SNP's free childcare plan needs '˜radical' changes, says think tank

The SNP's plans to extend free childcare to 30 hours a week by 2020 can only be delivered by launching a 'radical' new national service to take charge of it, a think thank has said.

Nicola Sturgeon hopes to double current free childcare. Picture: Andrew O'Brien

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has set out plans to double the current free childcare provision for three and four-year-olds and vulnerable two-year-olds during the next Scottish Parliament if the SNP is re-elected in May.

However, a report from the Common Weal think tank said the expansion could only happen if the Scottish Government brings together the current “fragmented childcare provision” into a National Childcare Service.

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The document, An Equal Start, sets out a fully costed plan to deliver 30 hours for every child by 2020. Report authors said a “fair estimate” for extra full day places needed is around 45,000, requiring 1,125 new childcare centres and 10,970 new staff.

It also estimated the cost of developing the new centres would be £844 million.

The Scottish Government said children’s minister Aileen Campbell will meet Common Weal representatives soon to discuss its key findings.

Ms Sturgeon defended her plans at Holyrood earlier this month after Labour leader Kezia Dugdale said many parents were already struggling to get a place for their child.

But Ms Sturgeon said the Scottish Government was working with councils to improve the flexibility of current provision to fit in with the working patterns of parents.

Ben Wray, head of policy at Common Weal, said: “Thirty free hours of free childcare by 2020 is an ambitious target; but for it to be a success the Scottish Government needs an equally ambitious plan for reform to tackle the inequalities in the Scottish childcare system. We propose establishing a National Childcare Service to deliver all 30 free hours in Scotland through public provision.

“The service would have standardised opening and closing times in all centres across the country so parents are confident they can access all daycare. There would be uniform pay scales and conditions for staff based on a clear principle of employing fully qualified childhood practitioners. A national early years curriculum would be developed to make sure that all young children get the best education possible regardless of their background. Our plan is fully costed and fits within the Scottish Government’s planned spending envelope on childcare by 2020.”

Edinburgh University’s Professor John Davis, one of the report’s authors, added: “This report charts out a pathway to a universal early learning and childcare service that will meet parents’ requirements, provide excellent creative learning opportunities for children and reward staff for the tremendous effort they have put into raising the standards of early learning and care over the last ten years.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We are under way with our planning to deliver our commitment to expanding the funded entitlement, to 1,140 flexible hours a year by 2020, and are already working with local government to plan for a significant infrastructure expansion to meet the increased demand and to ensure the extra money being provided is used to create the new places.”