Professor John Davis: @ScotGov is delivering on early learning and childcare – the signs are good

31/03/2017
angela

John Davis, professor of childhood inclusion at the University of Edinburgh, compares the Scottish Government’s plans for a quality, flexible, accessible and affordable early learning and childcare service to the Common Weal’s proposals for a universal service

LAST Thursday, the Scottish Government published its action plan for how it will double the amount of free early learning and childcare for all 3-4 year olds and ‘eligible’ two year olds.

The SNP has set out a strategy for how it will meet its 2020 manifesto committed to deliver 1,140 hours per year of early learning and childcare (30 hours per week for 38 weeks) and enable hard pressed families to save up to £4,500 per year.

Readers will be reminded of the Common Weal ‘An Equal Start Report’, published in 2016, which sought to highlight the key issues and barriers that might hinder such an aim and that set out ambitious longer term proposals for developing a universal early learning and childcare service for 2-5 year olds by 2025 (which would include a blend of provision offered by centres and childminders).

The SNP has set out a strategy for how it will meet its 2020 manifesto committed to deliver 1,140 hours per year of early learning and childcare (30 hours per week for 38 weeks) and enable hard pressed families to save up to £4,500 per year.

In the Common Weal An Equal Start Report we asked for: a strategy to ensure money is well spent; fair pay; a national task force; a focus on child-specific design; flexibility for local areas; greater funding for qualifications; connections to community regeneration and a greater role for the public sector (see the Bella Caledonia article on the Common Weal Book of Ideas and early learning for more info on a community based approach).

The Scottish Government has responded emphatically on all of these requests. In his statement to parliament (see link here), Mark MacDonald, The minister for childcare and early years explained that quality, flexibility, accessibility and affordability would be the cornerstones of the Scottish Government’s action plan.

He said: “The service model for the future must ensure more financially sustainable provision across all sectors – including community-led provision, such as the approach to extending hours being supported through the Argyll and Bute Trial involving the Mull and Iona Community Trust … we will provide greater certainty to local authorities over multi-year revenue and capital funding assumptions over the coming weeks and months.”

£60m will be spent in 2017-18 to support the first phase of capacity building to create new spaces for childcare, so it will be important to keep an eye on the details that emerge regarding who has access to capital spend in each local authority area.

The government’s action plan is a serious, good document that has great potential to improve the sector, increase standards and regenerate communities. Splendid news came in the form that the government will partner with the Scottish Futures Trust and Care Inspectorate to produce guidance on innovative design (of both indoor and outdoor spaces); that the Scottish Futures Trust will produce regular ELC infrastructure progress reports; and that the government will establish a multi-disciplinary team (co-designed with local authorities) to provide expert professional and technical delivery support to local authorities.

The government’s action plan is a serious, good document that has great potential to improve the sector, increase standards and regenerate communities.

Full marks here for the minister for promoting service innovation and redesign capacity that will produce economies of scale and enable solutions sharing for common and complex issues. There was also a positive shift away from Tory ideas on early learning and childcare with the announcement of a three-year feasibility study to explore potential costs and benefits of introducing an Early Learning and Childcare Account.

The delay in implementing learning accounts might enable the Greens, Labour and Liberals to get their acts together and produce a united policy that Scotland should, in time, move to a universal early learning and care service – free at the point of use.

The announcement should put in place the stepping stones to where an independent Scottish Government enacts a universal early learning and care service by increasing funding to 1900 hours per year (8am-6pm provision) or introducing a policy that reduces the working day to six hours (as per recent experiments in Finland and Sweden). 

Indeed, the announcement of a universal service is the only main phrase missing from Mark MacDonald’s statement. We would also have liked to have seen announcements on a movement to all professionals in the sector (including teachers) registering with the SSSC, all practitioners having a degree and all managers being trained to masters level. But, there is nothing in the statement that would hinder such a shift in the future.

The minister’s action plan is currently provider neutral and seeks to remove barriers to private and third sector providers. In reality, the requirement that private providers can only access government funding if they become ‘partner providers’ (who adopt local authority standards); the announcement of a national standard for a more open process to becoming a funded provider; and the development of a common local authority-led set of standards for quality, availability, affordability, flexibility and staffing; should avoid the major extraction of profit from running costs.

Full marks here for the minister for promoting service innovation and redesign capacity that will produce economies of scale and enable solutions sharing for common and complex issues.

There won’t be a universal service (the buildings will be owned by a range of private, public and voluntary organisations) but there will be a universal approach to planning, quality and accessibility.

Quality services depend on well qualified workers, therefore the sector will have been relieved to hear Mark MacDonald’s announcement of £21m in 2017-18 to invest in the first phase of the workforce expansion; increases in the number of places available on further and higher education courses (The Scottish Funding Council will provide an additional 350 graduate-level and 650 practitioner-level places for qualifications); and £1.5m to the Scottish Funding Council to increase teacher training and other ELC‑related graduate places.

The development of a quality action plan, fair pay (and work practices), a Skills Development Scotland (SDS) Skills Investment Plan (SIP); £50m for a Living Wage in the private sector; a new fund for accessible provision for disabled children; more effective partnership working to support transitions; increased funding for childcare for professionals studying in higher education and further education; and a learning and development pathway for all childminders – tells you that, in spite of the Westminster side show, the SNP government is still delivering on its day job by producing concrete, detailed and wide ranging plans for early learning and care.

Professor John M Davis developed the BA Childhood Practice at The University of Edinburgh and was a member of the SSSC Childhood Practice Development Group that developed the QAAS Standards For Childhood Practice. A longer version of this article can be located here.

Picture courtesy of Tom Reynolds

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