David Henderson reports on the Scottish Office's massive investment in quality services for youngsters
The pound;150 million childcare package, launched this week by Donald Dewar, the Scottish Secretary, will signal a new breed of para-educational worker, similar to that in other European countries.
Thousands of staff hoping to work in a plethora of out-of-school care and holiday schemes, pre-school and homework clubs are likely to be regulated by a revised structure of national qualifications and quality assurance. Ministers guarantee parents safe, affordable and high standard places, many of them based in primary schools.
Currently, one in 40 primaries has access to an out-of-school club but ministers want to ensure one-in-four has a club by the end of this parliament.
The first Scottish Office strategy on childcare - a major plank of Labour's family agenda - suggests the new professionals may want to progress into classroom assistants, an idea already gaining ground in education departments. Authorities are already planning to pilot the use of assistants as supports to teachers.
Ministers want to raise the pay of care staff and offer better professional progress in a bid to raise the standards, status and attractiveness of childcare.
Through a combination of funding, the Scottish Secretary promised pound;150 million over the next four years on top of the commitment to provide a nursery place for all four-year-olds. "This will revolutionise childcare," Mr Dewar forecast.
Sam Galbraith, the children's minister, added: "This is a major development for Scotland. We've never had a childcare strategy."
Irene Audain, development officer with the Scottish Out of School Care Network, described it as a huge investment. "I am absolutely delighted. The strategy contains a lot of the major components for which we've been fighting for years. Through training and proper quality assurance, we're making a new childcare profession," Ms Audain said.
She believed that tax credits for families will make an enormous difference. They were announced in the March Budget and come on stream in October 1999. Parents will receive a subsidy up to pound;70 a week for one child and pound;105 for two or more to pay for any childcare they think suits their needs.
"This will stimulate demand because parents will be able to pay for it," Ms Audain said. She also backed the proposal for part and full-time students to be helped with childcare costs. "This is especially important for lone parents," she added.
Dr Bronwen Cohen, director of Children in Scotland and a member of the new Scottish Childcare Board that will monitor and advise on developments, said the green paper represents a "quantum leap forward". "It has long been known that services in this country are the poorest in the European Union so we are greatly encouraged by the strategy," she said.
However, Dr Cohen is pressing ministers to introduce childcare targets to bring services up to Nordic standards.
Bob Kay, chairman of the Association of Scottish Colleges, urged ministers to include colleges in their thinking on training.
Ministers say the test of their policy will be better outcomes for children, including their readiness to learn by the time they reach school and enjoyable, developmental activities out of school hours.
Their second aim is to allow more parents the chance to take up work, education or training. Local authorities will be asked to set up 'childcare partnerships' to assess needs and plan provision for children from birth to 14 years old.
* Mr Dewar announced pound;5 million to kick-start projects this year, pound;3.8 million of which will go to councils. They will also receive extra funding for administration and to set up helplines for parents.
Next April, the first tranche of Lottery money, worth pound;25 million over four years, will be available for out-of-school care. A further pound;23 million Lottery cash over four years will support activities for older children, including homework clubs.
Beyond that the tax credits for parents are expected to increase provision "tenfold", according to the Scottish Secretary.
Up to 5,000 unemployed adults may be recruited through the Welfare to Work programme to help staff new services.
Responses to the strategy have to be submitted by the end of July.
Leader, page 14