IT IS good to hear that the Scottish Government proposes to invest more resources in providing “quality” childcare services.
But the government also insists that if, and only if, Scotland gains independence will it be able to provide a “high quality universal childcare system that is sustainable, affordable, flexible and provides choice”.
This is a huge task, and all the other problems to be addressed following independence will inevitably impact on how and if the government can deliver.
The route to this utopia has been reduced to a set of figures proposing 1,140 hours of childcare for all children aged one to four. A figure of £100 million has been floated.
The word “quality” is thrown into every sentence of such promises (often “high quality” or even “highest quality”).
It is not clear what “quality” looks like, other than the workforce being highly qualified.
The current degree qualification that will soon become a requirement for all lead practitioners in childcare settings takes years to complete. Until this year, these BA Childhood Practice students, who are completing a three-year programme part-time while working, which takes a minimum of six years, have not been eligible for Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS) funding.
Achieving the degree does not bring any extra pay. It does enable an individual to take another path, for example by completing a PGDE course and entering primary teaching or moving into a managerial or advisory role where opportunities arise. There is no incentive for a graduate to stay in, for example, a private nursery directly involved in the education and care of very young children.
The actual education and care of very young children is, therefore, mostly left to young (16-19) women with little or no qualifications. They are mostly very poorly paid.
To expand childcare provision will require at least another 35,000 people in the workforce. The government tells us this expansion will be paid for from taxing all the mothers who can then go out to work. Thirty-five thousand of them are likely to be doing poorly paid jobs in the childcare sector. The bulk of the workforce now is not highly qualified and we have barely started to upskill them, so it seems unlikely that another 35,000 even qualified, rather than highly qualified, staff can be found anytime soon.
The government’s proposal seems to be more about aspirational statements to achieve a Yes vote in the referendum than about achieving better social outcomes.
While it promotes this expansion on the basis of better outcomes for children, it is costed on the basis of mothers working. There is evidence to suggest under-threes are best cared for at home. If we shift to a system that requires all mothers to return to work, where is the “choice”?
Nonetheless, the present policy agenda of providing more childcare for the most vulnerable children and ensuring this is delivered in high-quality settings by highly qualified practitioners might achieve the better social outcomes we all aspire to.
Research tells us that the high qualifications need to be specific to practice in the early years to impact on the experience and outcomes for children and families. Perhaps BA Childhood Practice graduates could be paid the equivalent of a teacher’s salary to staff these settings? We could also look to primary teachers who also have specialist qualifications and experience in early years rather than removing teachers from nursery classes in increasing numbers. This might make a real impact on outcomes for children, improve services for children and start to build a properly qualified workforce.
Surely the education and care of our children is too important to be tied to a Yes vote in any referendum or election? This has to be a plan for the long term, and not at the mercy of party politics. It is a shame the SNP has chosen to use some of the most vulnerable in society, very young children, poor parents, lone parents and poorly paid childcare workers in its campaign.
Failing to define the high quality aspired to in childcare, and the impossibility of costing the proposal also makes it impossible to say whether it is sustainable or affordable.
The delivery of this expanded service also appears to be landing with the local authorities, which allows, as usual, plenty of room for the blame for failure to land elesewhere.