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Is this a childcare strategy for all?

Working parents and families in rural areas are among those disadvantaged by gaps in funding, warns Janet Law

The Childcare Strategy for Scotland is now out for consultation. Since Labour was elected, spokesperson after spokesperson for the Government has asserted the importance of child care. However, the reality is that the promised funding has been long delayed, making planning difficult if not impossible.

At the same time, the public can be forgiven for believing that the Government has already acted to address these problems. Funding has been announced, often, but has yet to be allocated to any effect. Confusion also reigns over provision for pre-five children in particular. There is a need for child care and education to be planned together. If local government is starved of funding for capital investment, then child care is set to become increasingly privatised, perhaps threatening the social cohesion which should be retained and enhanced within Scotland's education system.

The Government has made much of its allocation of new funding for out-of-school care and of the guarantee of a nursery place for all four-year-olds. The sums of money talked about seemed to be substantial, but to date not a penny has found its way to help an out-of-school club or a playgroup.

In spite of a well organised Scottish Network for Out of School Care, a specific grant of Pounds 3 million is only now being allocated to local authorities to allow them to establish better information systems for parents. It is not clear what this will do in the short term. In due course, there is a promise of lottery funding, which of course has its own problems.

The Government has promised support through the welfare-to-work programme, which has still to emerge in reality. While out-of-school services have been struggling to survive over the past year against a background of difficulties made worse by local government's problems, the Employment Service is happy to offer young people on new deal training placements to out-of-school providers who can barely afford to keep their own trained staff, far less provide on-the-job training.

The pre-school area has suffered nearly as great a degree of confusion. It is widely believed by the public that the Government has provided a nursery place for all those who want it. Yet all that ministers have done is reallocate money made available through the cumbersome voucher system directly to local authorities. This has taken a year.

Those councils that already have enough places obviously will have no difficulty in achieving the Government's commitment to a half-day place for all children in their pre-school year whose parents want this.

Where the Government grant for pre-school is sufficient to meet existing spending, then all is well. But Government funding doesn't cover full-day places, which many councils provide for children with special needs in particular and for children in areas of social deprivation. Unless a community is already well provided for, it may be hard to keep up with demand. A special grant has been allocated for country areas, after pressure from rural authorities.

One of the difficulties is the lack of free space in some schools. The Accounts Commission draws attention to half-empty schools, but the picture is patchy. In areas of population growth, schools may not have expanded as quickly as new house building.

Some councils, like Tayside in its last few years and subsequently Perth and Kinross, have continued in spite of the difficulties to try to expand rural nursery provision. After years of concentration of resources in the cities, this has not been easy. The result is that pre-school places may be available in the nearest town rather than in the nearest school. Government grant will meet the staffing costs, but not satisfy the need for capital investment.

In some areas this will force councils into "partnership" with voluntary and private providers. Local authorities have to prioritise four-year-olds and children with special needs. Working parents of four-year-olds have discovered that private provision may be the only option for extended hours of care and that they may therefore miss out on the free half-day place in education.

This is particularly hard on working parents due to the fact that the working parents tax credit does not start this year. As a high percentage of parents of pre-school children now work, the call for integrated education and child care will reflect this.

Local authorities that already have sufficient places in their own provision may decide not to enter into partnerships with private providers. Research, such as that undertaken by the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, suggests that most parents prefer local authority provision, probably because they feel reassured about its quality. But if only the half-day of education is available, then those who can afford to do so will be forced into private nurseries.

This will immediately start to entrench the split between local authority full-day provision, limited and rightly targeted at those most in need, and the private sector which has the ability to borrow and gear up to provide flexible provision. There is an obvious parallel with the shift of residential care for the elderly into the private sector where poorer pay, conditions and training of staff in the private sector can undercut the public services, which also face restrictions on borrowing.

If these problems are mirrored in the pre-school sector, this will entrench social divisions among our youngest children. At worst it may encourage parents into the private sector for primary education too. We should surely seek to discourage such social division by increasing the quality of what is available in local authority schools to the benefit of all.

Janet Law is education convener, Perth and Kinross Council.

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