SNP admits confusion over free nursery places

The Scottish Government is in the dark about how many toddlers are missing out on their flagship entitlement to free nursery care, MSPs have been told.

The Scottish Government has increased childcare entitlement to three hours a day Picture: Getty Images

An expert group will be convened next week to examine the problem in “much greater detail” after a recent survey by a campaigning mothers’ group indicated that thousands are missing out and official data does not reflect the situation on the ground.

Opposition parties yesterday slammed the Scottish Government over the lack of flexibility in childcare amid claims it is “failing children and failing ­parents”.

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The Scottish Government has increased entitlement to about three hours a day but working parents say they can’t access this because the system is so ­restrictive.

Nicola Sturgeon has claimed there is a 98.5 per cent uptake among Scottish children – but acting children’s minister Fiona McLeod was challenged to accept this is “not accurate” by opposition parties at Holyrood yesterday.

She said: “What I have to say is that everybody’s clear that our statistics are not robust for any side of this argument.

“There’s variability across councils never mind on both sides of the argument and the First Minister has charged the chief statistician with having a look about how we go about this.”

The SNP government has increased entitlement from 475 hours a year to 600, the equivalent of about three hours a day for all three and four-year-olds and vulnerable two-year-olds.

The system falls down when working parents try to keep their youngsters in for a full day by paying for the remainder themselves. This is because there are only a limited number of “partnership” nurseries where parents can combine their free entitlement with “top-up” provision funded out of their own pockets.

Mrs McLeod said she has been visiting a number of council areas and nurseries in recent months to discuss the issue.

“Local authorities are already consulting and engaging parents and families to ensure that the design and delivery of provision will be flexible enough to meet local parents’ demands,” she said.

The minister said the legislation was aimed at “setting the stage” for longer-term improvements and expansion.

The SNP has committed to effective full-time free childcare – 30 hours a week – by the end of the next parliament in 2020.

The Conservatives say parents should be given vouchers to pay for their provision in private nurseries, allowing greater flexibility, which already happens in some council areas.

Tory education spokeswoman Liz Smith said: “The current situation, where some parents can’t access their child’s entitlement to a nursery place, is unacceptable on educational and economic grounds.

“It’s also directly contrary to the stated aims of the Scottish Government’s social policy.

“That has to change, not because of ideology or dogma, but because of practical common sense – that’s what parents desperately want. At the moment, we have warm words from the SNP, but we are very far away from the workable policy.”

Labour’s Cara Hilton told MSPs that for parents who work full time, accessing a free space that is only available for three hours and ten minutes a day – for 38 weeks a year – is “not always an option”. The Cowdenbeath MSP said “no-one actually knows” how many youngsters are missing out because there is no national oversight of the policy.

“Parents are being robbed of their rights now and they want to see action right now to ensure that their children receive the free childcare they’ve been promised,” she added.