The Scottish government has suspended its flagship policy to almost double the number of funded hours that nursery children are entitled to, in order to allow councils to focus on their response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Local authorities were due to deliver 1,140 hours of funded childcare from this August but ministers have laid an order in the Scottish Parliament to revoke the statutory duty.
It is not clear when the commitment – which would have led to nursery children spending roughly the same time in pre-school as older children spend in school – will be fully implemented.
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In a joint statement, the minister for children and young people, Maree Todd, and the spokesperson for children and young people at local authorities' body Cosla, Stephen McCabe, said the commitment to delivering the additional hours remained “undimmed”.
The impact of coronavirus on nursery provision
However, they added in current circumstances it was not “realistic or reasonable” to expect councils to deliver their original expansion plans.
A new timeline for delivering the pledge would be put in place “once there is a clearer picture of the impact and duration of the pandemic response measures”, they said.
The statement said: “The Covid-19 pandemic has made it impossible to continue with the planned recruitment and infrastructure projects required to support expansion. As we focus on saving lives and looking after people most vulnerable to the virus, the immediate priority is to ensure that we have the emergency childcare in place to support families during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“To support local government with this critical response work, the Scottish government has now moved to suspend the statutory duty on local authorities to provide 1,140 hours of early learning and childcare from this August.
“Tens of thousands of children have already benefited from expanded hours, and we expect this will continue when normal provision resumes. Once there is a clearer picture of the impact and duration of the pandemic response measures, we will work together to agree the right time to reinstate the statutory requirement and ensure that all eligible children can access 1,140 hours of high-quality early learning and childcare.”
An Audit Scotland report published earlier this year said that much had to be done “in a short time” this summer if the Scottish government was to deliver its 1,140 hours commitment.
The report said the government and councils were making “steady progress” but added that “significant risks” remained, including the need to have enough staff and buildings in place.
The current funded nursery entitlement is 600 hours.
Scottish Conservative education spokesman Jamie Greene said: "This is extremely disappointing but not entirely unexpected news - prior to the Covid-19 outbreak Audit Scotland had warned that the Scottish government would struggle to meet this deadline."
He urged the Scottish government to fulfil its pledge "as soon as practicable", a position echoed by his Scottish Labour counterpart Iain Gray, who said: "Even before Covid-19 there were real concerns that this policy would not be delivered on time."