Jane Bradley: Salmond’s childcare doesn’t add up

Alex Salmond's flagship childcare policy is supposed to bring extra cash to parents. Picture: JP
Alex Salmond's flagship childcare policy is supposed to bring extra cash to parents. Picture: JP
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WITH only a few weeks to go until Alex Salmond’s flagship childcare policy comes into force, you’d think working parents of young children would be rubbing their hands with glee at the extra cash about to come their way, writes Jane Bradley

The number of hours of state-funded childcare offered to parents of three- and four-year-olds is set to rocket from 475 a year – that’s 12.5 hours a week – to 600, or 16 hours a week. Get the flags out. Stay-at-home parents, get thee back to work immediately and start contributing to the tax pot. It’s what this was all about, wasn’t it? But wait. For parents who want to work, this policy is less than helpful.

There are fee-paying private nurseries, which take children from birth to five – and school nurseries, which educate children for free from the age of three until they start school.

It is provision of places at school nurseries which Mr Salmond is all excited about. Unfortunately, school nurseries are neither use nor ornament for anyone who works. And I mean any household where both parents work AT ALL. A school nursery place is not currently offered in a useful, two-day-a-week chunk, freeing up parents to get a part-time job. It is provided every morning OR afternoon, five days a week.

Which means that if both parents work even one of those days, they have to scrabble around to find childcare to cover the not-insignificant gap between 11:30am when nursery kicks out and whenever they finish work, six or so hours later.

There is literally not time to work, meaning the majority of the policy’s beneficiaries are those who already stay at home, who will free up time to take a well-deserved rest, or to frantically tidy the house before their toddler returns home to mess it up again. There are plans to make the time on offer “more flexible” in future, but it is not imminent and will be at the whim of the individual local authority.

I spoke to one rare working parent with a three-year-old at school nursery who said the new policy will give her ten minutes extra useful childcare a day. Her daughter’s nursery hours will be extended from the current 9am-11:30am slot to 8:30am-11:40am. The nursery is unable to tack on the extra provision at the end of the session, as the teachers need a break before the afternoon pupils turn up.

All it will do is add pressure to the already-manic morning routine to drop the child at nursery on time. Then, the mother will be able to enjoy the grand total of ten minutes more work before she has to dash out of the house mid-morning – she is lucky enough to work from home – and ferry her daughter to the childminder for the afternoon. She is in a rare and lucky position. For most parents, unless they work for employers who will allow them to nip home at lunchtime every day to drop their offspring at one of the private nurseries which offers half-day rates, it is nigh-on impossible to make school nurseries work.

These parents who have no other option but to put their children into private nurseries whose provision spans the working day are given some funding towards their child’s place. I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, but the cash equivalent will barely make a dent in the enormous bills with which working parents are faced every month.

The amount offered varies by local authority. For those in the Edinburgh area, it will rise in August to £2,100 a year. Divide that by 600 hours and you get £3.50. Find me a childcare provider charging £3.50 an hour and I will kiss you. The average full-time nursery bill in Scotland is £11,143, according to figures from the Family and Childcare Trust. You do the math.

Even worse is that this new deal is actually less than our friends in England already get. At three, the unlucky mini Sassenachs south of the Border are granted only 15 hours a week of nursery care – a whole hour less than Mr Salmond will offer from August. But children there are given a full-time school place at the age of four. Most Scottish youngsters will not start school until five – creating months of extra childcare fees.

Of course, in an independent Scotland, we are told, childcare would be transformed. Pre-schoolers would get the same number of hours a week of free education as school-age youngsters, funded by something or somebody which nobody has quite yet identified.

A wealthy unicorn, perhaps. But we’ll probably never know.