Local authorities across Courier Country have assured parents they are still committed to increasing the hours of free childcare being offered despite the Scottish Government delaying the policy.
In the SNP’s programme for government 2014-15, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced every child aged three or four and some qualifying two-year-olds would receive 1,140 hours of free childcare each year from the 2020 summer term.
This meant that from August 11, local authorities would be legally obligated to increase provision of early learning and childcare (ELC) to 1,140 hours – almost double the current statutory entitlement of 600 hours.
But in a letter sent out to local councils this week, children’s minister Maree Todd confirmed that the requirement would now not be made in the 2020-21 school year, with a revised date for its full implementation to be agreed by the government and councils.
Ms Todd told councils: “Recognising the significant impact of the coronavirus and recovery, it will not be feasible to reinstate a universal 1,140 duty in the academic year 20/21, or while the coronavirus public health measures, which significantly impact on ELC (early learning and childcare) capacity, remain in place, if that is longer.”
It was also announced that local councils would be able to use ELC government funding “flexibly” to support “broader educational and childcare needs.”
However despite the changes, progress had already been made in Tayside and Fife in ensuring the extra hours would be available by August and some local authorities are ready to offer the increase in hours by the original deadline.
Angus Council has confirmed it will offer the 1,140 hours to all eligible families across the region starting from 1 August.
To ensure this, the local authority undertook a “virtual recruitment” of 160 new staff ready to start in August, as well completing of a number of construction projects, which had been “phased in a prioritised way” since the programme commenced in 2017.
Increased use of private, voluntary and childminder provision has also been utilised by the council.
A spokesman for the local authority said: “Angus Council has ensured that despite the pandemic, all eligible children in Angus can access up to 1140 hours of funded early learning and childcare from 1 August.
“One minor concession we have been forced to make is the temporary removal of some elements of flexibility in our daily options for parents and carers, namely the removal of the flexible drop-off and pick-up windows at the start and end of each session.
Parents are depending on reliable care, so they too can get back to work. That has economic, social and health ramifications
Bill Bowman, MSP
“We will reinstate this as soon as it is safe to do so, and in the meantime we will have staggered times to allow for physical distancing on arrival and home time.
“We are working closely with all of our school and partner settings to ensure up to date guidance is understood and implemented across all funded provision, and will continuously review the position as national guidance is updated.”
Due to the pandemic, planned purpose-built early learning and childcare centres have not been fully completed but temporary accommodation is set to be used in their place.
The spokesman added: “The most significant impact of Covid-19 has been on construction, with a number of projects which were scheduled to be completed by August now unlikely to be completed until later in 2020 or early 2021.
“The use of temporary alternative accommodation pending the completion of construction projects will be used.”
To prepare for full implementation of the new policy by August, Dundee City Council had previously made the 1,140 hours of funded early learning and childcare available in some nurseries starting from August and mid-October last year.
As of October 2019, 15 of the 27 childcare centres across Dundee were offering the 1,140 hours of funded early learning and childcare.
The local authority had also implemented a £13 million council investment programme across the city to provide “high quality, fit for purpose learning spaces for young children both indoors and outdoors.”
This included the construction of new nursery in Douglas, as well the refurbishment of three city council nurseries in the programme to increase capacity across the city to deal with the expansion of hours.
The city council did not provide an updated number of how many nurseries would be offering the 1,140 hours of funded childcare come August.
Across Fife some nurseries will offer 1,140 hours of early learning and childcare from August.
Some children will only be offered the existing 600 hours of provision, but it is intended to phase in the additional hours over the course of the academic year.
While a number of new nurseries had already been built and others refurbished, work at some schools was halted by the outbreak of coronavirus.
Fife Council has come under fire for its new policy for allocating nursery places, after some 351 children initially failed to secure a place at all and many others were unable to get a place at their local nursery.
The local authority said it had faced “unprecedented challenges” in allocating places but it was progressing plans for the provision of 1,140 hours where possible.
Perth and Kinross
A roll out of the increased entitlement began at nurseries in Perth and Kinross in 2018 and continued last year.
Those where the full 1,140 hours were not yet provided were due to begin doing so next month. The council was asked for an update on the remaining nurseries.
“Livelihoods hanging by a thread”
The delay of the Scottish Government’s flagship childcare plans was criticised by Scottish Conservative MSP for the North East, Bill Bowman.
The MSP, whose constituency office is based in Angus, claimed the move could have “economic ramifications” and leave “livelihoods hanging by a thread.”
He said: “Shelving this policy will come as a shock for nurseries, working parents, councils and anyone who had planned around these promised hours.
“Nurseries have been preparing for 1,140 hours for months and have spent money hiring staff and adapting premises to meet statutory requirements. Waiting another year will leave livelihoods hanging by a thread.
“Parents are depending on reliable care, so they too can get back to work. That has economic, social and health ramifications.
“Meanwhile, the SNP encouraged councils to use that money as part of their general Covid response.
“This cannot be another policy, promised by the SNP for years, which is kicked into the next Scottish Parliament.”