The White Paper promise that independence could bring a universal system of pre-school early childhood education and care (ECEC) begs a question: could this be done now or is independence the only route to the kind of services that our Nordic neighbours have enjoyed for decades?
Legislation now wending its way through the Scottish Parliament that will increase provision for three- and four-year olds from the 475 hours per annum up to 600 – and extend this to two-year olds.
However, the White Paper argues, by the end of the second term of parliament in an independent Scotland “all children from one to school age will be entitled to 1,140 hours of childcare per year”.
This will be possible because the tax revenues and benefits savings from more people in work rather than in childcare will be fed directly back to Scotland.
Scotland has some of the highest childcare costs in Europe and, therefore, lower maternal participation rates than in counterpart countries.
The SNP argues that by increasing the number of free hours of childcare, the overall cost to parents in paid employment will be less, freeing them to participate more in the labour market..
The White Paper is right to point to the importance of being able to use tax revenues and saving to fund further development of the system. In fact, in a number of respects its estimates of savings are somewhat cautious – or silent – on the returns. The estimates that it makes are those that start to accrue immediately, but not the medium or long- term savings associated with the contribution which services can make to children’s lifelong learning, health and well-being.
So could more be done now? And if Scotland’s votes No next year could it happen?
My examination this year of Scotland’s post-devolution experience in ECEC suggests it would be hard. Problems arise from split responsibilities and policies. So it is pertinent to ask Better Together how these issues might be overcome, short of independence?
Scotland is the only part of the UK working with the European Commission to improve ECEC. It may tell us something about attitudes to the EU. Does it also tell us something about the lack of attention paid to making devolution work better?
• Bronwen Cohen is honorary professor in social policy at the University of Edinburgh.