THE SCOTTISH Executive has earmarked more millions for early education and childcare, as the education minister announced that 68 per cent of three-year-olds now have a nursery place.
In a special parliamentary debate last week, Sam Galbraith commended the "fantastic progress" towards the goal of full provision by 2002. The latest figure compares with 20 per cent of three-year-olds who had a pre-school place three years ago.
Mr Galbraith's cash pledge, accompanied by a bewildering flurry of figures, brought the usual charges from the Opposition of recycling spending announcements. The headline figure was an extra pound;14m in childcare support over two years. But pound;6m over the two years was announced last month to help further education students with childcare costs.
Another pound;4m will, however, go to local authorities in the next two years to develop the "childcare infrastructure" such as buildings and equipment. Although this is part of the previously announced pound;49m budget for the childcare strategy, it is an additional allocation for local councils.
The authorities will also receive pound;4m for staff training between now and 2002. Mr Galbraith announced an action plan would be published shortly for the training and development of those employed in early education, childcare and playwork. "The Executive is not blind to the existing strains on the early years workforce," he said. The Minister acknowledged there were local shortages of qualified staff, disincentives to train, and a historic legacy of low status for staff.
Mr Galbraith made it clar he expected his policies to continue to be delivered by the private and voluntary centres as well as by local authorities. Some 38 per cent of places for three-year-olds are provided by the non-council sector.
Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP's education spokesperson, welcomed the new resources but emphasised that the progress towards full provision was largely due to partnerships on the ground.
Ms Sturgeon also expressed concern that many parents would still be unable to afford places, even with the childcare strategy and the working families' tax credit. The Minister said, however, that 10,000 families in Scotland are receiving childcare tax support, which can defray up to 70 per cent of childcare costs.
The SNP's other major reservations centred on the sustainability of some provision - reliant on one-year support from the Lottery-backed New Opportunities Fund - and on the lack of professionally qualified staff.
Brian Monteith, the Tories' education spokesman, claimed childcare provision had been stimulated by his Government's scheme of nursery vouchers for four-year-olds, which he wants to see restored because it would offer more choice for parents.
He was told this was "nonsense" by Tavish Scott, the Liberal Democrat MSP for Shetland, who said the scheme had caused chaos in many rural areas. But Mr Monteith insisted that choice was being eroded for many parents as more and more provision is made by local authorities. The Scottish Pre-school Play Association feared this would worsen as councils built up their own provision.