Tom Gordon

PARENTS are facing delays in getting more free childcare under the SNP’s flagship expansion plans because of shortages of buildings and staff, watchdogs have warned.

The Accounts Commission said around half the extra staff needed by the autumn have yet to be recruited and three-quarters of the extra building work is still not finished.

The two issues posed “big risks” to the timetable, despite “steady progress” overall.

Opposition parties said parents would be justifiably angry and frustrated if they were unable to get the extra childcare hours they had expected.

The Liberal Democrats tabled an urgent question at Holyrood to bring childcare minister Maree Todd to the chamber today to answer questions.

The SNP’s 2016 manifesto pledged to double free childcare from 600 to 1,140 hours by 2021 for three and four year olds and disadvantaged two-year-olds.

The Scottish Government says the pledge has been backed by an “unprecedented £2billion of investment”, with 900 nurseries due to be built, extended or refurbished since 2018.

Councils are due to get £567m of annual funding to deliver the expansion, although many complain they have not been given enough capital funding for the building work.

The roll-out is due to start this August and be fully in place by April next year, as children gradually enter the system after their qualifying birthday.

However auditors said these plans were now “critically dependent on achieving much in a short time”, and warned not all the child places needed would definitely be ready on time.

Around 72% of the places are expected to be provided by councils directly and the rest by private nurses and childminders funded by councils.

Of the 22,357 extra places required to provide the 30 hours a week of flexible, quality childcare promised, only 5,097, or 23 per cent, had been delivered by building projects by October last year.

A wave of construction work over the coming summer is supposed to increase this to 79% of requirements by August, however around 900 places still lack a firm delivery date, and around 300 places may not be delivered until 2023.

All new places also need to be registered with the Care Inspectorate before they can open to children, raising fears of an administrative logjam in the autumn.

In their latest progress report, auditors said infrastructure was the largest risk to delivering the policy and that this had been “increased to the maximum leave since September 2019, meaning that is both likely to occur and will have a very high impact”.

It said that of the 303 projects due for completion between June and August this year, 250 were “critical” to meeting forecast demand in August.

Moreover, 39 critical projects accounting for 1,645 places had no contingency plan in place to cope with a deadline being missed.

It said that if nurseries were forced to use temporary accommodation it could be “unsettling” for children and have a “huge impact” on families having to cope with a change of venue.

Delivering the extra childcare also requires an increase in nursery staff.

However, of the 8,244 additional staff required by councils, only 4,310, or just over half, had been hired by last September, three per cent below the rolling target of 4,444 for that month.

The auditors said councils needed to recruit another 2,231 by September.

But Brexit could make that harder by limiting the labour pool, as EU migrants currently make up 7% of the childcare workforce.

The private nurseries expected to provide around a quarter of all childcare places also face “significant challenges with staff retention”, partly because staff are leaving to work for expanded council nurseries.

“Any risk to the sustainability of these [private] providers could have a large impact,” the audit report warned, adding some private nurseries could be put off taking part by an expectation to pay the living wage.

It went on: “These plans are critically dependent on achieving much in a short time, particularly over the summer months. This creates a number of significant risks around getting enough people and buildings in place to deliver the expansion.

“In addition, it is likely that some aspects of the policy, such as delivering flexibility and choice, will not be fully implemented by August 2020.”

Auditor General for Scotland Caroline Gardner said: “The Scottish Government and councils have worked well together to increase early learning and childcare hours, and we’ve also seen improvements in how the project will be evaluated. But the timeline remains tight and there are big risks around infrastructure and workforce.”

Accounts Commission chair Graham Sharp added: “Given the amount of work due to be completed over summer 2020, it’s important that councils continue to work closely with the Scottish Government to manage the risks of any delays, including how best to keep parents informed.”

Labour MSP Jenny Marra, convenor of Holyrood’s Public Audit Committee, said it wanted reassurances about contingency plans in case of slippages.

She said: “Our Committee will give a very guarded welcome to the progress made, but alarm bells start to ring when the Auditor General says much remains to be achieved in such short time.

“Not least recruiting staff and getting buildings ready.

“Little allowance appears to have been made for any slippage in the timeline and at this stage, the Committee will, no doubt, seek reassurance of there being clear contingency plans in place should any slippage occur.”

Tory MSP Jamie Greene said: “This was Nicola Sturgeon’s flagship policy, yet the necessary work to make it happen has been left to the last minute.

“As ever, the First Minister wraps herself in flagship announcements but the reality ends up being completely different.

“When judged on her actual record on childcare and education she fails miserably.

“As it stands, the fact we’re still waiting for so many buildings to be finished and staff put in place, there’s a huge risk that this won’t happen in time.

“Audit Scotland itself states the SNP’s planning simply hasn’t been good enough.

“The First Minister promised the world to thousands of parents across Scotland when it came to free childcare.

“They will deliver a very damning verdict on her SNP government if this promise isn’t up-and-running on time.

“And what ministers seem to have forgotten through all of this is that good childcare isn’t just about the number of hours on offer, it’s the flexibility within that.”

Labour MSP Iain Gray said: “It is pretty clear from this report that Audit Scotland do not believe the necessary workforce numbers, or the new infrastructure, are going to be in place to deliver this flagship Scottish Government policy on time.

“Ministers still have their fingers in their ears and their heads in the sand, and there is a real worry now that families will not be able to get their legal entitlement to funded hours come August.

“The Scottish government is repeating all the mistakes they made when the last expansion of hours left many parents angry and frustrated.”

LibDem Beatrice Wishart MSP said: “With half of the building yet to be completed this summer and half the staff needed not yet sourced, the key pillars of this scheme are being left right up to the line. Poor planning cannot be allowed to disrupt the rollout of this important provision.

“Parents need the flexibility and choice that Nicola Sturgeon promised, but we know some are already being told to take it or leave it.

“The government has a responsibility to ensure parents and children can rely on high quality care, that fits around their needs, being in place in time for the end of the summer holidays.”

Ms Todd insisted the policy was on course and that much had been done.

She said: “There are already thousands of additional staff in post, and councils will continue to grow their teams over the coming months.

“We are committed to delivering the roll-out from August and councils have contingency plans in place for all critical projects due to complete this summer, so we can be confident that the places will be there to deliver the expansion for Scotland’s children.”

She added: “The expansion also opens up more opportunities for playgroups, private and third sector nurseries, and childminders to be involved in delivering funded hours.

“The quality of ELC provided is absolutely key. That is why we are investing in the workforce and developing improved learning opportunities for them to increase their skills and share best practice.

“With a passionate and dedicated workforce across all parts of the sector, and fantastic places for children to learn and play in a nurturing environment, there has never been a more exciting time for our childcare sector.”

Purnima Tanuku, Chief Executive of National Day Nurseries Association, said despite recent progress there were “still a lot of challenges for private providers who are struggling to be in a position to deliver expanded early learning and childcare from August”.

She said: “The report does not highlight the funding challenges that providers are facing - some nurseries don’t even know what their rate will be from April yet. The funding package is also supposed to include an uplift for inflation but that’s not the experience our nursery members are having at local level.

“Private providers are already facing a serious workforce crisis with many staff members leaving for council-run settings.

“This report says that only half the posts have been filled in council-run settings, so it looks likely that many more practitioners will leave for public sector pay in the short or medium-term which would further exacerbate the existing problem for private providers. This was highlighted in our workforce report last year and fed back to Scottish Government.

“Private nurseries provide flexible, all-year-round early learning and childcare that working families need. Local authorities and Scottish Government must make sure they are in a position to offer attractive salaries in order to recruit and retain qualified practitioners.

“Any new provision built must not duplicate existing high-quality provision and therefore risk putting well-established nurseries out of business. Existing private and voluntary nurseries are a part of the vital infrastructure for delivering this policy which needs to be recognised.”