COUNCILS ARE set to embrace private nurseries and playgroups in their drive to provide free places for all three-year-olds, a TES Scotland spot survey reveals. New and extended partnerships are expected to produce the additional places the Government wants within four years.
Authorities have largely introduced universal nursery education for four-year-olds by expanding their own nursery classes. Free part-time places are available in almost every part of the country.
Now, however, even councils that have spurned partnerships are ready to extend provision for younger children through the private and voluntary sectors. The Scottish Office expects 40 per cent of three-year-olds to have places by August.
Linda Kinney, head of children's services in Stirling and a member of the Government's childcare board, predicted that different patterns would emerge as comprehensive nursery education was extended. "Partnership is the only way to meet targets," she said.
Across the country, authorities are aiming to expand beyond the current five nursery sessions in the morning or afternoon on five days a week. Parents want more flexible hours in nurseries to meet their working needs.
Pre-five education is intended to dovetail with the Government's childcare strategy. Sam Galbraith, the Minister for Children, was under pressure this week from the Scottish All-Party Parliamentary Group to force councils into partnerships.
HOW THREE-YEAR-OLDS ARE CHANGING THE PATTERN
Has around 1,650 places for all four-year-olds and more than 300 for three-year-olds. No partnership agreement as yet because of 100 per cent provision. From August the city will target an expansion of 350 places in the private sector for three-year-olds, adding to the existing 750. Another 700 places to find for the younger age-group by 2002.
Existing 13 nurseries have extended hours during term-time, plus the Whitfield centre which is open for 48 weeks a year.
Barbara Hughes, education manager, said Dundee wanted to fill gaps in pre-school provision. "There is a huge market for 0-5s and we should be doing this through a childcare partnership. There is a role for everybody," Ms Hughes said.
The pre-five service is examining childminders and sitter services, and the convenience of services to parents. "The real issue is what is there for working parents and what do parents want for convenience," Ms Hughes said.
Met the guarantee for all four-year-olds last August and has places for three-quarters of three-year-olds. Created three new nursery classes.
Betty Richardson, principal officer early years, said places did not always match demand. "We are trying to be more flexible, maybe a morning plus lunch, or lunch plus an afternoon. Some parents want 10am-1pm or 10am-2pm rather than 9am-12.
"The difficulty is the under-threes - that is the same all over - and accommodating working parents."
Provision for 2,500 four-year-olds by last August, representing 98 per cent of the age-group. Only 37 four-year-olds have not taken up a place.
There are more than 100 school nurseries, 36 voluntary centres, 13 Gaelic-medium nurseries and 11 private nurseries. Two years ago, Highland had only 25 nurseries for 800 four-year-olds.
No decision yet about how specifically to address the target of 100 per cent of three-year-olds by 2002. About 900-1,000 places are already available - 40 per cent of what is needed (on the assumption that complete coverage would be about 2,500).
Most of the existing provision is through the voluntary and private sectors. Only one council-run nursery, at Alness, can take three-year-olds.
Bruce Robertson, Highland's director of education, said:
"It appears logical that the council, wherever possible, commissions places for three-year-olds from the voluntary sector, even where the council has spare places in its own nurseries."
There is a case, Mr Robertson said, for bringing playgroups within schools to make it easier to work with nurseries and enhance options for children.
Since September has had 3,700 places, enough for all four-year-olds, with 15 per cent of children placed in the private and voluntary sector. Uptake is 90 per cent.
Council provision has doubled in the past two years, and there are 38 partners, two-thirds privately run. The authority has increased its spending by pound;2.5 million, pound;500,000 of which is distributed to partner nurseries.
Thirty-six new nursery classes and centres have been opened at a cost of pound;900,000.
The council has places for 30 per cent of three-year-olds but the target is 60 per cent by August, aided by new partners in new locations.
Andrea Batchelor, head of integrated lifelong services, said: "The biggest issue is parental choice. The Government has asked us to be responsive but we are not in a position to meet every parent's requirements. We are doing our best to put in places for four and three-year-olds and we are moving into childcare places. Some of the parents still think we should be doing more."
Mrs Batchelor believes some parents were confused by the publicity surrounding the Green Paper on child care. But the authority is looking at more flexible provision and meeting parents' choice.
The extra pound;200,000 South Lanarkshire received at Christmas from the Government will mean more training for partners and more curriculum resources. "That will do us a lot of good," Mrs Batchelor said.
Guarantee met last September with just under 1,000 places. Provision of 90 per cent was added to by 2 per cent growth in council nurseries and 8 per cent in the private and voluntary sector. Will aim to have around 50 per cent provision for three-year-olds by August with expansion in partnership nurseries and groups.
Linda Kinney, head of children's services, said there was a need for more flexible provision.