attention to the practical problems arising from its implementation.
Our economic recovery is set to be a jobs-focused recovery, so one can understand my concern upon hearing of the troubles with access that people are experiencing. The collapse of private ELC providers poses a risk to the availability of spaces for children and the flexibility that the 1,140 hours policy affords to parents. Between 2017 and 2019, there was a notable reduction of around 783 childminding services and around 80 children’s day care services, with private nurseries warning that the expansion of ELC threatened their survival. The majority of speakers today have echoed concerns about that issue. It is having an impact on those on the ground; the effects of the 1,140 hours policy have already been felt by parents in my council area. Some have complained that they are unable to find availability, times, days or locations that suit them.
Plans to pay the living wage are not enough to attract the levels of employment that are needed to deliver the flexibility that parents were promised. The Scottish Government must increase the attractiveness of employment in the sector, because the supply of ELC providers is not meeting the demand. Those are issues that cannot be ignored. [Interruption.] I do not have enough time, sorry.
I repeat my first point: the first few years of a child’s life are some of the most important for their future development. There are three things that we can take away from today’s debate. First, if we get early learning and childcare right, we can ease the burden on the rest of the education system while at the same time providing much-needed flexibility for families. Secondly, if the pandemic has taught us one thing, it is that there must be far more flexibility and choice for working families. Finally, we need to invest in our children’s futures by investing in those who shape them.
I am sure that no one here will disagree that education is the cornerstone of governmental responsibilities. Therefore, the SNP needs to listen to the people on the ground.
If there is one thing that I learned as a primary teacher over far too many years, it is that the best start in life begins long before the more formal education that is provided by our schools. The role of early learning and childcare provision is crucial not only for our wee ones but for our whole society and the economy.
We know that the Conservatives have little interest in giving anyone the right start in life, never mind the best start. Under their austerity programme, they slashed funding for the surestart programme in England, even though the programme was proven to address inequalities in early years support.
In 2019, a study conducted by the Institute for Fiscal Studies concluded that surestart children’s centres reduced the number of people who were taken to hospital and saved millions of pounds for the national health service. However, the Tories closed more than 500 centres between 2010 and 2017.
Let us come on to Scotland. The doomsayers of the previous session of Parliament said that 1,140 hours of early years care could not be done. In 2019, just two years ago, the Conservative spokesperson for children and young people told the Parliament that ministers had to urgently address flaws in the plan to double free childcare provision—and yet the policy was successfully delivered on time and in partnership with local government and early learning and childcare providers within the first 100 days of this session.
The building of a system of wraparound childcare—something that was often talked about by new Labour but has been delivered by the SNP—will have significant benefits for families and the wider economy. The system, which is free to low-income households and asks for fair contributions from those who can afford it, enables families to seek job opportunities and plan careers in ways that were denied to parents in the past. The knowledge that early learning and childcare are taken care of frees women, in particular, to return to work—full-time, if they wish, which is important.
That brings me to the jobs that have been created in early learning and childcare. Let us remember that the Tories told us two years ago that there would not be enough trained staff to deliver on our commitment, yet here we are with 435 new graduate-level ELC posts across Scotland, supported by £21 million funding in 2018-19, building the capacity for growth as we expand ELC to one and two-year-olds. No doubt the Tories will tell us again today—indeed, they have done—that we are too poor and too daft to make that work. However, what the Tories lack in positivity is more than made up for by the ambition and aspiration for our families and children on the other side of the chamber.
I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate, and I draw members’ attention to my entry in the register of members’ interests: I am a serving councillor for Lochee, in Dundee.
We have heard members of all parties reaffirming their commitment to expansion of early learning and childcare, early years spending and work to tackle the gap in attainment between the richest and the poorest, which begins to show and grow from the earliest years.
The attainment gap is a well observed and regrettable phenomenon in Scotland. For too long, we have known that the gap between the richest and the poorest is far too wide, when it comes to outcomes and attainment. Indeed, the Education, Children and Young People Committee heard again from the Auditor General this morning that the Government has failed to meet its intentions in that regard.
We are a decade on from the prevention agenda of Campbell Christie, and Willie Rennie drew attention to analysis that was done more than 20 years ago of the economic and social benefits that flow from preventative spend of the type that we are considering. Therefore, the current policy is no great innovation. However, we are keen to see it being delivered as quickly as possible.
The issues that families and young people and providers continue to experience in the system are also clear. Members have talked about the many practical considerations when it comes to delivery. The minister started by talking about childcare that is universally accessible and affordable and said that she is delighted that eligibility has been expanded, but we are interested in outcomes for the people who avail themselves of the service, rather than the service’s availability.
We need to think more about who the people are who are benefiting—about the people who are accessing the services and, crucially, those who are not accessing them—so that we can understand the kinds of benefits that they bring.
Mr Marra makes a very valid point. We need to ensure that the children who absolutely need to be in nurseries or early learning centres are in them. That is something that we are working very hard to do. If we look at the percentages, we see that a really high proportion of three and four-year-olds do attend. I am in no way denying that there is still work to do on eligible two-year-olds, but we are working and making progress on that. I take Mr Marra’s well-made point, however.
Many practical considerations have been voiced from around the chamber, and from different perspectives, on how we can deal with issues regarding the people who access provision. Martin Whitfield started off with a principled examination of the matter, mindful that the issue is about children—the individual child—and the families around them. Siobhian Brown, too, gave an eloquent exposé of that position and focused on the child and on ensuring that they are at the centre of the decisions that we make. It is crucial that we understand who and why.
We must recognise that some families might choose not to avail themselves of provision. Bare statistics such as percentages of eligibility and of uptake of provision do not give us the nuance that we require in order to see whether we are actually meeting the generally shared aspirations for the policy.
Part of the problem—and a thorn in the side in relation to delivery of 1,140 hours—has always been what has seemed at times to be the Scottish Government’s wilful confusion about whether the policy and spending are intended as education policy to improve early years learning and development, or as an economic measure that allows parents more freedom to work. At times, it can be both—that is certainly the case—but that determines how the policy and the decisions that are made are formed.
The Government points to the pandemic as a reason for delay—which is, of course, understandable—but the first policy deadline was wiped from the books when the pandemic came along because the deadline was not going to be met in any case.
Fulton MacGregor made a really important point about outdoor learning during the pandemic; Gillian Martin made a similar point in relation to a number of situations. Development of such provision in the sector is very welcome.
We must also ensure that indoor settings have the required ventilation systems. So far, we have spent £10 million of taxpayers’ money on alarm systems that tell us when we should open the windows, but it appears that we have not provided any active ventilation systems across Scotland. That must change urgently if we are to bring Covid case numbers down and if children are to be taught in safe environments.
There is a raft of key practical issues that the Government must address now regarding provision. Paul O’Kane talked about the lofty rhetoric of “and Beyond”, as included in the title of the debate. As a councillor, Paul O’Kane was able to discuss some of the very real challenges, particularly around funding methods. The exchange between Brian Whittle and Paul O’Kane on that issue were important. We must recognise that there is a challenge with private sector providers—with the dynamic between the private sector and local authorities. We must ensure, crucially, that the funding follows the child, and that the funding is sufficient to support staff in what they do. Meghan Gallacher led by eloquently talking about the importance of that.
I wish to touch on funding deferral. Last week, the Government announced that instead of rolling out that approach generally there are to be more pilots. Organisations including Give Them Time have, frankly, won the argument by exposing the nonsense of the loophole that exists. We need to move to ensure that provisions on that are fully in place.
I enjoyed Kaukab Stewart’s trot through the sins of the Tories, but we must note that, on the day of the launch of the referendum white paper in 2013 we were told that independence was required for the policy—but here we are now, discussing its practical delivery.
We urgently need analysis of the impact of the pandemic on learning, development and attainment in the early years—but beyond them, too. Nothing that I have seen sets out the scale of the challenges that the education system faces; there can be no effective plan for recovery if the nature of the challenge is not understood.
As I close today’s debate for the Scottish Conservatives, I will return to where my colleague Meghan Gallacher began. We have heard time and again in the debate about the widespread support and unity across Parliament for the policy aims behind provision of 1,140 hours. Speaking as one who was also a member in the previous session and who has been party to a number of debates on the topic, the question for me has always been about delivery.
Eligibility is one thing, but access is another. Siobhian Brown talked about learning to be kind at nursery. If I was trying to be kind, I would say that we have had two different debates today; SNP members talked about the principles behind early learning and childcare, which we can all get behind, but they have perhaps been too kind to their own Government, because they did not get into the nitty-gritty of practical delivery on the ground. That is the real question.
I am not trying to prompt Mr Mundell to reference my speech, but it was about delivery on the ground in Aberdeenshire, which is going at pace. It just not the case that SNP members are all singing from the same hymn sheet.
I do not want to pick on Gillian Martin’s speech. There was lots in it about the good things that are happening, and I recognise those as I see them in my constituency, but I cannot believe that Gillian Martin, in the time since the policy has been under development, has not had any contact from private, voluntary and independent nurseries expressing concern about how the policy has been delivered. Those concerns persist. I will come to some points on Aberdeenshire later.
Although I am willing to accept that Covid has brought with it a unique and unprecedented set of challenges, and that the Government felt that it had no choice but to delay, Covid is not the full story. The policy has been riddled with concerns and poor implementation from the get-go.
I will not forget the previous minister Marie Todd’s explanation to my colleague Liam Kerr when he asked her about concerns that nurseries faced in the north-east and about how the provision would be delivered in practice, with some nurseries facing closure. She told him that one would not expect to be able to drive over a bridge
“18 months before it was built.”—[Official Report, 14 March 2019; c 3.]
As was pointed out at the time, one would not expect the bridge to be there, but one would expect detailed planning to have taken place before the building work began. All the way through development of the policy, it has been clear that no detailed route map or planning existed. That has created unnecessary tensions and challenges, many of which could have been avoided under better leadership.
Although we have come a long way in building a system that has the capacity to provide increased hours, we are not fully there yet. Like many members, including my colleague Pam Gosal, I have concerns about a potential collapse in the private, voluntary and independent sector. In the medium-to-long term, the policy will not be possible without that sector’s support and continued commitment.
I raised the staffing challenges with Audit Scotland at this morning’s Education, Children and Young People Committee.
The statistics that I quoted in my opening speech show how valued the PVI providers are in respect of delivery of 1,140 hours across Scotland. “Financial Sustainability Health Check of the Childcare Sector in Scotland”, which was published on 31 August, sets out a road map to address the issues and concerns that have been raised by the ELC industry.
I fundamentally disagree with the minister on that characterisation. The Government, local authorities and everyone across Scotland are dependent on the PVI sector, but it is not well supported. It continues to pick up the slack because the sector cares about the policy and is keen to deliver the hours. I will come back to that in more detail later.
If what the minister said is correct, why would Audit Scotland acknowledge this morning that the risks in relation to the workforce that it previously identified continue to exist? It has been persistently raised in Parliament, since the policy was first announced, that without increasing the workforce we will not be able to provide access. We can announce eligibility, but people will not get the flexibility or access that they want if we do not have the workforce to deliver it.
It is important to remember that ELC settings also provide increased parental choice and, in many cases, are leading innovation in the sector. They often work in the hardest-to-reach areas, including my Dumfriesshire constituency; they are the voluntary groups and childminders who serve many small rural and remote communities. They certainly do not feel well supported or valued, but feel that they are second to local authority provision, even when it is not available in the communities that they serve.
They have also worked hard during the pandemic and, in many cases, are willing to provide the greatest flexibility in respect of available hours. That is not to say that there is not good partnership working in some local authorities, as my colleague Brian Whittle pointed out. The challenge is in ensuring that best practice becomes universal.
It is not good enough for the Scottish Government simply to say that it is down to individual local authorities. This is a Scottish Government led policy; the Scottish Government must, for that reason, be willing to continue to drive improvement and best practice across the country. The success of the policy is too important for it to get stuck in the chasm between local authorities and the Scottish Government, which has become all too common an occurrence when it comes to education policy.
It is clear that the expansion to 1,140 hours continues to have broad support and has the potential to be truly transformational. If it can meet the needs of our young people and their families and benefit our society, it is a policy that the whole Parliament can be proud of. We simply ask the minister to recognise that, despite the delay in introduction of the policy, we are still seeing many challenges, and we are not there yet.
That demands a watchful eye, and willingness to get a handle on what is happening on the ground and to question, where necessary. It also comes with a responsibility to be the embodiment of the partnership working that we all want to see, which means that we must treat all partners as equals in the process.
We simply cannot afford to see the number and choice of settings being reduced. In fact, in a vibrant and well-supported sector we should see an increase in the number of providers and more people wanting to get involved, not fewer settings. That should be across all parts of the sector.
I thank members right across the chamber for their contributions. For the most part, it has been a very collegiate and interesting debate, and there have been well-made points from all parties.
As we have heard, all councils in Scotland have been offering 1,140 hours of funded ELC to all eligible children since August, making high-quality early learning and childcare available to families and saving parents up to £4,900 per year for each eligible child. That is an enormous achievement and it could not have happened without the dedication and determination to deliver of local authorities, private and third sector providers and childminders.
It is all the more remarkable that that has been achieved in a pandemic—in the most challenging of circumstances. I take the opportunity to thank each and every person involved for their incredible response. The resilience and professionalism of people across the sector in the face of the pandemic has been admirable, and the care and nurture that they have continued to show families has been outstanding.
We on these benches absolutely share the minister’s tributes to the workforce and the people who worked throughout the pandemic. Does she recognise that pay and conditions for workers are critical to recognising the work that they have done? As Mr Whitfield pointed out, they are a section of our workforce who believe themselves to be underrewarded and—frankly—at times disrespected.
I will come on to some of those points as I finish my closing speech. Nonetheless, I note that they are certainly a profession—they are early learning and childcare workers and they are part of our education professionals right across the country. It is a responsibility of us all to recognise the professionalism of the career choice that those people make. I have no doubt that their efforts have had a hugely positive impact on the lives of many children and families during this period. By providing childcare for other key worker families and vulnerable children during lockdown, they enabled other critical services to respond to the pressures of the pandemic. Without them, Scotland’s ability to respond to the pandemic would have been much reduced, and the Scottish Government is truly grateful to them.
When public health guidance has permitted, I have had the opportunity to visit a number of early learning and childcare settings. Everywhere I have been, I have consistently been struck by the enthusiasm and professionalism of the staff I have met and the happiness of the children in their care.
Since my appointment as Minister for Children and Young People in May, I have heard many stories of how families are benefiting from our ambitious expansion programme, through, for example, parents having greater freedom to work or study without the worry of the added cost of childcare. I have also heard about children who, with their friends, have tried new and exciting foods through the provision of free, nutritious meals as part of the expansion programme, which will lead to them having a more balanced and healthy diet. Children have also been able to take part in new fun activities and experiences that broaden their opportunities to learn and to play.
During the pandemic, the outdoors has offered children the chance to play with their friends unhindered by health restrictions. Outdoor play has also been a big part of the Covid-19 health guidance for ELC settings. I am therefore particularly pleased to have recently visited an outdoor childcare setting, where I observed at first hand the benefits of children playing, learning and having fun outdoors.
We know that daily high-quality outdoor play experiences have a direct and positive impact on children’s physical, cognitive, social, mental health and emotional development. It is our vision that children in Scotland will spend at least as much time outdoors as they do indoors as part of their ELC experience. To support that, we are working with practitioners to develop strong communities of practice, which will enable such high-quality outdoor experiences to become the norm. Our national standard for ELC enshrines daily access to outdoor play and learning opportunities for all children.
I want to turn to points that members made during the debate, some of which, as I said in my introduction, were interesting and illuminating.
I will be happy to meet Mr Rennie—it is always a pleasure to spend time in his company—to discuss the capacity in nurseries.
The issue of school deferral was raised by several members. Having just complimented Mr Rennie, I gently remind him that the Parliament voted for the deferral pilot, and I think that the Liberal Democrats were the only party that voted against it. I am sure that Mr Rennie will correct me if that is not correct.
Gillian Martin mentioned how key ELC workers have been. They have been essential in allowing families to work during the pandemic, whether by going out to work or by working from home.
In an interesting contribution, as well as talking about cucumbers, Christine Grahame gave us anecdotal evidence on the importance of learning in early learning centres.
Somewhat to my surprise—I will check the Official Report to make sure of this—the Tories seemed to be advocating for national pay bargaining across the country.
It is important to recognise that this is the first full year of delivery of a major programme. We have much to celebrate in reaching the milestone of 1,140 hours of funded ELC for all eligible children, but there is more that we need to do.
I will give way shortly, if that is all right, Mr Whittle.
We will continue to work closely with local government to embed the benefits of the expansion as more families come forward, thereby ensuring that children’s social and developmental outcomes improve, that their parents and carers have more opportunities to work, train or study and that family wellbeing improves. We will also work with local authorities to increase awareness of the offer of funded ELC for eligible two-year-olds.
I am not unrealistic about the continuing challenges to providers in the private and third sector. We will act on the findings of the financial sustainability health check that we published in August and will work with the sector to build on the substantial targeted financial support of up to £25 million that has been made available to the sector since March 2020.
I will pause there, if Mr Whittle still wants to intervene.
How will the minister address the tension that is caused by the constraints in the private sector regarding the pay that it is able to offer compared to that in the public sector, which does not need to take into account rates and capital costs? The result of that is a drain from the private sector to the public sector?
Of course I will.
We recognise the on-going sustainability challenges, and part of the work that will come out of the financial health sustainability report will involve looking at the workforce, the sustainability of the sector and its training requirements, because we all want it to succeed.
I am greatly encouraged by the breadth and depth of the contributions from across the chamber today. That engagement demonstrates and underlines the importance that all parties place on early learning and childcare and its role in securing the best possible outcomes for Scotland’s children and their families. I ask members to continue to support the Scottish Government in that work.