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Has the Scottish nursery sector reached a crisis point?

A bold plan, a new idea, “universal childcare for Scotland” – a wonderful sound bite but who picks up the bill? Has the nursery sector in Scotland has reached a ‘crisis point?’

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The scheme to provide 1140 hours of funded childcare to all three and four year olds and some two year olds in Scotland by 2020 is just two years away, and despite the Scottish Government’s pledge of an extra £150 million a year to fund the scheme, private sector operator confidence in the policy is dwindling.

Based on the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) Scotland survey results published on Tuesday, the number of nurseries unlikely or very unlikely to adopt the scheme has nearly doubled to 46% from 24% last year, highlighting the negative sentiment towards the policy.

A lack of Government funding and investment, low levels of staff retention and forecasted business losses have left the sustainability of the Scottish nursery sector uncertain. While 30% of private nurseries who participated in the NDNA survey are likely to offer 1140 hours of funded early learning and childcare, only 7% of nurseries said they could meet the full 1140 provision at the current funding rate.

Having spoken to operators in Scotland, it is clear that the major concerns within the sector surrounding funding, staff retention and rising wages need to be addressed and prioritised by the Scottish Government.

Mariessa Devlin, Managing Director of Enchanted Forest Nurseries comments, “I believe the ‘Funding Follows the Child’ model has the basis to be highly successful for Scottish children and their families. This model will finally allow parental choice around continuity of care and flexibility.

“The fundamental challenges facing the private sector are based around the need for a collaborative approach from the Scottish Government, COSLA, Local Authorities and private providers where we are afforded the opportunity to plan for 1140 hours in the same forum. At the moment, the approach is disjointed and the positive messages coming from the Scottish Government are increasingly diluted depending on which local authority you speak to. Additionally, capital expenditure packages have been disseminated to local authorities with very limited provision, if any, for private providers.

“Action is needed on the funding shortfalls now, all private providers are asking for is a level playing field with local authorities’ providers in terms of funding packages. This would deliver fairness and ensure that each setting in Scotland has the equality of tools to deliver the best outcomes for the children in our care.”

Jon Bruneau, Director of Pumpkin Patch Nurseries comments, “The announcement of the 30 hours free childcare provision has created an ever more impossible environment for nurseries to operate in, resulting in closures and reductions in standards as evidenced by The Care Inspectorate, affecting numerous families across Scotland. Council nurseries, desperate for new staff to fulfil the Government’s promises, have commenced a recruitment programme which is stripping qualified staff from the private sector as no other source of staffing can be found. Councils pay significantly more, £13.50+ per hour compared to £8-9 per hour in the private sector, thereby causing an exodus from private to state nurseries in recent months.

“Childcare is imperative to children and families. If a child’s imagination is captured early on in life, it is hugely significant in determining attitudes to peers, adults, learning and society. Nursery is the start of a child’s educational journey and it can set them up for a wonderfully fulfilling school career. The funding and policies presently available and enacted will not guarantee that outcome.”

With the deadline looming and the future uncertain, it is clear the Government’s pledge cannot be delivered without the support of the private sector. The Blue Print for 2020 consultations are ongoing, and operators are being asked to participate in pilots; while some will make a success of this opportunity, others will unfortunately be squeezed out.

A fair deal for our children requires a fair deal for all providers and a level playing field. Is that too much to ask?

The NDNA Scotland Annual Nursery Survey Report 2018 can be found here.

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