Government accused of failing to close nursery loophole

Scottish Labour's Iain Gray has asked the Scottish Government to close a loophole which could see children who are deferred from starting school not receiving free childcare.
Scottish Labour's Iain Gray has asked the Scottish Government to close a loophole which could see children who are deferred from starting school not receiving free childcare.
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Parents who defer their children from starting primary school should still be able to access free childcare, it was claimed today.

Childcare minister Maree Todd was challenged to ensure that those children born between September and December, and who defer starting school for a year, can still receive their entitlement to free childcare.

Currently, if a parent does defer the school start for their child - which they are legally entitled to do - it is the local authority which decides if it will fund the child's early learning for that year. A legal loophole can allow a council to refuse to fund the child care for another year.

Scottish Labour's education spokesperson Iain Gray, raised the issue in Holyrood at today's education committee, as it considered secondary legislation concerning the expansion of funded childcare hours.

Citing the "Give Them Time" campaign, he asked Ms Todd if she was "comfortable with poorer families having to make a decision whether they should send their child before they think they are ready, or withdrawing their child from early learning altogether as they can’t afford to self-fund?"

But Ms Todd said that she was "comfortable with the flexibility", though would look at clarifying ans strengthening guidance for councils. She added: "The vast majority of children will start school at the age they are due to start school. For those with a January birthday they will be entitled to automatic further funding, for those with a birthday from August up to December the funding will be at the discretion of the local authority. I am confident that local authorities all over Scotland can discharge that duty appropriately."

Mr Gray responded: "So why are we imposing the 1140 hours of childcare on local authorities? Why not give them discretion as to whether that's appropriate - it's anomalous."

Ms Todd said: "You call it anomalous. I call it flexible."

Mr Gray was backed by Scottish Conservative education spokesperson Liz Smith who said: "Minister there is an anomaly and I do hope the government considers its response to Mr Gray."

Later Mr Gray said: "The Give Them Time campaign has, in a short time, raised awareness of the exemptions based on month of birth that can be applied, and the postcode lottery that exists across the country due to local authority discretion over deferral requests.

"The core issue is a national policy contradiction between the legal right to defer that exists and that three and four-year-olds have a legal right to funded Early Learning and Childcare hours. It makes no sense then, that exercising one legal right removes the other.

"The only logical solution is to change the law, protect the right to defer and the right to funded hours - removing the problems with the postcode lottery and the process. But as is becoming normal within this Government’s education policy, they are not listening."

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We expect local authorities to make decisions about additional funded early learning and childcare based on an assessment of the child’s wellbeing and they should work in partnership with families and local services to assess what is in the best interests of the child.”