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‘Big risks’ surround Scottish Government’s early learning and childcare roll-out

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‘Big risks’ surround Scottish Government’s early learning and childcare roll-out

More than half the building work still needs to be carried out and around half the staff still need to be recruited to enable the Scottish Government to roll out its early learning and childcare expansion (ELC) by August, it has emerged.

A new Audit Scotland report has revealed that there are “big risks” to the plans to increase the number of funded hours from 600 to 1,140 a year.

Although the public sector watchdog says the government has made “steady progress”, the risks around infrastructure and workforce have cast fresh doubt over whether the expansion can be fully rolled out by August.

The report shows around half of the building work required is due to be completed over the summer, while the rest won’t be finished until after August, and about half of the additional staff still need to be recruited.

Private and third sector providers - which are expected to deliver more than a quarter of the hours - also continue to report significant workforce challenges that threaten their sustainability.

It is also unclear how the longer-term economic benefits of the policy, or its impact on family wellbeing, will be measured.

Caroline Gardner, Auditor General for Scotland, 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."

The childcare expansion will mean the equivalent of about 30 funded hours per week in school term time for all three and four-year-olds and eligible two-year-olds.

Councils will receive £567m in additional revenue funding by 2020/21 to deliver the expansion. From April 2021, councils expect to provide 72 per cent of funded ELC. Private nurseries, charities and childminders are expected to deliver the remaining 28 per cent.

Graham Sharp, Chair of the Accounts Commission said: "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."

As of September last year, 4,310 additional full time equivalent staff were in post in council settings, about half of the total additional staff required for the expansion.

And as of October last year, 5,097 places were created by building projects – 23 per cent of the total places (22,357) to be created. Thirty-four per cent of places are expected to be created by July, and 79 per cent by August. The rest of the places are planned to be ready after August.

Jenny Marra, convener of the Public Audit Committee, 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.”

Scottish Conservative’s education spokesman Jamie Greene said: “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.”

Read the most recent article written by Gemma Fraser - Kate Forbes: 'There is light at the end of the tunnel'

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