Councils challenge SNP vow to double free childcare

Flagship plans to introduce Scandinavian-style free childcare in Scotland and attract a generation of mothers back into the workplace have been branded 'irresponsible' and could be torpedoed by a lack of funding and planning.

Mark McDonald with primary school children, who he believes will benefit from early exposure to education
Mark McDonald with primary school children, who he believes will benefit from early exposure to education

Council leaders have warned that they have “no idea” how they are going to pay for the plans, which would double current provision from 600 hours a year to 1,140 hours amid concerns over staff shortages and a lack of quality accommodation.

Childcare minister Mark McDonald insisted that the revolutionary proposals will prove to be the SNP’s government’s “most transformative project”. But in an article for Scotland on Sunday today (see opposite) he warns that councils must now do more to provide the choice in the system that parents “need and want”.

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The minister will this week meet the Fair Funding For Our Kids campaign to hear concerns that many parents are missing out on their current entitlement over a lack of flexibility.

The pledge to revolutionise state childcare with the effective introduction of a universal free system, which would allow a “lost” generation of mothers to return to work, was at the heart of the Yes campaign’s independence drive two years ago. After the referendum defeat, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced she would press ahead with the plans using Holyrood’s devolved powers.

It will mean doubling the current provision of free entitlement from 600 hours a year to 1,140 hours – the equivalent of 30 hours a week. Senior nationalists have previously pointed out that 80 per cent of childcare is met by the state in Germany and 75 per cent in Iceland. Ministers insist that the existing provision is already being fully funded with £500 million a year, but council chiefs are warning that consultations with parents on the issue have revealed widespread concerns.

Aberdeen City Council leader Jenny Laing, who also heads up the Scottish Local Government Partnership, comprising Glasgow, South Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire and the Granite city, said the policy has been “ill-thought through”.

“It’s all good and well ministers making this high-profile announcement but it’s been done without a thought for the local authorities who have to deliver it,” she said.

“We all welcome the sentiment, but it’s meaningless if we don’t have the staff, the facilities, the private operators or the money to deliver the plan. It’s not only short-sighted of the Scottish Government to announce these plans without the proper provisions in place, it’s actually pretty irresponsible of them. This is going to cost tens of millions of pounds beyond the capital investment and councils have no idea of how we are going to pay for it.”

Cosla which represents Scotland’s other councils said it supports the childcare plan.

But a spokesman added: “There are still a number of issues around implementation which require resolving and we are in discussions with Scottish Government on these.

“Budget negotiations around the amount of money coming to Scotland’s councils started this week and as always Cosla, on behalf of our member councils, will be putting forward a very strong case to government for the maximum resource possible coming to local government.”

The SNP has already increased provision from 412 hours to 600 hours for three-years-olds and eligible two-year-olds, and McDonald says that the plan to double this will be a massive social change.

“Our commitment to expand childcare is this government’s most transformative infrastructure project,” he said.

“Quite simply, parents and carers benefit from having access to a high quality, flexible system that helps to support them into, or stay in, work, training or further study.”

But the minister now says councils must meet the legal requirements of the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act passed two years ago which made it a legal requirement to increase “flexibility and choice” over how places are offered.

He said: “As minister with responsibility for fulfilling our commitments on this policy, I want to be very clear about my expectations of local providers over 
spending the funding we have made available to them to provide the hours, flexibility and choice parents and children need and want. There are real signs that this is happening.”

He points to examples of facilities in Glasgow and Edinburgh providing year-round cover and opening from 8-6pm.

“Plans are in place to trial a range of different childcare approaches to explore what works best for children and families,” he added.

“The aim is to find more good practice that can be rolled out nationwide as we work towards delivering 1,140 hours by 2021.”

A recent report by Fair Funding For Our Kids said 65 per cent of all nursery places in Scotland are only for half days, which it says is useless for most working parents. It added that councils underfund places in private nurseries by up to £492 a child.

Katherine Sangster of the organisation said: “One of the points we wish to raise with Mark McDonald is how we can measure the success of this policy to ensure other children do not miss out.”

Labour education spokesman Iain Gray said: “The Childcare Alliance of children’s organisations have told us that families need a plan for year-round, all-age, flexible, wraparound childcare which may not be free but is guaranteed to be affordable. But the SNP think they know better, ploughing on with a policy designed to fit an election leaflet, not the needs of Scotland’s parents and children.”