Doubling of free nursery hours: six policy ‘slip-ups’

23rd February 2018 at 00:00
Audit Scotland picks apart the government’s flagship policy for closing the attainment gap

Audit Scotland has published a damning report into the Scottish government’s pledge to almost double free nursery hours by 2020. Under the proposals, funded hours would be increased from 600 currently to 1,140 for three- and four-year-olds, as well as some two-year-olds. But, in its Early Learning and Childcare report, the public-spending watchdog contradicts the government’s claims and calculations in six areas:


The Scottish government says the provision of 30 free nursery hours per week during term time would cost £840 million per year

  • Audit Scotland says £1 billion

In October, first minister Nicola Sturgeon said that, following “detailed work to assess the investment needed”, the government planned to double its investment in funded nursery to £840 million per year “by the end of the Parliament”. But, according to Audit Scotland, councils estimate that increasing free hours from 600 to 1,140 by 2020 would cost about £1 billion per year – “significantly higher” than the government’s figure. The government says it is not unusual for “people to have different ideas as to the final cost” of a major project, and the key thing is that it remains determined to fully fund the policy.


The government says the capital cost – adapting and building nurseries – would be £400 million

  • Audit Scotland says £690 million

Councils’ expansion plans predict a need for much more capital funding than the government has indicated is available, the report finds. Between 2018-19 and 2020-21, councils detail almost £690 million of capital funding, but the government’s indicative funding is £400 million. By 2021-22, the amount councils estimate they will need increases to about £747 million. This includes £411 million for new builds, £194 million for extensions, £115 million for refurbishing existing buildings and £15 million to develop outdoor spaces.


The government says it remains ‘on track to deliver 1,140 hours by 2020’

  • Audit Scotland identifies a ‘significant risk’ that it won’t

The government needed to start its “detailed planning with councils earlier, given the scale of the changes required”, says Audit Scotland. In particular, it will be difficult to increase the infrastructure and workforce to required levels “in the limited time available”. The Audit Scotland report reveals councils only submitted their expansion plans to the government in late September 2017. In January 2017, Tes Scotland reported that the key SNP pledge was in jeopardy because of a failure to plan how it would work, both financially and practically.


The government estimates it would need up to 8,000 extra staff to deliver the promise

  • Audit Scotland says 12,000

The government has estimated that between 6,000 and 8,000 additional whole-time equivalent (WTE) staff would be needed to deliver the expansion by 2020, but councils estimate more than 12,000 extra WTE staff would be required by 2021-22. “This is a very significant increase, of 128 per cent from 2016-17,” says the report. To put that in context, the number of staff delivering funded nursery places increased by 6 per cent between 2013 and 2016.


The government says expanding free nursery places would help to close the attainment gap

  • Audit Scotland finds no evidence to support that claim

Audit Scotland says there is limited research on the impact of increasing nursery hours for children who are already attending. “This makes it difficult to assess if and how increasing funded hours from 475 to 600 hours, or from 600 to 1,140 hours, for three- and four-year-olds will improve their outcomes,” it states.

The 17-year longitudinal survey the Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary Education Project found that half-days in nursery were as good as full days for their positive effect on children’s outcomes, if the nursery was good.

More recently, the longitudinal survey Growing Up in Scotland found that increasing free nursery hours to 1,140 per year was unlikely to improve children’s outcomes by the time they entered school. However, Audit Scotland says it is likely that vulnerable two-year-olds would benefit from the expanded provision; the difficulty will be making sure they access it. It is thought that around 25 per cent of two-year-olds are eligible for funded places, but just 10 per cent are claiming them.


The government says ‘the prize’ of high-quality early learning is more than worth the cost

  • Audit Scotland casts doubt on whether the move would provide value for money

Audit Scotland says that the government should have considered “different options to improve outcomes for children and parents”, such as earlier access covering the gap between the end of parental leave – about a year after a baby is born – and the start of funded hours at age 2 or 3.

Another option might have been earlier access to more funded hours for the children most likely to benefit.

The latter proposition chimes with early years expert Professor Iram Siraj, who has advised the Scottish government in the past. She recently told Tes Scotland that she expected the increase in free nursery hours to actually widen the attainment gap, because middle-class parents would get their children into the best-quality centres, meaning their development would accelerate more quickly.

She said: “If you give something to everyone, the middle-class parents always make more of it.”


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