Much must be done “in a short time” this summer if the Scottish government is to deliver on its promise to almost double the number of free nursery hours children are entitled to by August, Audit Scotland has said.
A new report by Audit Scotland into the expansion of nursery hours says that the government and councils – which will receive an additional £567 million in annual revenue funding by 2021-22 to deliver the expansion – are making “steady progress”. However, it adds that “significant risks” remain, including the need to have enough staff and buildings in place to deliver 1,140 hours per year from August, up from the current 600 hours.
According to the report, “important workforce challenges” are still an issue, but it warns that the “largest risk” is infrastructure and all the building work planned for completion this summer – a finding that prompted Conservative shadow education secretary Jamie Greene to accuse the government of leaving vital work “to the last minute”.
The work has been delayed until the summer partly because “buildings are empty during school holidays”, the report says, but it highlights that one consequence will be “limited time left to take steps to resolve any issues”.
“Infrastructure is the largest risk in the programme risk profile and this risk has increased to the maximum level since September 2019, meaning that it is both very likely to occur and will have a very high impact,” the report adds.
The document finds that 303 projects are due to complete between June and August, 250 of which are critical to delivering the pledge.
Meanwhile, in September 2019, about half of the total number of additional staff required in council settings to deliver the expansion were in post, it says – 4,310 out of the 8244 full-time equivalent staff councils estimate they will need by April 2021.
Between April and September this year, it adds, councils will need to recruit 27 per cent of the additional workforce, amounting to 2,231 full-time equivalent staff.
The withdrawal of the UK from the European Union could also have an impact on recruitment and on construction, the report says. About 7 per cent of the childcare workforce – which also includes out-of-school care for older children – is estimated to be made up of non-UK EU nationals.
The report states: “The Scottish government and councils are making steady progress to deliver the expansion of funded early learning and childcare (ELC). At a national level, progress is broadly in line with plans to deliver the increased hours by August 2020. These plans are critically dependent on achieving much in a short time, particularly over the summer months. This creates a number of significant risks around getting enough people and buildings in place to deliver the expansion. In addition, it is likely that some aspects of the policy, such as delivering flexibility and choice, will not be fully implemented by August 2020.”
It also highlights that some councils have received up to 40 per cent less funding than they estimated they would need to deliver the pledge.
More than a third of councils, or 12 authorities in total, have received less revenue funding than they estimated the policy would cost, the report says, with Midlothian Council the worst-off; it is due to receive about 24 per cent less revenue funding than it estimated was necessary by 2021-22.
When it comes to capital funding – money for new buildings and refurbishment – 18 councils have received less than they estimated was necessary. The shortfall ranges from under 1 per cent less in Dumfries and Galloway to about 40 per cent less in South Lanarkshire.
Caroline Gardner, auditor general for Scotland, said: “The Scottish government and councils have worked well together to increase early learning and childcare hours, and we've also seen improvements in how the project will be evaluated.
“But the timeline remains tight and there are big risks around infrastructure and workforce.”
Responding to the report, children’s minister Maree Todd said much had already been achieved and the Scottish government was “on course to deliver”.
“We are committed to delivering the rollout from August and councils have contingency plans in place for all critical projects due to complete this summer, so we can be confident that the places will be there to deliver the expansion for Scotland’s children,” she said. “The expansion also opens up more opportunities for playgroups, private and third-sector nurseries, and childminders to be involved in delivering funded hours.”
The Audit Scotland report is the second in a series of audits on early learning and childcare.
The first one, published in February 2018, found that the Scottish government should have started detailed planning with councils earlier and had underestimated the cost of its pledge by £160 million per year.
Audit Scotland is due to carry out another assessment of the cost and impact of the expansion after its implementation