Talking point: (Un)fair play
This won’t go down well with the ‘cherish every moment’ brigade, but I have been looking forward to my daughter’s third birthday for quite some time.
I can pinpoint the moment I started counting down the days; it was when I received the first bill from her nursery.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love everything about her nursery. It is nurturing, wholesome, fun, creative, safe and educational. It even has chickens in the garden. But all this doesn’t come cheap. In fact, it comes at £55 per day.
So, with that in mind, I might be forgiven after all for celebrating with extra gusto when she turns three, because then she is entitled to funded nursery hours.
As things currently stand, all three and four-year-olds in Scotland are entitled to 600 funded hours per year, but come August, this will almost double to 1,140 hours.
I’m not being dramatic when I say that this is life-changing for many families, including mine. Come August, my daughter’s nursery bill will be slashed by around 60 per cent, a sizeable saving in anyone’s book.
Critics have been quick to find fault in the implementation process, saying the Scottish Government will never be able to roll-out the scheme by August, but it is looking highly likely that it will deliver on its promise after all. And I, for one, am incredibly grateful.
In the meantime, until this game-changing policy kicks in, I have been waiting patiently until my daughter’s birthday in March, when the best present (for me) will be the start of her entitlement to the lesser – but still hugely welcomed – amount of 600 hours.
But, as with all things that sound too good to be true, they often are. Or in our case, it’s a half truth.
While the early years funding commitment for three and four-year-olds has been in place for years, there is a big catch that will leave many parents kicking themselves for not planning their child’s conception better.
The small print states that funding kicks in only at “the beginning of a school term”. Which is fine, until you realise that for some birthdays, that means waiting up to five months, as funding is only allocated in either August (autumn term), January (spring term) or March/April (summer term).
Somewhat inexplicably in my daughter’s case, the funding doesn’t start in the summer term, but instead several months later in August, meaning that my mid-March-born child will get funding at the same time as a child born on 31 August.
By the time she finally becomes eligible, she will be nearly three-and-a-half, and we will have lost out on hundreds of pounds compared with the lucky children whose birthdays happen to fall on the right side of the parameter.
This birthday lottery is not only infuriating and unfair, but completely outdated. With the Scottish Government adopting a ‘provider neutral’ approach, stressing that ‘funding follows the child’, there is no longer an assumption that funded hours are reserved for term-time only places in council-run nurseries. In fact, without partnership nurseries, playgroups and childminders, there’s no way it would be able to fulfil its commitment to providing all three and four-year-olds with 1,140 funded hours per year.
As the Scottish Government embraces this new approach, the allocation of term-based funding is rendered completely meaningless, with no benefit to the child or to families. This loophole needs to be closed if we are to believe Scotland is truly committed to giving all children an equal start in life.