From 21 August, the start of the new school year, 18 private partnership nurseries in East Lothian will see the number of funded pre-school education places capped. For some East Lothian settings, this will mean losing an average of ten funded places each.
A similar move is being considered by other Scottish councils.
In Scotland, private and voluntary early years settings are contracted by their local authority to deliver the free pre-school hours for threeand four-year-olds. These partnership pre-school providers are allocated a number of funded places for each school year.
From the end of this month, funded hours for threeand four-year-olds will increase from 475 to 600 hours. Fifteen per cent of twos will also become eligible for this entitlement.
However, just last week the Scottish Conservatives claimed that the Scottish Government's two-year-old programme is in 'chaos', as a Freedom of Information request revealed that many local authorities across the country do not have enough places to accommodate all eligible two-year-olds.
Nurseries and parents in East Lothian affected by the cap have launched a campaign against the council's decision, which they say will limit childcare choice and impact on working parents as maintained settings tend to be term-time-only provision and open for shorter hours.
Providers have contacted Scottish MSPs and the leader of East Lothian Council's opposition SNP group, councillor Stuart Currie, who at the time of press was due to meet with the council's head of education Darrin Nightingale.
Parents have also sent letters to the council and started a Facebook campaign page.
A spokesperson for East Lothian Council said, 'The reason behind this agreement is to ensure adequate and efficient provision of pre-school education for eligible children.
'Pre-school education hours will increase to 600 hours per year from later this month and additional provision is also being provided for some two-year-olds. The vast majority of nursery places will be provided by council nurseries, as is currently the case, though we will continue to work with partnership centres for additional places.
'We have acknowledged that the new agreement will mean a very small number of individual families may not be able to be accommodated at their first choice provider, but that there would be a number of alternative options available.'
Iain Gray, MSP for East Lothian, said, 'Some of my constituents have raised concerns about this issue and how it might impact on them. I have passed on those concerns to education officials at East Lothian Council and am aware that the council is now considering them.'
Glasgow City Council has also decided to cap the number of places it funds at private and voluntary nurseries, while other local authorities are thought to be considering the same.
A Glasgow City Council spokesperson said, 'We know that this is a very emotive subject for families. Choosing a nursery for their child is one of the biggest decisions a parent will make. But, in a nutshell, Scottish Parliament legislation states that the local authority has a duty to provide sufficient places for eligible threeand four-year-olds; it does not specify that this is a nursery of a parent's choice.
'To offer flexibility to working families and to meet demand, we award partnership contracts to private nurseries to complement the number of places in council nurseries.
'The most important fact is that there is no reduction in the number of purchased nursery places across the city. The number of additional places will vary in different areas of the city - it is basic supply and demand and based on the estimated population figures for areas.
'We are not withholding funding from parents and we are not breaking the law. We want the very best for each child in Glasgow and our process ensures we are delivering this.'
Both Children in Scotland and Scotland's commissioner for children and young people have heard from individuals across the country concerned about the impact of capping places.
Jackie Brock, chief executive of Children in Scotland, said the decision taken by some councils to cap places is 'inevitable' as local authorities move to scale up their existing provision.
'Local authorities were given the funding for the increased hours for threeand four-year-olds earlier this year. As a result, they have been calculating places to meet their legal responsibilities,' she said.
'Because of a need to scale up quickly, local authorities are using existing settings as it is easier and cheaper. But this does mean that places through other providers will be reduced.
'We expect to find out the extent to how many local authorities are going to be capping places in the next few weeks. However, we need to be cautious as we don't know if it is going to be a long-term decision.'
Tam Baillie, Scotland's commissioner for children and young people, told Nursery World that he had been contacted by some individuals concerned about the impact and disruption that capping places could have on their children.
He said, 'We should be mindful of the importance of stability and minimising any disruption for children in their early years, especially for vulnerable children.
I understand that changes may be required and I would expect those responsible for making decisions about provision to take this factor into account.'
The National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) Scotland has called the practice of capping places a 'worrying development'.
NDNA chief executive Purnima Tanuku said, 'Parental choice in Scotland is already restricted by the current system, which sees the child follow the funding rather than funding following the child. To then cap the number of places a partner provider can offer is shrinking that choice even further.
'By limiting the number of settings that can provide the free entitlement, many parents will be forced to move their children from their own choice of nursery to one that may not suit their family situation or working hours.
'We have already heard from nursery owners who are effectively providing wrap-around care to enable parents to work, by dropping off and picking up children from the settings where they can claim their free entitlement. This is creating patchwork days for children when they need continuity of care.
'We would strongly urge local authorities to rethink this policy and find a way to work with partner providers so all families and children have the choice of high-quality childcare that is right for them.'
CASE STUDY: LINKS NURSERY IN MUSSELBURGH, EAST LOTHIAN
Links Nursery is one of four in Musselburgh that has seen the number of funded places it provides capped at 30 from 21 August. Currently, the nursery provides 40 morning and 40 afternoon sessions and is open 51 weeks a year, from 7.30am to 6pm.
Manager Jennifer Shearer said, 'We may not hit the limit until Christmas, but I know there will be another 25 eligible children in January, and how do we decide who gets a place?
'There are at least two or three children who will struggle with the transition from moving to another setting if they can't get the free hours.
Ms Shearer said another concern is that council-run settings often close during the school holidays and are not as flexible with their opening hours, which could prove problematic for working parents.
Private providers usually offer year-round provision.
She added, 'The council's decision will also affect any new business as I won't be able to offer parents a funded place.'
A campaigning parent
One East Lothian parent, who has written to the council and MSPs, said the decision to cap funded places in private partnership nurseries has caused him and his family 'unnecessary stress, anxiety and anger'.
In his letter, Brian Clark, whose two-and-a-half-year-old son has attended the Links nursery since he was ten months old, says that moving their son to a maintained nursery is not in his or his family's best interest.
He goes on to list the pros of his son's current nursery, which include familiarity, lower child:staff ratios than council-run settings, and more flexible opening hours that mean his wife can go to work and they can drop off and pick up their son.
In his letter, Mr Clark writes, 'There is so much publicity regarding the increase in childcare support in Scotland. However, this decision makes it impossible for us to access this funding.
'I am sure you are aware of the (Scottish Government's) Getting it Right for Every Child policy, which promotes the well-being of individual children, and the use of existing networks and support where possible. My wife and I certainly feel that our informed choice regarding our son's care and education has effectively been removed.
'In children's early years, routine is critical. In order for us to access the funding for our son, it would mean major disruption in his daily routine and may have an adverse effect on his development.'
He concludes, 'As a family, we urge you to reconsider your approach to pre-school funding and allow every child's entitlement to follow them, not the other way around.
'Your decision has been made without consideration of what is best for children and their families, and with no consultation with parents.'