Sturgeon’s childcare plans have a huge funding gap
The First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has pledged to double the number of paid-for nursery hours available – to 1,140 a year by 2020, around 30 hours per school week.
Her administration has earmarked £840 million a year for the flagship policy but councils expect spending to hit £1 billion by 2021/22, the Accounts Commission said.
It also warned of “significant risks” with the plan to double the hours for families with three-year-olds, four-year-olds and “vulnerable” two-year-olds.
Experts said it would be difficult to get enough staff and premises ready for the deadline while ministers should have started “detailed planning” earlier.
Audit Scotland found the plans underfunded
This is a very serious wake-up call for the SNP. It has been all talk on the surface but, on the ground, there are fundamental issues at stake which are impacting on the effectiveness of children’s care.
Local authorities estimate they will need the equivalent of 12,000 full-time workers and £690 million for buildings.
This is far higher than government forecasts of 6,000 to 8,000 extra staff and infrastructure spending of £400 million.
Research for the Auditor General and Accounts Commission also assessed the 2014 expansion of funded places to 600 hours.
Audit Scotland found that the government did not identify measures of success before committing almost £650 million and “it is not yet clear whether the investment is delivering value for money”.
While councils and government have worked well together and families are positive about expansion, parents said funded hours had a limited impact on boosting their ability to work.
Sturgeon came under fire from all sides of the Scottish Parliament
Scottish Tory education spokeswoman Liz Smith said the report “is damning in term of exposing the failures of SNP policy on child care”.
She added: “This is a very serious wake-up call for the SNP. It has been all talk on the surface but, on the ground, there are fundamental issues at stake which are impacting on the effectiveness of children’s care.”
Iain Gray, for Scottish Labour, said: “This independent report blows a £160 million black hole in a flagship SNP Government policy. Raising the amount of free childcare families are entitled too has been a cornerstone of the SNP’s offer to families – but this report reveals that, not only does the Scottish Government not expect to fully fund it, but that it is also miles behind the levels of staff recruitment needed.”
The report comes after fewer than half of private nurseries – which deliver 86 per cent of free places – warned they could offer extend hours because of council underfunding.
Accounts Commission chairman Graham Sharp said: “The scale of change needed over the next two years is considerable and there are significant risks that councils will be unable to deliver that change in the time available.
“There is now an urgent need for plans addressing increases in the childcare workforce and changes to premises to be finalised and put in place.”
Auditor General Caroline Gardner added: “Focusing on the early years has the potential to make a real difference to young people’s lives but the Scottish Government was not clear enough about what the expansion of funded hours in 2014 was expected to achieve.
“We are encouraged that the Scottish Government is now planning better for how it will assess the impact of the expansion to 1,140 hours and has already published some baseline information.”
Childcare and Early Years Minister Maree Todd insisted the government remains “on track to deliver 1,140 hours by 2020”.
She said: “It is not unusual, at this point in the life of a major project, for people to have different ideas as to the final cost. What is not in doubt is that the Scottish Government has pledged to fully fund this policy.
“That’s why we are working with councils to help them develop their expansion plans and have recently reached agreement with Cosla on the process of arriving at the multi-year funding needed.
“While this work is underway, we have already increased capacity in early years courses in colleges and universities and are investing in the significant expansion of the workforce needed to deliver the expansion.”