Town hall bosses have been urged to get on board with flagship plans to introduce an effective “full-time” approach to childcare in Scotland by the end of the decade.
Deputy First Minister John Swinney issued the appeal to councils to help ensure the policy is implemented amid recent concerns that there are “significant risks” over a shortage of both staff and nurseries on the ground.
Free early learning and childcare would double to 1,140 hours per year by 2020 under the plans, for children who are three or four years old, as well for vulnerable two-year-olds. This equates to about 30 hours a week over the current school term, effectively mirroring the primary school week.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said the change could be “transformative” for a generation of Scots mothers and get them back into the workplace.
Mr Swinney said it was a “big challenge” to ensure the policy delivered as it came under the spotlight of MSPs yesterday.
He said he wanted private nurseries and child minders to be part of the solution, along with council-run nurseries. Parents could then use the facility best suited to their needs through the system of individual child “accounts” planned by ministers.
The Deputy First Minister added: “I want to give the clearest signal to Parliament that the government wants to broaden that participation but we need our local authority partners to be with us in so doing and any support in that respect will be welcome.”
He urged political opponents at Holyrood to liaise with their party colleagues in council administrations around the country to secure their support for such an approach.
An additional 11,000 early years staff will be needed to secure the extra capacity. About 3,000 will be recruited in the coming year, MSPs were told, with the remainder to come in the next two years, Mr Swinney added.
But MSPs also heard concerns that the current 600 hours provision is not being taken up by many parents, with a recent report by the Fair Funding for Our Kids parents campaign warning that a lack of flexibility makes it “impossible” for many to use.
Labour’s Mary Fee said: “For the majority, nursery hours must be more flexible.
“Many parents who work in shift patterns. or in zero hour contracts will find themselves with additional problems, in balancing their childcare commitments. We should be doing more to make childcare much more flexible and to create that wraparound system that meets parents needs and most importantly their expectations.”