THE Scottish Executive announced an extensive series of measures in the past week to boost child care and tackle the disadvantage faced by very young children.
Sam Galbraith, Children and Education Minister, unveiled a package targeted on disadvantaged children aged 0-3 and their parents, worth pound;42 million over three years. This was already trailed as support for vulnerable families and has now been rebranded as Sure Start Scotland, a project close to the heart of Gordon Brown, the Chancellor.
Mr Galbraith was visiting Drumchapel High's family learning centre, which is funded through Sure Start. He was accompanied by Susan Deacon, the Health Minister, to symbolise the "joined-up" nature of the initiative. It is a key part of the new social inclusion programme - relaunched as "social justice" at the same time by Donald Dewar, the First Minister.
The latest policy is bolstered by 10 long-term targets to eradicate child poverty and other forms of social exclusion by 2020, with 29 "milestones" along the way. The number of children in households where there are no working adults has shot up from 14 per cent in 1979 to 26 per cent for 1997.
Sure Start money, which will increase from pound;9 million this year to pound;14 million next year, is to be channelled through local authorities which will be expected to work with health bodies and the private sector. Glasgow's share, for example, is set to rise from pound;1.7 million to pound;2.4 million.
Although critics have derided the Executive's "apple pie" approach in setting targets for 20 years hence, Mr Galbraith declared: "We are determined to tackle the inequalities seen in children from different backgrounds even by the age of three, so that every child fully benefits from pre-school education and care."
In a separate announcement to Parliament last week, the minister said another pound;14 million would be allocated to local authorities to provide more childcare places next year, up pound;8 million on this year.
He also told MSPs that priority would be given to improving career prospects and progression in child care. An advanced qualification at SVQ level 4 is being developed by the National Training Organisation for Early Years and the Scottish Qualifications Authority. An information booklet will be launched at the turn of the year.
The Executive will also beef up this new sector by merging the Scottish Childcare Board and the early years education forum.
During the parliamentary debate, Mr Galbraith earned a rare tribute from Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP's education spokesperson, for the priority he has given to child care. But she criticised the uncertainty caused by the lack of commitment to long-term funding of pre-school and childcare provision.
A clear riposte came, however, from Peter Peacock, the Deputy Minister, who said: "We are in this business for the long run. We are not building up expenditure in order to cut it later."
Brian Monteith, the Tories' education spokesman, also gave the announcement a broad blessing although he, too, echoed concerns about short-term funding.
Mr Monteith regretted the local authority bureaucracy which had replaced the pre-school voucher scheme and complained that councils were imposing widely varying charges for "administrative" costs when buying places.
He won an assurance that the commissioning of pre-school places from the other sectors is being reviewed. "We want to see choice in the market place," Mr Peacock said.