Scotland's spending watchdog raises concern about 30 hours

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A new report for Scotland's spending watchdog warns there are ‘significant risks’ to doubling the funded hours for three and four-year-olds to 1,140 (30 hours a week) by 2020.

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The audit warns that delivering the 1,140 hours for three and four-year-olds will require a large increase in the number of childcare staff

The report by Audit Scotland says that delivering the 1,140 hours will require a large increase in the number of childcare staff and changes to premises, which will be difficult to achieve in the time available.

Prepared for the Accounts Commission and Auditor General for Scotland, it argues that the Scottish Government should have started detailed planning with councils earlier, given the scale of the changes required.

The report also highlights the ‘considerable gap’ between what local councils and the Scottish Government believe the policy will cost.

The Scottish Government expects it will cost £840 million per year to deliver the 1,140 hours (equivalent to 30 hours a week, term-time only). However, councils estimate the cost of the scheme to be about £1 billion per year.

The report is based upon survey responses from councils, interviews with parents and senior staff in the Scottish Government, Care Inspectorate and other national bodies, as well as focus groups with partner-provider nurseries currently delivering the 600 hours of funded childcare and a review of published evidence and documents.

It also assessed the expansion of funded early learning and childcare in Scotland to 600 hours in 2014 and found that while the Government and councils worked well together and parents were positive about the benefits of the funded hours to their children, the policy had a limited impact on improving parents’ ability to work.

The report concludes with a number of recommendations for the Scottish Government and councils to plan for the 1,140 hours and reduce the risks of failing to deliver on time, they include:

  • Updating the statutory guidance following agreement on important aspects of the 1,140 hours, such as funding that follows the child and delivering flexibility
  • Continuing to develop the detail of how the expansion of the funded hours will be evaluated and ensure baseline data is available
  • Urgently finalising and implementing plans for changes to the workforce and infrastructure to address the significant risks of not being able to deliver on time
  • Collecting better information on the cost of different models of early learning and childcare and their impact on children’s outcomes to allow them to better plan for the expansion
  • Working with partner providers of both funded and non-funded early learning and childcare to understand the impact of decisions on the wider system and reduce the risk of unanticipated consequences for these providers.

The report is the first in a series of audits of the expansion of funded early leaning and childcare in Scotland. Further audits will be carried out in 2019/20, closer to the implementation of the 1,140 hours. A separate audit to assess the cost and impact of the expansion will also be carried out.

Caroline Gardner, Auditor General for Scotland said, ‘Focusing on the early years has the potential to make a real difference to young peoples' lives but the Scottish Government was not clear enough about what the expansion of funded hours in 2014 was expected to achieve.

‘We are encouraged that the Scottish Government is now planning better for how it will assess the impact of the expansion to 1,140 hours and has already published some baseline information.’

Graham Sharp, chair of the Accounts Commission, added, ‘The scale of change needed over the next two years is considerable and there are significant risks that councils will be unable to deliver that change in the time available.

‘There is now an urgent need for plans addressing increases in the childcare workforce and changes to premises to be finalised and put in place.’

Responding to the report, the minister for childcare and early years Maree Todd said, ‘There is little doubt that this is a very ambitious pledge and the report reflects the scale of the challenge we have set ourselves. But, we believe that the prize of high quality early learning and childcare is more than worth it.  It plays a vital role in narrowing the attainment gap and ensuring all children are given an equal start in life which is why this government has gone further than any other in our commitment to expanding free entitlement.

‘And, despite the scale of challenge, we remain on track to deliver 1,140 hours by 2020.

‘As recognised by Audit Scotland, we are working well with local authorities and other stakeholders to prepare for and implement the expansion. It is not unusual, at this point in the life of a major project, for people to have different ideas as to the final cost. What is not in doubt is that the Scottish Government has pledged to fully fund this policy. That’s why we are working with councils to help them develop their expansion plans and have recently reached agreement with COSLA on the process of arriving at the multi-year funding needed.

‘While this work is underway, we have already increased capacity in early years courses in colleges and universities and are investing in the significant expansion of the workforce needed to deliver the expansion.

‘The report also highlights that parents were overwhelmingly positive about the quality of funded ELC and the countless benefits it provides for their children including improvements in speech and language, cognitive development, social skills and behaviour. I look forward to many more children and their families benefitting from high quality, funded early learning and childcare as we work towards successful delivery of expansion.’

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