The Scottish Government will begin to provide 600 hours of free annual childcare provision, up from 475 hours, to three- and four-year-olds this week, as part of a £280 million commitment over the next two years.
However, plans announced in January to extend this to every two-year-old from a workless household by August have been postponed by three months, and the Scottish Conservatives have suggested that many councils and private nurseries are struggling to meet demand.
The Scottish education secretary Mike Russell confirmed in June that the new legal duty requiring all local authorities to implement the policy for two-year-olds by this month had been postponed and will not now come into force until the end of October.
Meanwhile, several local authorities in the country have admitted in response to freedom of information requests lodged last week by the Scottish Conservatives that they do not have enough places to accommodate the two-year-olds eligible for the free childcare.
Angus, Midlothian and Moray council said they had no spare places within council nurseries, while long waiting lists in Aberdeen will see two-year-olds sent to family centres instead of nurseries.
Edinburgh council said it would be October before it finds places for all its eligible children, while South Lanarkshire said that there was ‘limited capacity’ in council nurseries, and private providers would not be offering places.
Scottish Conservative young people spokeswoman Liz Smith condemned the Government’s proposals, saying, ‘The SNP rushed out this policy in January, and now, eight months later, parents still have no idea how many of these eligible two-year-olds will actually receive free childcare and how much it will cost.
‘The Scottish Government has ordered councils to deliver on this policy but it is very clear that several are struggling to do so. Councils simply do not have enough places or sufficient accommodation.
‘Parents in some of the poorest households in the country have now been left worrying whether their two-year-old will actually get the childcare promised to them.
‘The launch of this new policy has been an absolute shambles from the moment it was announced by the education secretary.’
The Scottish Government, meanwhile, maintained it is on track to deliver the provision it had promised for this school year. A spokesperson said, ‘Eligible two-year-olds should not miss out on the funded early learning and childcare that they are entitled to. All local authorities have confirmed to us that they are on track to deliver the expanded entitlement. In the next few weeks tens of thousands of children across Scotland will start receiving this increased provision, with more than 120,000 three- and four-year olds and vulnerable two-year-olds set to benefit over the school year.
‘While we expect local authorities to meet their statutory responsibilities, clearly it is for each of them to decide how best to do that to meet local needs, including using a mix of provision such as nurseries, family centres and childminders. As is normal practice, most local authorities have engaged with partner providers – who currently provide on average 40% of statutory provision – to ensure provision is in place for eligible children this year.’
The Government has committed a minimum of £280 million over the next two years to expand annual funded provision to 600 hours, or just under 16 hours a week, for all three- and four-year-olds and 15 per cent of two-year-olds, and aims to extend this to the 27 per cent most disadvantaged two-year-olds by August 2015 as entitlement is widened to families receiving certain welfare benefits.
First Minister Alex Salmond said in January that the extension of childcare provision would ensure that, by August 2015, Scotland would deliver 80 million hours of childcare to pre-school children.
Minister for children and young people Aileen Campbell added, ‘The Scottish Government is committed to improving and increasing high-quality, flexible early learning and childcare that is accessible and affordable for all children and families, and which matches the best in Europe. We have now expanded funded provision for three- and four-year-olds by 45 per cent since 2007 – an increase worth up to £707 a year per child – and are extending this entitlement to thousands of our most disadvantaged two-year-olds.’
The Government also reiterated its commitment to an expanded free childcare entitlement if Scotland were to become independent. The proposal would see a universal system of 30 hours a week entitlement introduced for children from the age of one, which the Government says would benefit around 240,000 children and 212,000 families.