More than 46,000 children across Scotland are already benefiting from extra hours of early learning and childcare before the full rollout of a flagship scheme next year, first minister Nicola Sturgeon has said.
However, a national body for nurseries has said that that “a vital part of the picture is missing” and that private nurseries face a “recruitment crisis” as they struggle to prepare for the near-doubling of free hours.
By August 2020, children aged 3 and 4 and some two-year-olds will be eligible for 1,140 funded hours of early learning and childcare in Scotland, and families should have more choice over how they access those hours.
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The government has highlighted new figures showing that one-third of three- and four-year-olds and eligible two-year-olds are already accessing more than the minimum 600 hours to which they are currently entitled.
Ms Sturgeon said: “High-quality learning and care in the early years is the foundation from which every child can develop and reach their full potential and it also makes a key contribution to closing the attainment gap.
“Our ambitious £2 billion programme will give children access to almost twice as many funded hours annually, worth up to £4,500 per child every year. It will also give parents and carers more flexibility to explore work, education or training opportunities.”
The first minister added: “With less than one year to go, many local authorities are making good progress, with more than a third of eligible children now accessing expanded childcare and nearly half of additional staff needed in post.
“That’s major progress but we know the next 10 months will see a big effort from everyone to make sure we deliver on time in August. We are confident but we do not underestimate the hard work ahead.”
Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA), said: “The fact that the report still relies heavily on data from local authority settings means that a vital part of the picture is missing. The data in the update shows that the public sector has taken on almost 6 per cent more staff than was expected at this point in time.
“Meanwhile, private settings are facing a recruitment crisis. According to our recent workforce survey, 71 per cent of nurseries face difficulties recruiting qualified staff and 62 per cent face significant challenges retaining them.”
Ms Tanuku said that “we are seeing recognition from councils that private and voluntary providers will have a bigger part to play come August 2020, with a 20 per cent increase in the predicted uptake through partner providers”.
She added: “Providers across Scotland have welcomed the Scottish government’s ambitious vision to give all children the best start in life, but they must keep true to the principles of provider neutrality and parental choice. Working parents need flexibility which the private and voluntary sector has always provided.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat education spokeswoman Beatrice Wishart said: “For this policy to achieve its goals, there is a lot of work to be done during the next 10 months. The government says some local authorities are powering ahead while others lag behind, but it’s refusing to release council-by-council data.
“Parents need certainty that expanded hours will be available everywhere in Scotland and private nurseries providing flexible wraparound hours and support for even younger children must not be pushed out of business."