Early learning and childcare expansion at risk over resources, warns Accounts Commission
Plans to double the hours of free childcare and early learning for parents are at risk because councils will be unable to fund it, Scotland's public spending watchdog has warned.
In a new report the Accounts Commission said there was a "significant risk" councils would not be able to make the shift to 1,140 hours by 2020.
The expansion is a key Scottish Government policy.
"There are significant risks that councils will not be able to expand funded early learning and childcare (ELC) to 1,140 hours by 2020," the report said
"In particular it will be difficult to increase the infrastructure and workforce to the levels required, in the limited time available.
"The Scottish government should have started detailed planning with councils earlier, given the scale of the changes required."
Accounts Commission chairman Graham Sharp said: "The scale of change needed over the next two years is considerable and there are significant risks that councils will be unable to deliver that change in the time available.
"There is now an urgent need for plans addressing increases in the childcare workforce and changes to premises to be finalised and put in place."
Children's minister Maree Todd said the plans remained on track.
"It is not unusual, at this point in the life of a major project, for people to have different ideas as to the final cost. What is not in doubt is that the Scottish government has pledged to fully fund this policy," she said.
"That's why we are working with councils to help them develop their expansion plans and have recently reached agreement with Cosla on the process of arriving at the multi-year funding needed.
"While this work is under way, we have already increased capacity in early years courses in colleges and universities and are investing in the significant expansion of the workforce needed to deliver the expansion."
Councils' umbrella organisation COSLA welcomed the report. Children and young people spokesperson Councillor Stephen McCabe said: “COSLA are pleased that the quality of local authority provision is recognised in this report as is the continual growing of flexible ELC provision within each council area. Now we will focus on delivering the expansion of ELC with our partners, taking the necessary time to ensure that our focus remains on the high quality education of young children in Scotland."
Scottish Conservative shadow education secretary Liz Smith said the report was "damning".
“It makes clear that there has been no attempt to evaluate different options in terms of delivering the additional hours of child care, or, just as importantly, the cost implications," she said.
“Therefore, providers and councils have no idea of whether the current investment is delivering value for money and parents are left frustrated because the current system is still not delivering the flexibility they need."
Labour's Iain Gray said it revealed a "black hole" in the finances.
"Raising the amount of free childcare families are entitled too has been a cornerstone of the SNP's offer to families - but this report reveals that, not only does the Scottish government not expect to fully fund it, but that it is also miles behind the levels of staff recruitment needed," he said.