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At long last, the needs of our children are moving up the political agenda

Be careful what you wish for.

I've done a couple of blogposts recently calling on all the political parties to make children and issues impacting on them a priority.

And whaddya know?  They appear to have been listening.  Or at least not turning a deaf ear to such pleas.

At the SNP Spring Conference, First Minister Alex Salmond's big announcement was that the Scottish Government would be putting into law, through the forthcoming Children's Services bill, an entitlement for all 3 and 4 year olds to 600 hours of nursery education.

Two year olds who are looked after – that is, children who are at risk and being supervised at home or living away from their parents – will also get a guaranteed 600 hours.

It's a big step forward but perhaps slightly less generous than first appears.  The SNP first committed to raise the amount of nursery provision in its manifesto in 2007.  So far, only two local authorities, Glasgow and East Renfrewshire – neither of them run by SNP council administrations incidentally – have come anywhere near meeting this target. And, as with all things, it will take time for the actual increase to happen:  it's not clear how this will be achieved with councils strapped for cash.

Still, let's not be churlish because it is a fantastic commitment.  And the best bit is that once reached and once put into law, the duty on education authorities or the right of pre-school children to receive nursery education will be maintained and not subject to vagaries at a local level. Councils will have to keep on making it a priority in their budgets and their thinking and that is a very good thing.

Not to be outdone, the Liberal Democrat group in the Scottish Parliament used its precious debating slot to discuss childcare provision in Scotland, calling on the Scottish Government to do more.  A recent report found that the availability of childcare was variable and its cost astronomical.  Something parents have known for years.

It was an important debate if only to highlight the need for a focus on providing more, better and cheaper options to enable parents to work, especially women. And while it is a key issue for families with pre-school age children, often it can be just as hard to find suitable childcare for older children.

Yet, when thinking about economic strategy and activities to address unemployment, childcare gets forgotten about.  Here's hoping that thinking might change in the months ahead.

Finally, Johann Lamont, the Scottish Labour leader, chose childcare as her key issue with which to tackle Alex Salmond at First Minister's Questions.  Which largely just gave the First Minister an opportunity to re-announce the 600 hours of nursery education – a commitment which will put Scotland at the top of the pre-school provision league table in the UK.

And there is a big difference between rhetoric and action.  What point is there in an extra half hour at nursery (which is what the increase actually amounts to) if councils are cutting funding elsewhere in their budgets for breakfast and out of school clubs, family centres, local playgroups, family support work, playparks and initiatives like Bookstart? 

Still, mustn't grumble.  It's great to see our politicians thinking hard and debating the needs of children.

I actually don't think I can recall a similar week in Scottish politics in which the needs of working parents and more importantly, the needs and interests of very young children have dominated the big se tpieces of our political discourse quite this much.  Let's hope they can keep it up.

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