Brian Monteith: Government nursery provision fudge

The SNP has put childcare and early-years education at the heart of its campaign. Picture: Jon Savage
The SNP has put childcare and early-years education at the heart of its campaign. Picture: Jon Savage
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If the SNP really cared about children, it would provide equal pre-school education, writes Brian Monteith

Tomorrow the Scottish Parliament’s education committee meets to discuss the SNP government’s Children and Young People Bill. To most of the public it will pass unnoticed, to many of those familiar with Scottish politics it will be just another tick-box exercise in the legislative process – but to those with a keen nose for the stench of hypocrisy, it will be a telling moment that will define the SNP’s childcare policy.

It is not over-egging the argument to say that the SNP has put childcare and early-years education at the heart of its campaign for a Yes in the coming referendum. And yet tomorrow, when the Conservative MSP Liz Smith presents her amendments to the bill – in an attempt to right a grave wrong that denies half of Scotland’s children their full two-year entitlement that the SNP says it delivers – the Scottish Government is expected to reject the reform with the support of its SNP committee members.

If that happens, we will have the SNP saying repeatedly through statements, articles and in its white paper that it wants to extend pre-school provision – but is held back from doing so because it lacks the powers of a sovereign state – while at the same time refusing to use its current powers to deliver the existing system fairly and equitably for all Scottish children.

That is sheer hypocrisy that reveals a callous arrogance at the heart of the SNP approach to children, parents and education.

The injustice is hardly noticed because it slips under the radar of most people but it is all too real for parents who find that their sons and daughters are denied nursery access. While SNP politicians advertise new policies, they refuse to deliver existing ones fairly and comprehensively. A child’s entitlement to government-funded nursery provision starts in Scotland the term after a child turns three. As a result, a child born between 1 March and 31 August would be entitled to the full two years’ nursery provision before beginning school. A child born between 1 September and 31 December would, however, receive only 18 months and a child born between 1 January and 28 February would get just 15 months.

The independent think tank Reform Scotland has estimated that the difference in nursery provision can vary by up to 317 hours or by more than £1,000 within the cost of partnership nursery provision.

The SNP government has defended this unjust distribution of places by saying it, “makes the best use of the entitlement and takes proper account of the child’s age and educational needs with parents of younger children able to keep them in nursery and defer starting school if they feel it is best”.

This statement could not come from anyone with experience of the real world, for it is only children born in January and February that can defer entry to school to get an extra year’s nursery provision.

For children born between September and December, the current system guarantees that they cannot receive the full two years nursery provision. This means that not only do they join their primary school as the youngest, they will also have received less nursery education. That’s the real world for those children.

The theory according to the unjust and inequitable regulations is bad enough but the practice is often even worse. For many parents offered less than the full two years, it can be near impossible to access a place starting the term after their child turns three because places have already filled up. So instead, the child starts in the summer term, only a year before starting school and placing them at an even greater disadvantage.

Children develop at different speeds, so having a cut-off makes no sense. A child born in late July and another born in late October will both start primary school at the same time. But the older child is given six months more nursery provision before starting school – a clear educational advantage by nothing other than the virtue of the birthday.

To suggest that such a system takes a “proper account” of children’s development is wishful thinking. There are no qualifications or benchmarks that must be met before starting nursery. The child’s birthday is an arbitrary point, because it denies half of all children the full provision. By allowing all children to start at the same time, the discrimination would end: every child would be treated the same and receive the same amount of time at nursery.

Instead, the SNP prefers that children born at the end of August start nursery when they are two years 11 months old but a child born in early March starts nursery at three years five months – a significant gap in the opportunity for development.

If Scotland’s educational achievement rests on all children performing to the best of their abilities, surely our politicians should do all they can to give every child the same opportunity.

If Scotland’s future rests on the prospects of our children, surely our politicians should do all within their powers to give every child the best start in life.

If Scotland’s inequalities are to be addressed, surely our politicians can be expected to reform our own laws and regulations so that all children are treated the same.

If the SNP chooses to persist with this blatant injustice to Scotland’s infants, why should we trust it with the care and welfare of any children? Why should we trust it with the nation’s education, its social justice and its economic future?

If something so simple and so easy to reform with its existing powers at relatively little expense can be resisted by the SNP government, why should we believe it about its new policies for the future?

Alison Payne of Reform Scotland has explained the argument succinctly: “Just as all children are entitled to seven years of primary education irrespective of their date of birth, they should be entitled to a basic two years of government-funded nursery provision. To achieve this, nursery should start at a fixed point in the year, probably in August, just as it does for school.”

The current system is a lottery where a child’s birthday is its ticket to gain a nursery place. Is that really the brave new Scotland the SNP wishes to offer children and parents?