Maree Todd said while up to 3,000 new staff have been taken on as part of work to expand the amount of free childcare to which youngsters are entitled to 1,140 hours a year, she did not have a figure for the total number of people employed by the sector.
She had been pressed on the issue by MSPs on Holyrood’s Education Committee today after an Audit Scotland report raised concerns about the Scottish Government’s flagship policy.
Ministers have pledged to almost double the provision of 600 hours of free childcare for all three and four-years-olds and some two-year-olds.
The increase in hours is due to be phased in by 2020, but an Audit Scotland report last month warned there were “significant risks that councils will not be able to expand funded early learning and childcare (ELC) to 1,140 hours” by that date.
Local authorities have already estimated up to 12,000 new childcare workers could need to be taken on to meet the commitment, although the Scottish Government has put the total at 11,000.
Labour’s Mary Fee questioned the minister on the number of new staff that had been recruited, with Ms Todd saying that “between 2,000 and 3,000” were “already in place”.
When Ms Fee asked how many staff there were in total, she admitted: “I can’t give you that figure, I’ll have to write to you.”
The minister, who took on the role in November, added: “There’s been extra 2,000 and 3,000 started training this year, I can’t give you a figure for the current number of staff.”
The most recent figures showed there were a total of 33,430 people working in Scotland’s early learning and childcare sector in 2016.
Afterwards Ms Fee said: “This is an utterly woeful performance from a minister charged with delivering a flagship government policy.
“Only a few weeks ago the independent experts at Audit Scotland outlined the sheer scale of the challenges local authorities face to deliver the SNP’s childcare promise, with an additional 12,000 nursery staff needed by 2020.
“Today Maree Todd cannot tell us how the government plans to meet this staff shortfall and cannot even say how many staff are currently in place.
“Parents and families deserve better than a clueless minister who can’t even explain the basics of her brief properly.”
As well as differing estimates on the number of new workers that will be provided, councils and the Scottish Government have not yet agreed on how much the increase in hours will cost, with fears having been raise of a £160 million” black hole” in funding.
Ms Todd and Deputy First Minister John Swinney are due to meet council leaders at Cosla on this issue next week, with the childcare minister saying: “It’s wrong to speak about a funding gap, we are committed to funding this policy in full, I have said that repeatedly.”
Tory education spokesman Liz Smith said: “We already have local authorities telling us it will be far more expensive than the Scottish Government has estimated, most especially in terms of recruiting additional staff.
“In her evidence to the committee, the minister said that she ‘did not know’ whether work had been done by the Scottish Government to fully evaluate the first phase of the policy which delivered the 600-hours provision.
“This is an extraordinary admission from a minister who is in charge of delivering a flagship policy for the SNP.
“Parents across Scotland are, rightly, very concerned about whether the childcare policy will be delivered in terms of what was promised.
“They want to know not just how many hours will be offered but with what flexibility and what choice they will have from providers.
“To date, they do not have the relevant information they need because the Scottish Government has not done the necessary analysis of its policy.”
Ms Todd accepted there would be “difficult challenges” for the government in implementing the “hugely ambitious” policy.
She insisted ministers were on track to meet the pledge, saying: “Our expansion programme is absolutely ambitious and it will be challenging to deliver, but we are working really hard with local authorities and other delivery partners to ensure that we create the workforce and the physical capacity required.”