Most eligible children are now receiving the full 1,140 hours of funded early learning and childcare (ELC) in Scotland, a report has found.
The aim of almost doubling the previous entitlement of 600 hours for three- and four-year-olds and some two-year-olds is a flagship Scottish government policy, and pre-Covid was due to be introduced from August this year.
After the coronavirus pandemic hit, however, the policy was paused in March before it was announced in July that it would be delayed until at least the summer of 2021. Even before Covid, there were some serious concerns about how achievable the policy was.
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A new report from the Improvement Service, a body which scrutinises and works with councils in Scotland, states that "the national picture shows that delivery of the expansion has surpassed the pre-Covid forecasted position for April 2020 but has not reached the pre-Covid forecast position for September 2020".
It also finds that the most common reason given for not yet achieving 1,140 hours for all children is "delays to infrastructure projects", given typical delays of around six months on construction sites after the coronavirus reached Scotland.
The report shows that more than 56,000 children (61 per cent of those eligible) are already receiving 1,140 hours of funded ELC, despite the statutory expansion being initially paused in April to help local authorities respond to the pandemic.
Based on data gathered in August, the report also finds that more than 80 per cent of children are receiving more than 600 hours – out of all 93,438 children who recieve some amount of funding – while 87 per cent of the extra staff expected to be needed for the expansion are now in place.
Children's minister Maree Todd said: “The pandemic has had an obvious impact on construction and recruitment plans across the country. However, local authorities are making good progress to get back on track and we will continue to support them to do so.
“We have always been clear that the suspension of the statutory duty on local authorities to provide 1,140 hours is a pause, not a stop. We will agree a new delivery date with local government before the end of this year and continue to work with partners to deliver this transformational policy.”
Stephen McCabe, education and young person spokesperson for local authorities body Cosla, said: "We took the difficult decision jointly with the Scottish government to pause implementation of the 1,140 hours ELC expansion as the pandemic disrupted plans."
He added: "Despite the challenges in construction projects and recruitment issues, councils have worked hard to create additional places and a number of councils are already offering 1,140 hours of funded provision, with more coming online in the months ahead."