Flagship plans to double the level of free childcare across Scotland by the end of the decade face “significant risks” over a looming shortfall in staff and nursery buildings, a key SNP-led council has warned.
And parents may not get the “level of choice” they need to tailor childcare around their working day despite flexibility being a key demand of campaigners, the report prepared by Edinburgh City Council has found.
The Scottish capital alone needs to more than double its workforce to 1,350, the report has said, while the construction industry may struggle to meet competing demands across Scotland for new and refurbished facilities.
Nicola Sturgeon has hailed the scheme for three and four-year-olds, as well as some two-year-olds, as “transformative”, with hopes it would allow a generation of mothers to return to the workplace.
Edinburgh, run by an SNP-Labour Coalition, is facing a shortfall of more than 3,000 places, according to the report on the expansion of childcare from 600 to 1,140 hours. This is the equivalent of 30 hours a week and mirrors the primary school timetable.
The report said: “Delivering the required infrastructure and the ability to recruit the number of staff within the required timeframe continue to provide significant challenges in the council’s ability to deliver the expansion from 2020.” The timescales for the new infrastructure was also “extremely tight” and represented “a significant risk” to the delivery of the childcare commitment.
The Scottish Government’s consultation also said the scheme should allow families to access funded childcare in the “provider of their choice”. But the report warned: “Parent expectations around choice of provision, flexibility and accessibility may not be operationally sustainable.”
Public spending watchdog Audit Scotland recently raised concerns about risks to the scheme over an anticipated shortfall in staffing and infrastructure.
The Scottish Government has already pledged an extra £150 million a year to fund the scheme, taking the annual cost to almost £1 billion a year.
Private nursery leaders warned last year that investment won’t be enough, with almost half (46 per cent) saying they were unlikely to get involved in the flagship initiative.
Purnima Tanuku, from the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA), said ministers should make “best use of this existing resource” in the private and third sectors.
Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: “This is one of the Scottish Government’s flagship policies, but families will already be questioning whether they will be able to take up their full entitlement of hours given the challenges ahead in terms of recruiting enough staff and providing the necessary facilities.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “There is no question that this is an ambitious policy, but we believe that our children deserve a government that is ambitious for them.”
She added: “Government, local authorities and stakeholders throughout the sector are working tirelessly behind the scenes to prepare for the most ambitious expansion of funded early learning and childcare this country has ever seen and despite the scale of the challenge we absolutely remain on track to deliver.”