As of 1st of August, the Scottish Government has introduced a childcare/early education model which is meant to reduce the cost of childcare and make childcare more accessible. The free hours of early years education have been increased to 600 and 3 and 4 year olds are eligible for these free hours. As childcare is a mixed economy in Scotland, the statutory free entitlement can be accessed at local authority nurseries or private nurseries that partner with local authorities in delivering the free entitlement.
This all sounds good so far. As ever, the devil is in the detail.
First of all, while we are talking about an entitlement for all 3 and 4 year olds, guaranteed by the Scottish Government (SNP led), it needs implemented locally by local authorities, which in Glasgow is Labour led.
Secondly, the funding for free hours goes to nurseries. It does not follow the child.
So Glasgow City Council has been told by the Scottish Government that as of 1st August 2014, it needs to increase free provision for early education, but it's left to do this as it pleases. I don't know if there's extra money that was made available, but regardless, again, each local authority gets money and then has to allocate as it wishes.
So far, local authority provision either worked on the basis of offering free 3 hour childcare sessions 5 days a week to 3 and 4 year olds. Most of these establishments are closed over lunch. Some are day centres and offer limited wrap around care - but experience shows that they hardly ever offer 8-6pm places (I've seen offers of 9-4pm a lot, and if parents don't take this up because they work 9-5pm, they were dismissed with "well, we did offer and you didn't want it". The idea is that magically as of last week, more wrap around care should be available and flexibility of how the free allocation is taken up by parents is increased (so that instead of 5 days of 3hrs parents can take 2 days of 8 hours each or something like that). As for private nurseries, they get an allocation of free places (if they pass care commission standards) which they then pay out to qualifying families.
If a family uses a childminder for the remainder of the day, they pay the full childminder day fee even if the child spends half the day at nursery (because understandably the childminder can't take on another mindee and has to survive somehow as well).
I haven't got evidence yet if local authority nurseries which so far operated with 3 hour sessions are offering more flexibility. What I have seen and heard about by rather a lot of people now is that those who had to choose a private nursery (because local authority nursery doesn't have a place or only offers insufficient hours), their allocation of fee statutory sessions has been withdrawn. Private nurseries, who had an allocation of free spaces, suddenly don't have them anymore and are as flabbergasted as the parents who are back to paying full day rates (which can be as much as £45, or £900 a month per child). When the parent complains to the council, they get rather arrogant responses along the lines of "if you choose a private nursery that doesn't offer free sessions, there's not much we can do".
Let's be clear: parents don't "choose" private nurseries that have "no funded spaces". There is no choice. The parents I'm talking about here have had her child on the waiting list of the council nursery for over 2 years and the only offer that was ever made did not allow to work 9-5pm. They then took a space at a nursery that did have funding for the statutory free sessions. But that was last term, and strangely, although additional free hours have been introduced, that funding has disappeared. The wording of GCC letters even suggests that parents should just move their children to another nursery, which is blatantly not in the developmental interest of the child.
Which leads me to think: maybe Glasgow City Council is financing the additional hours they have to be seen to offer by only offering them at local authority nurseries, while withdrawing funding from private nurseries. In effect, rather than ensuring a more flexible approach and increasing free childcare, it has been taken away from working families. Now, it's not just low income families that can't access childcare in nurseries (because state nurseries don't offer full days and private nurseries are too expensive), but also middle income families are pushed out of work because they can no longer afford childcare fees. And if I say "families", this usually means "women".
This new childcare promise was meant to help get low income families back into work by making quality childcare cheaper and more accessible. It appears it hasn't just failed to do so, but also had the unintended consequence of pushing middle income parents out of work.
Remember, we are talking here about statutory provision. Every child should be able to receive 600 hours of free nursery education. A lot of children are currently missing out. Of course I can hear those cries for independence, just that education is already devolved and we have to deal with this mess in Scotland anyway. Is there an element of Labour protest in having to implement Scottish Goivernment policies? I hear it's not so bad in other local authorities? But really let's focus on a solution: It could be all so easily turned around if only the funding followed the child. So why not give that a go?