Doubts over bid by Children's Minister to help childcare services 'advance from base camp to the summit'
Great expectations characterised the "summit" convened by the Scottish Office to gauge reaction to the Government's childcare strategy. An entirely new profession is being envisaged.
Sam Galbraith, the Children's Minister, described the aim of turning round inconsistent, variable, costly and unavailable child care as an attempt to "advance from base camp to the summit".
But warring professionals, incomplete provision and contradictory policies could yet derail the initiative, it became clear as the conference proceeded. Mr Galbraith said the Scottish Office would attempt to dovetail policies and agencies to ensure there were "joined-up solutions for joined-up problems".
He stressed the importance of "what childcare provision is delivered, not who delivers it". Local authorities would have the job of setting up childcare partnerships - but not dominating them.
Paul Williamson of the Scottish Out of School Care Network took up the theme stressed by several speakers of having a unified and well trained childcare profession. The Children in Scotland agency has already trodden on teacher sensitivities by calling for "greater coherence in qualifications, pay and conditions" for childcare staff accompanied, perhaps, by a later age for starting school.
Mr Williamson, education vice-convener in Edinburgh, said a service run by "petulant professionals" would represent an own goal for education authorities. They should have "happy headteachers and jovial janitors". He also criticised authorities that caused problems for out-of-school care by charging for the use of schools and community centres.
Jane Morgan of the Scottish Office confirmed that there would be a review of the skill needs of childcare workers, including the structure of qualifications.
Norma Baldwin, professor of childcare and protection at Dundee University, reinforced calls for the Government's strategy to recognise "that needs are complex and untidy and cross professional and bureaucratic boundaries". The real costs of child care had to be addressed, including the contribution of transport, health services and housing.
Professor Baldwin, a member of the Scottish Office's new childcare board, said: "We must be concerned with real provision, not just minding the children and providing active leisure for parents."
She highlighted "ambiguities" in the links between the Government's childcare and welfare-to-work policies, particularly the treatment of lone mothers. "The underlying message may be that paid work is the only way of making a contribution to society. There is a sense in which mothers are therefore expected to be at home looking after their children, while also out working to avoid being a burden on the welfare state."
Bronwen Cohen, director of Children in Scotland, said another ingredient must be paid parental leave. The Government's Fairness at Work proposals envisage only unpaid leave.
But Dr Cohen welcomed the childcare strategy as a move away from a project-based system which is insecure and offers only short-term funding. "The proposals make no pretence that they are other than the start of a journey, " she said.
Jotter, back page
WHAT THE NEW STRATEGY SETS OUT TO ACHIEVE
* Better integration of early education and child care.
* Improved standards in day care and early education, including a new regulatory regime.
* A training and qualifications framework for childcare workers.
* Recruitment of additional childcare staff, with a target of 5,000 channelled through the welfare-to-work programme for unemployed 18 to 24-year-olds.
* A free part-time nursery place offered to all four year olds by the end of the year.
* Scottish Office funding of Pounds 3.8 million for all local authorities to kick-start childcare projects this year.
* Lottery funding of Pounds 25 million over four years from next April to expand out-of-school care.
* Introduction of the working families tax credit in October 1999, worth up to Pounds 70 a week for the first child and up to Pounds 110 for the second child in families earning less than Pounds 17,000 a year. This could increase by tenfold, up to Pounds 30 million, the public resources going into childcare.
* Employers to be encouraged to contribute to childcare costs via workplace nurseries and tax incentives.
* Access funds to help FE students with children.
* Helplines to give parents local information.
* Local partnerships to audit and specify needs.
* Scottish Childcare Board to shape the strategy.