In March, national children’s charity Children in Scotland launched a Childcare Alliance to work towards identifying a new model of childcare for Scotland. The alliance, which has the support of leading organisations across the third sector and business, will look to drive forward an ambitious agenda for change in the sector, recommending how Scottish childcare might be designed, funded and delivered in the future. An accompanying Partnership Commission for Childcare Reform was announced at the same time and is charged with taking forward the remit of the alliance. The commission will engage with employers, families, communities and childcare providers, reporting with a series of recommendations, to be presented back to the alliance in 2015.
Charing the commission is Colin MacLean, who has held a variety of posts in the civil service. He started work as a teacher, before becoming an education adviser and then a schools inspector. Between 2002 and 2013, MacLean worked at director level in the Scottish Government with responsibilities for policy related to children, young people, social care, learning and financial strategy. Outside of his civil service roles, he gives his time to helping the most disadvantaged and disempowered of society – he currently volunteers with Edinburgh Cyrenians and has recently joined the board of Streetwork.
At the launch of the commission, MacLean said: “I am delighted to have been asked to chair the new Partnership Commission on Childcare Reform. The role of the partnership commission will be to identify practical ways of organising, delivering and paying for good quality childcare. We know that families have different needs and that provision needs to be flexible; we also know we need to engage the wider civic society and the business community to identify how this can practically, feasibly and sustainably be delivered and funded.”
Speaking to Holyrood, MacLean said the commission has just begun its work and will be embarking on a number of different stages in a bid to get to the heart of the various issues.
He said: “People say there are a number of things which need to be fixed about childcare but they also say there’re lots of strengths, so it’s about really understanding what the issues are, what the unavoidable factors people have to deal with are, and the factors which need and have to be fixed.
“We want to undertake this through a process of engagement and discussion, so we’re not going to identify the issues merely out of our own heads, though that will be part of it. We’re going to be talking to a whole range of people, getting a sense of what this should look like, what they would like to see, what they think could or should be fixed, and how childcare should look. We are talking about early learning and children, so it’s about child development as well as the actual looking after of the child. We want to know how that interacts with a range of other developments and issues. There are a whole series of questions about poverty, about parents going into employment, as well as questions about child development and education.
“This will gradually move into a phase where we begin to develop and test ideas. Given people’s experience and background, we will then look at what changes might we make, taking account of what we think will happen politically as best we can. Obviously, there
is the referendum but there’re a lot of other political developments coming up. All of the political parties are starting to view childcare as important and are making commitments to develop it in terms of the quantity and the quality. They’re tending to focus on what the state provides, whereas we’re trying to look more widely to see what the state provides and also what it supports, which is part of a bigger picture.
“At our first meeting we agreed that we could probably develop our model very quickly around the table but whether that would actually happen in the real world is a different question. There’s a process of testing whether ideas would meet objectives but also testing whether they would be supported.”
MacLean said the commission’s next few meetings will identify stakeholders and work out how best to engage with them.
Speaking about the aims of the commission, MacLean said, in the simplest terms, “it’s how to make [childcare] better”.
He added: “At this stage, there are a series of issues we need to explore and it’s by exploring these issues we can begin to make better sense of what the more detailed aims are. Firstly, the child has to be at the centre of it. Yes, it’s about parents being able to go to work but whenever that is happening, the child is the key focus.
“However important it is to enable parents to work, this is not about merely parking children while parents go out to their jobs. It is about parents requiring a child to be somewhere, for whatever reason, and when that is the case, the child’s needs are paramount.
“Scottish Government has just published advice about what childcare is, guidance to the system as part of the work around the Children Act and we haven’t explored that because it’s just been published, but my expectation is that we’ll take that standard of development as a given. I don’t think our business is to begin to suggest different ways of looking after children. Our focus is on how do you organise it, how do you pay for it, who pays for it, how much is there, how flexible is it, and how convenient is it?
“Is there a good place for the child to be that will help them to develop, where you can leave your child at the beginning of the period you need childcare and you collect them at the end. Parents are going to need childcare at different times, sometimes predictably from week to week, sometimes unpredictably. They may need care in the summer holidays but not during the term. If you have a series of customers who have a mix of predicable and unpredictable demand on your provision, how do you organise that provision?”
In terms of funding, the commission intends to look at how you sustain a business and employment without presenting parents with something so inflexible it doesn’t meet their needs.
MacLean added: “We suspect that there are different issues in densely populated and less densely populated areas. If there are a number of parents and children in an area, you can sustain a number of different providers compared to what you have in a less densely populated area. This means you have more choice of type of provision in a city, for example. We need to look at how you deal with the issues in rural areas. There are a whole series of questions around funding.
“At this stage, we’re just trying to understand the funding model. We’re trying to look at the evidence. The state pays directly for some provision, mainly through local authorities or the partners they fund but the state also makes provision in the form of tax subsidies and in other allowances for families. We need to get a sense of what that total provision is and the extent to which some of this is general support for families and some is targeted explicitly on childcare. We need to begin to get a picture of how much the UK and how much Scotland invest as governments, in childcare. We don’t know the answer to that question yet because there are lots of areas where we need to get a better understanding of where the money flows.
“Then we will be in a better position to answer the question ‘how much do we need as a country, both as Scotland and as the UK, to spend on childcare compared to other countries?’ Until we’ve seen the numbers, I don’t know if they do spend more or whether they spend it in different ways. One of the questions which emerges when looking provisionally at some of the numbers, is that in some countries, the balance of focus is on direct provision, and how much is invested by governments in support for families in tax credits and other means.”