Fifteen years ago, the Scotland Office set out its plans for meeting our country’s childcare challenge. The enduring debate has seen childcare emerge as one of the major issues on the political and public agenda.
At a time when one in five children are growing up in poverty, creating inequalities that stifle children’s ability to develop and reach their potential, it seems that we now have consensus on the importance of getting it right with childcare.
Investing in a fit-for-purpose, sustainable, childcare system will benefit us all – children, families, our society and economy – and I believe that a universal entitlement to early education and childcare for Scotland’s children is a vital step towards ending poverty and inequality in Scotland.
Poverty is a destructive force. It creates extra pressure and strain on families and can prevent them from providing all the support that children need. We know that poorer children are already at a disadvantage when they start school – in fact they are twice as likely to experience early development difficulties as children from wealthier homes, limiting their ability to get the most out of school life. It should be a concern to everybody that poverty creates such significant learning inequalities.
Gaps in provision – along with the high costs – undermine the Scottish Government’s efforts to eradicate child poverty and close the educational achievement gap. There is no entitlement to early learning and care services for children under three in Scotland. This is despite compelling evidence that high quality early education can give every child a strong foundation for learning and can stop poverty from holding them back in the first place.
To add to the challenge, average childcare costs in Scotland are also more than half of average part-time weekly earnings – more than anywhere else in the UK and the second highest in Europe. Unsurprisingly, take up of these services is far lower for families on low incomes, and costs continue to be a barrier to accessing childcare once children have started school.
Flexible, affordable childcare can enable parents to take up employment or remain in work, and can help to boost their incomes. However, parents are turning down jobs and are being forced out of work by sky-high childcare prices. Families on low incomes simply can’t earn enough to cover their childcare bill and meet their living costs.
We must ensure that children growing up in Scotland have positive learning experiences from an early age, and ensure that parents gain the support they need to provide a decent standard of living for their children. Positive steps are being taken by the Scottish Government, including plans to extend nursery hours and deliver more flexible provision. This is a welcome move but this doesn’t go far enough. These measures will improve early learning opportunities and reduce costs for families with children aged three and four but won’t help the majority of families or reach the youngest children living in poverty at a time when we know early education can make all the difference. They also ignore the reality that parents continue to need high-quality childcare when their children reach school age.
Now is the time to stop tinkering around the edges of the issue and start putting in place measures that can have real impact. We need a clear vision and commitment to making long-term change and the priority must be to support families living in low-income households. Providing an entitlement to flexible, publicly subsidised early education and childcare for all two-year-olds living in poverty would be a big step in the right direction.
We shouldn’t be deterred by the challenges faced in England or allow the debate to become polarised. Scotland has an opportunity to lead the way in creating a sustainable, publicly funded childcare system that supports all families and gives children a real chance to grow and succeed.
The cost of this ambition is not insignificant, but the returns on public investment in high-quality childhood education are substantial and can sustain investments made in other areas of early years spending. I believe that we all stand to benefit from the gains it would generate. As the number of children living in poverty is set to soar in the next few years, the need to address the childcare issue will become even more pressing. I am hopeful that Scotland can step up to the challenge of creating a childcare system that we can all be proud of, and turn well-meaning rhetoric into concrete action.
• Neil Mathers, head of Save the Children in Scotland