In 2018, Nicola Sturgeon promised to recruit 435 additional graduates in nurseries to close the poverty-related attainment gap. Four years later, that target has not been met. New figures show that a quarter of posts are lying empty and more than 100 nurseries in the most deprived areas are missing a teacher. That is yet another Scottish National Party education failure. Why has that target never been met? Why have children in the most deprived areas been left without a nursery teacher?
Since 2017, the early learning and childcare workforce has expanded significantly. Since the ELC workforce expansion began in 2017, the number of graduates working in ELC with degrees relevant to the early years has increased by 52 per cent. That expansion meant that, by August 2021, every local authority in Scotland confirmed that they were able to offer 1,140 hours of ELC funding to all three and four-year-olds and the two-year-olds who needed that. That is great for the ability of families and children to access high-quality ELC that is delivered by a range of staff with different skills and qualifications, and it is a cornerstone of narrowing the poverty-related attainment gap.
I am astounded that the minister believes that the Scottish Government is doing a good job when our nursery sector is facing a staffing crisis. Nursery owners in the private, voluntary and independent sector have warned the Scottish Government that the expansion of free early learning and childcare is under threat. Pay gaps between local authority and private settings of around £1.40 an hour are causing nursery staff to leave the sector. The Scottish Government cannot continue to ignore those serious concerns. What measures will it implement to create equity between local authorities and the PVI sector? How will it address the staffing crisis?
Our collective focus throughout the 1,140 hour expansion has been on improving conditions across the private, voluntary and childminding workforce with regard to funded ELC. When ELC expansion began, local authorities were already paying above the living wage to their staff. The funding settlement reflects that. By contrast, our research indicates that around 80 per cent of staff who delivered funded ELC in the private and third sectors were paid less than the living wage at the time.
We have seen real progress since then, with our 2021 health check indicating that 88 per cent of private providers intended to pay the real living wage to all their staff by August 2021.
Public funding and Scottish Government policy can only effect a certain amount of change and, ultimately, business owners make their own decisions about their business models and salaries. That said, the Scottish Government has taken a range of actions to support the private and third sectors through the 1,140 hours of early learning and childcare expansion programme, including to support the recruitment of highly qualified childcare staff. We are taking a strategic approach to marking out the workforce requirements to deliver our existing and new commitments and we are taking forward a series of actions to support recruitment and retention across all parts of the childcare sector.
It is excellent news for families that children are being offered 1,140 hours of early education and childcare. How many children who were offered that 1,140 hours have actually received it over the course of this year?
I know of a number of nurseries that have had to move to reduced hours to cope with staff absences because of a lack of resilience and staff shortages in the system.
I am grateful to Meghan Gallacher for highlighting the Scottish Liberal Democrat research on this issue. At the current rate of progress, it will take 10 years to achieve a one-year target. No wonder the attainment gap is getting wider. Thousands of nursery children have been and gone without the benefit of the extra teacher that they were promised by Nicola Sturgeon. Given that she has just abandoned that commitment, which was made in 2017, how shall we believe any future commitment made by the First Minister in this chamber?
Teachers continue to have an important role to play as leaders and educators, alongside other degree-qualified ELC specialists supporting our youngest children on their learning journey.
Research shows that the best experiences for children are provided where there is a range of staff with complementary skills and higher level qualifications. We are proud of the continued growth in the number of degree-qualified ELC staff and those working towards degree-level qualifications.
Since the ELC workforce expansion began in 2017, the number of graduates working in ELC with degrees that are relevant to the early years has increased by 52 per cent; I hope that Mr Cole-Hamilton will welcome those statistics.