Parents tell SNP ministers to halt free childcare expansion amid fears it will 'break' struggling nursery sector
A group of campaigning parents has urged the Scottish Government to halt the expansion of free childcare until it resolves flaws undermining the flagship policy.
Ministers have been warned their plans to offer funded hours to more youngsters will lead to further nursery closures and will ultimately “break” the sector.
Free childcare has been a key policy of the Scottish Government in recent years, and a similar initiative is due to be introduced in England.
In August 2021, the number of hours of funded childcare that Scottish children were eligible for almost doubled, from 600 hours a year to 1,140 hours a year, or the equivalent of about 30 hours per week in school term-time.
It now covers all three and four-year-olds, as well as some two-year-olds, and the Scottish Government plans to roll it out further so it also benefits parents of one-year-olds and all two-year-olds.
But The Scotsman revealed last month that private nursery owners are considering taking legal action over the implementation of the policy, particularly the way funding is distributed via councils, which they say is resulting in an escalating number of closures.
The Government has admitted there are “real challenges” in the sector, with official data showing the number of private and third sector nurseries has fallen from 1,932 providers in 2018 to 1,712 in March this year.
The statistics also confirmed a dramatic fall in the number of registered child-minders, from 5,333 to 3,462 – a decline 35 per cent.
In the wake of the summit, the campaigners have produced an issues paper and accompanying “call to action”, which has been sent to ministers, MSPs and councillors.
The document outlines the problems with the policy which they claim are exacerbating pressures in the struggling sector, and it warns the government not to proceed with any extension of funded hours until these are resolved.
“Without change to the Scottish Government policy for early learning and childcare and funded hours policy we are likely to continue to see nurseries close and childminders leave in Scotland,” the report said.
"This is likely to get worse when the funded hours are extended again in the future.
"This extension cannot just be the extension of the existing model. It will break the early learning and childcare sector.
"The plans to further extend funded hours will bring great relief to parents in terms of affordability.
"But given the current staff shortages and the fact that third and independent sector settings feel these disproportionately – it is also likely that we will see the extension of funded hours worsen the availability of childcare further.”
Council umbrella body Cosla has said that rates for childcare providers are set “transparently” and in line with the guidance agreed by the Scottish Government.
A review of the way rates are set is being undertaken by the Government and Cosla.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “High quality early learning and childcare (ELC) that is flexible, accessible and affordable is critical to giving children the best possible start in life. That is why the Scottish Government is investing £1 billion in the sector in 2023/24 alone.
“Independent research published in December last year found that 88 per cent of parents and carers who had a three to five-year-old child in funded ELC were satisfied that they could access the support in a way that meets their family’s needs.”
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