The unprecedented pressures of the past few years, including Brexit, the Covid pandemic and the cost crisis are taking a toll on many people’s mental health, including on the mental health of early years staff. I am particularly grateful to everyone in the workforce for continuing to operate as key workers throughout this difficult time. That is why, since October 2020, the Scottish Government has invested more than £2 million in the wellbeing of the education workforce.
We have also worked with Early Years Scotland to develop the team ELC wellbeing hub, specifically to support professionals. That builds on what local authorities, as the direct employers, are doing to support the wellbeing of their employees.
Since being elected to the Parliament, I have raised concerns about an emerging childcare crisis. The SNP Government has done nothing to fix the problems in our childcare sector. Now, more than 8,000 nursery and childcare staff have taken sick leave because of stress or mental health concerns.
Those absences are indicative of a childcare crisis, with more than nine in 10 councils being unable to fully fund free childcare.
Nurseries are closing their doors, and parents are without childcare for their children. Audit Scotland has even said that the sector is fragile.
Early years practitioners, who are children’s first educators, are being let down by the Government. Will the First Minister meet me and nursery providers to discuss the 1,140 hour policy, given that he expressed interest in expanding it as part of his leadership bid?
We have the most generous offer of childcare anywhere in the UK, and I am really proud of the 1,140 hours of provision that we have achieved. I recognise the challenges that the sector faces, which is why Natalie Don, who is the Minister for Children, Young People and Keeping the Promise met the private, voluntary and independent sector just this week, I believe—and certainly recently.
I will ensure that the Government continues to engage, whether that is with Meghan Gallacher or directly with the sector. I take mental health very seriously, which is why we have invested more than £2 million in the wellbeing of the education workforce, as I said, and why we are working with local authorities on what more can be done, particularly for early learning and childcare staff.
To help with challenges such as mental health challenges, workload pressures and the cost crisis, which Meghan Gallacher’s party created, we are ensuring that staff who work in early learning and childcare are well paid. Before early learning and childcare was expanded, approximately 80 per cent of staff who delivered funded ELC were paid less than the living wage. In contrast, our 2021 health check indicated that 88 per cent of private providers intended to pay their staff the real living wage from August 2021.
We will continue our focus on expanding childcare. We know the benefits that it can have for parents and families and the positive disproportionate impact that it can have on women entering the workforce. We will continue our focus on that and we will continue to engage, whether that is with Meghan Gallacher or—more important—with the PVI sector.
Recent research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that a quarter of adults in Scotland have accessed the NHS because of the impact of the cost of living crisis on their mental or physical health. Under existing powers, what progress can be made to protect workers, including those in our childcare sector, from being further impacted by the crisis?
Clare Haughey is absolutely right to raise such issues. We will do everything that we can, within our gift, to use the powers of devolution to their absolute maximum to help people—particularly those who are most vulnerable and who are in the lowest-income households. That is why I was pleased this week to visit Castlebrae community campus and meet not just young people but parents and families who have been impacted and helped by the Scottish child payment. Families of 303,000 children are now in receipt of that game-changing intervention from the Government. On top of that, many other benefits that are available only in Scotland are being awarded through Social Security Scotland.
We will do everything that we can, within our gift, to help with the cost of living crisis, which is having a mental health impact on many people across the country. The unfortunate problem is that, for all the good that we can do, the actions of the UK Government—with its austerity for more than a decade, its cost of living crisis and its mini-budget that wrecked the economy—mean that we are having to spend not millions but billions of pounds on mitigating the worst effects of Conservative austerity. If Scotland has to continue to do that, that will mean less and less money to spend on education, health, transport and justice. To me, that is simply not acceptable.