Jeff Salway: Childcare crisis builds a barrier to work

System is failing those it is intended to help finds Jeff Salway

Many parents are unable to obtain childcare, limiting their chances of obtaining work. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto
Many parents are unable to obtain childcare, limiting their chances of obtaining work. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Charities have called for “radical” action on childcare in Scotland after a report warned that government provision is more of a “barrier to work” than a support.

The Scottish Government won praise in 2014 when it launched a policy of providing 16 hours a week of free childcare for parents of three and four-year olds. But demands for a review of the Scottish Government’s childcare provision intensified this week after research uncovered serious shortcomings in the system.

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Almost three quarters of the free childcare places for parents of three to five-year-olds are in council nurseries and nine out of ten of those council places are for half-days only, according to campaign group Fair Funding for Our Kids.

It also found that local authorities are underfunding places in private nurseries, with 25 of the 32 councils in Scotland offering an hourly rate below the national average cost of a nursery place.

“Although the promise of free childcare hours is welcome, this policy is failing in one of its primary aims; to support parents into work or training and provide a route out of unemployment and poverty,” said the report.

“Rather than supporting parents into employment, this model of provision simply becomes another barrier to work: few of us can find a job that will fit around three hours and ten minutes of childcare per day.”

A shortage of flexible and all-day childcare has forced some parents to turn down work, reduce their hours or even quit their jobs, experts have warned.

“Whilst moves to cut the costs of childcare for parents on low incomes are welcome, it’s just as important that free childcare is available when working parents need it,” said Rob Gowans, spokesman for Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS).

He continued: “Bureau clients, such as those on zero hours contracts, have found it difficult to find childcare because of unpredictable working hours, which can leave them having to restrict how much they can work, because of a lack of free childcare when they need it.”

Families north of the Border are currently entitled to 600 hours a year of funded early learning and childcare, typically provided by local authorities through state nursery schools. However local authorities in Scotland don’t have a statutory duty to provide affordable childcare, unlike those elsewhere in the UK.

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Just 13 per cent of Scottish local authorities have enough childcare for parents who work full time, and not one has enough for parents who work atypical hours, according to research published earlier this year by the Family and Childcare Trust.

Julia Margo, chief executive at the charity, said: “Finding suitable childcare in Scotland can be a challenge for parents because gaps in provision are worse than anywhere else in Britain. While we welcome Scottish government plans to increase its early education offer, it is vital that these hours are flexible and meet the needs of working parents and high quality to boost children’s development.”

The Fair Funding report highlighted the need to “radically rethink” our childcare system, said Jackie Brock, chief executive of Children in Scotland.

“It raises legitimate concerns about the gap between Scotland’s aspirations for childcare and what is currently available for children and families in their communities. The summer holidays will have intensified the understandable frustrations of families.”

The Commission for Childcare Reform last year issued recommendations on ensuring childcare could better meet the needs of children and working families. It said families should be able to access up to 50 hours of free or subsidised provision a week throughout the year, with the net cost to parents of childcare on a sliding scale that takes account of income.

The Scottish Government has since announced that three, four and vulnerable two-year-olds will receive 1,140 hours of free childcare per year from 2021.

“It is a game-changing ambition and we welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to its delivery,” said Brock.

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But parents need more support now, said Gowans at CAS.

“The Scottish Government should make sure that all working parents can take up their 600 hours of free childcare in practice by extending the provision of flexible childcare in all parts of Scotland.”