Parents missing out on free places because councils failing to follow guidance

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Most councils in Scotland are not adhering to Government guidance on cross-boundary funding of free childcare places, leaving parents unable to take up their 600-hour entitlement.

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According to research by FFFOK, parents face losing their free entitlement because of a lack of cross-funding between councils

According to a new report by the campaign group Fair Funding for Our Kids (FFFOK), published today, just four Scottish councils have reciprocal agreements with every other local authority to fund childcare for children from other areas. This is despite Scottish Government guidance stating that all councils should have such agreements.

The Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 recommends that local authorities ‘meet on a regional or neighbouring basis to identify movement and places across boundaries and reach sustainable and mutually beneficial arrangements’.

It concludes, ‘Reciprocal cross boundary arrangements are therefore fundamental to realising the social and economic benefits of early learning and childcare for families and society’.

FFFOK says the lack of cross-boundary funding is impacting upon those parents who, because they cannot get home from work in time before nursery closes, have to send their child to a setting outside their own local authority area.

The report, Over the Border, is based on data obtained through Freedom of Information (FOI) requests sent to all 32 local authorities in Scotland, of which 28 replied.

Responses to the FOI’s revealed that:

  • Just four councils have reciprocal agreements with all other councils in Scotland - Edinburgh, Falkirk, West Dunbartonshire and West Lothian;
  • South Ayrshire had a reciprocal agreement with all councils but one, East Ayrshire, because of an in-balance between children seeking cross-boundary places in either area;
  • 22 local authorities have reciprocal cross-boundary agreements with at least one council;
  • three councils have reciprocal agreements with only one other council – they are Aberdeen City, Fife and North Ayrshire;
  • three non-island councils have no reciprocal agreements - Dumfries and Galloway, Renfrewshire and South Lanarkshire.

FFFOK also asked whether each local authority funded all children from neighbouring areas. According to the campaign group, legal guidance makes clear that all local authorities should implement a uniform cross-boundary no charging policy.

Of those that replied, 14 said they did ‘unequivocally’, while eight said they did but attached a proviso, for example that there had to be a reciprocal agreement with the neighbouring authority, or that they would do so as long as they had capacity after accommodating all children in their own area.

However, FFFOK says there appears to be a ‘mismatch’ between some council’s formal arrangements and the real-life experiences of parents, many of whom report being told that they are unlikely to receive funding, despite their council having reciprocal agreements in place.

As part of the research, local authorities were also asked whether they funded places in advance or in arrears. According to FFFOK, where payment is made in arrears, parents may have to pay several months of fees upfront before receiving any money back from the council. This can amount to an outlay of more than £1,000, making it harder for less well-off parents to access their 600 hours entitlement if they cannot afford the upfront cost.

Seven councils did not give clear answers. Of the 21 that did, eight paid in advance and 13 in arrears – this is the equivalent to almost two-thirds of local authorities.

FFFOK says that the report demonstrates that, like so much else in the childcare system, the ability to access cross-boundary funding is a postcode lottery.  It argues that it’s yet another unnecessary hurdle for parents to negotiate.

The campaign group is now calling on the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA), to create a national agreement on cross-boundary funding.

Case Study

Maeve, who lives in East Renefrewshire and sends her two-year-old to a private nursery in Glasgow, has expressed concern that they won’t be able to access the 600 free hours they are entitled to.

She said, ‘Our son attends a private nursery in Glasgow. We live in East Renfrewshire, I work in West Dunbartonshire and my partner works in Glasgow.

‘My son’s nursery says it’s unlikely he’ll get funded hours from Glasgow City Council, because they prioritise children living in the area. Glasgow City Council have confirmed this directly.

‘Childcare in East Renfrewshire is not an option for us as we can’t get home until 6.30pm at the earliest, and we have no family locally who pick up at 6pm or in case of emergency. Our home council says that they might fund East Renfrewshire children attending nurseries outside the area, but only if they have money left over and on a priority basis. What’s most frustrating is that I believe councils get allocated funding on the basis of population estimates - so they do have funding for our son. Why can’t they just pass it to Glasgow?’

‘It’s supposed to be an entitlement, but I can’t see any way for us to claim it.’

A Scottish Government spokesperson said, ‘The Scottish Government has been very clear about the expectation on local providers spending funds made available to them to provide the hours, flexibility and choice parents and children need and want. Plans are already in place to trial a range of different childcare approaches to explore what works best for children and families ahead of further expansion plans to increase free early learning and childcare to 1,140 hours by 2020. 

‘We are in regular dialogue with all local authorities, and their representative bodies; including COSLA and the Scottish Local Government Partnership, as part of our commitment to taking forward our key education priorities.’

A COSLA spokesperson said, ‘COSLA is fully committed to representing its members and providing support to them.  It is not however the job of COSLA to police councils. We believe councils work closely together and endeavour to address cross-boundary issues across the spectrum of local government services.  

‘On this particular issue, in November last year, COSLA provided evidence to the Education and Skills Committee at the Scottish Parliament, which was based on a survey of all member councils. That evidence contradicts statements in this report.

‘We remain committed to supporting our member councils in extending flexibility for parents for nursery provision.  The proposed expansion to 1,140 hours will support this aim and we are currently engaged in active work with the Scottish Government on the delivery of this target.'

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