Jane Bradley: Few can afford to take free childcare

A report revealed that many parents were struggling to find a free place for their offspring. Picture: Paul Parke

A report revealed that many parents were struggling to find a free place for their offspring. Picture: Paul Parke

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IT is a disaster of a system which could be organised better by the toddlers for whom it is intended. This week, the Scottish Government’s flagship childcare policy for the under-fives came under fire from both campaigners and opposition politicians who have, finally, realised what a muddle this so-called groundbreaking policy has become.

A key bargaining tool for the SNP, an effective full-time universal childcare system has been top of the party’s agenda for some time. Three and four year olds – as well as some vulnerable two year olds – are entitled to 600 hours of free childcare a year. That can be used in a council-run nursery – usually one attached to a school – or as a partially funded place at a private nursery. Sounds great, doesn’t it? And simple.

It’s a vote-winner: it’s family friendly and it also puts a great big tick in the box marked “economic growth”, due to its apparent ability to help stay-at-home parents back into the workforce. That is, of course, if it works. Which it doesn’t.

A report out this week from campaign group Fair Funding for Our Kids revealed that many parents were struggling to find a free place for their offspring.

Of course, the best way to take up the free childcare on offer is through a state-run school nursery. However, only stay-at-home parents – and a slack handful of lucky flexible workers – can afford this luxury. Why? Because the place on offer is either for the morning or afternoon, not both. Because nobody with any kind of normal job can pop out at 11:30am to pick up their toddler – who has by that time finished nursery for the day – and transport them to some other kind of childcare.

Or not – as the case may be. For paying for extra childcare is not an option for many people – anyone on minimum wage may as well not bother to work.

In short, the school nursery, rather than encouraging stay-at-home parents back into the workplace, is actually a free time perk for parents who were always planning to continue to stay-at-home. Not that they don’t deserve that perk, goodness me, no. If I had to stay at home all day with a toddler for the first three years of their life, I’d be crying out for a free nursery place to stick them into. But it’s not exactly helping the economy.

The alternative – the “partnership” nursery – gives parents a cash equivalent to pay for a childcare session, but the cash does not cover 600 hours at such an establishment in many areas. Not anywhere near.

Sitting naively in Edinburgh, believing that, as the mother of a three-year-old, I was fairly well informed on the trials and tribulations, I was blithely unaware of the postcode lottery which this policy throws up.

Indeed, Edinburgh Council’s implementation of the policy has been held up as a shining beacon of how it should be done. God help us all.

Our problem here is that the funding offered for our “partnership nursery” barely scratches the surface of a private childcare place. But we here have no idea how lucky we are compared to those poor parents in Glasgow – or West Lothian – or any other numerous parts of the country. In those areas, there are not enough partnership nursery places for youngsters whose parents are unable to fit in with the three-hours-a-day blocks which are offered as supposedly useful childcare in council-run nurseries.

One parent in Glasgow who had sent her child to a nursery recognised by the local authority from age one was told when her daughter turned three that there was no “partnership” place available for her there. She moved to a nearby institution, only to be told a year later that there was no longer a place there and she needed to be moved yet again. Anyone who knows how difficult it is to settle a child into a new childcare environment will sympathise with this family’s plight. I can practically hear the screams echoing down the nursery corridor as this poor parent leaves for work every morning: “Who’s this? Where’s my favourite teacher from my other nursery? I hate this place!” The stress on the child, never mind the parents, is immense.

Nicola Sturgeon says she’ll sort it out by 2020. And I’m sure her intentions are legitimate. But for any people who are parents today, that will be far too late: many of them will have been forced to take extended career breaks they didn’t want, possibly ruling them out of a proper career for life.

And that’s not good for the economy, or the families involved.

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