Scott Macnab: Nicola Sturgeon’s big gamble on childcare

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Nicola Sturgeon was in her pomp as she basked in hearty applause from the SNP faithful at the weekend after hailing the “transformational potential” of her plans to introduce a system of effective universal childcare in Scotland.

About 750 nurseries will be built or refurbished as part of a national construction programme, she revealed to supporters, aimed at giving Scots children the “very best start in life.” Fast forward 36 hours and the entire policy was plunged into fresh doubt as nursery leaders announced they are at crisis point over chronic funding shortfalls and have little faith in the pledge of extra cash from ministers.

Less than a third of private providers say will take part in the Scottish Government’s scheme.

It is the latest siren call for this laudable initiative which could make such a difference to the lives of young families in Scotland and allow a generation of mothers to return to the workplace.

The plan to double free childcare to 1140 hours in Scotland would effectively mirror the primary school term time - about 30 hours a week. It is due to be up and running in just two years.

Ms Sturgeon has been driving this. She was the one who decided to press ahead with the scheme at Holyrood under devolution. It had been at the heart of the SNP’s plans for independence in the 2014 referendum campaign, but there were fears that costs would be prohibitive after the No vote.

The scale of the likely impact is clear to see from the latest unemployment figures for Scotland unveiled just yesterday. There is little difference between the number of men and women in work. About 1.4million men have jobs, compared with 1.3 million women, while 118,000 men are unemployment against 69,000 women. The really stark gender divide emerges in the type of work being done. About 1.2 million men are in full-time jobs compared with 733,000 female workers. And most telling of all there are 536,000 women doing part-time jobs, four times higher than the 164,000 men in such posts. Unforgiving workplace cultures also mean may Scots exceed their contracted hours, with previous research indicating that about two-thirds of women - and half of men - would think carefully about role changes, including promotion because of childcare issues.

The First Minister has shown real political bravery in taking on something which could bring about such fundamental change. But it’s now becoming increasingly clear it won’t be easy to deliver. The first problems emerged with the parental campaign group Fair Funding For Our Kids who drew attention to the difficulties with the current scheme which should provide 600 hours free childcare. In practice this means half a day - morning or afternoon paid for the state.

The problem comes when families then seek to “top up” and keep their youngsters in the same nursery for the full day by funding the remainder themselves. At the moment this can’t be done in many nurseries as they don’t have “partnership” status with councils. It means many families are missing out on their entitlement as they are forced to pay the full whack themselves or face one parent having to quit their job. Ministers have indicated they plan to address this with a credit-style system which would provide greater flexibility in the way parents would be able to use their 1140 hours entitlement, but it remains unclear how this would work in practice.

The sheer costs, staffing and infrastructure requirements for the scheme are also increasingly raising concerns. The public spending watchdog Audit Scotland warned that the Scottish Government’s £840 million estimate for the annual cost of the scheme was well short of the near £1 billion required and that the estimated 6,000-8,000 extra staff required was also likely to be short. In the end, minsters were forced into an embarrassing climb down and agreed to cough up an extra £150 million a year to fund the scheme and concede that actually 9,000 new staff would be needed to deliver the flagship project.

The fact that such an important brief has been left in the hands of rookie minister Maree Todd - who has only been an MSP for two years - is also perhaps surprising. She was appointed after previous incumbent Mark McDonald’s unsavoury departure, but floundered when she faced MSPs earlier in the year, unable to state how many staff are currently working in the sector. Publicly available records put this at just over 33,000. And concerns came to a head this week with publication of the report by the National Daycare and Nursery Association (NDNA) which found widespread discontent.

Many say they are unlikely to get involved in the scheme and have little faith that the additional cash pledged by ministers will reach them on the frontline. Most say they face an annual shortfall of more than £1,000 a child under the current 600 “funded” hours and don’t see this changing when its expanded. The UK Government has already run into trouble with its 30 free hours of childcare for three and four-year-olds. This differs from the Scottish scheme in that it is only available if both parents are working. Providers have made it clear that they will charge a fee for meals, nappies and day trips along with others fees, complaining that the UK Government’s funding is inadequate, leaving them with a shortfall.

The stakes are high. If the Scottish Government gets this right it has the potential to deliver lasting change for families across Scotland. For Ms Sturgeon it is the political equivalent of big game hunting, while the Twitterati obsess (in the words of the First Minister) about the timing of the next referendum. Perhaps it would bolster Nationalist propositions that Scotland can do things differently and create that Scandi-style modern democracy where higher taxes are complemented by the best in public services. In so doing it may just help provide the foundation for that next push for independence when the time comes.