Ocean KineticsOcean KineticsOcean KineticsOcean KineticsOcean Kinetics

Education / Childcare expansion timescales in the spotlight

The Happyhansel Primary School is currently being reworked ahead of the childcare expansion. Photo: Malcolmson Architects

CONCERNS have been raised about the timescales put in place for refurbishing and extending Shetland’s schools, nurseries and preschools to allow the isles to deliver on the Scottish Government’s pledge to nearly double the amount of free early learning and childcare available to youngsters.

Shetland West councillor Theo Smith told Shetland Islands Council’s education and families committee on Tuesday that he was concerned “we don’t have enough time” to spend the funding from the government to enable children to receive 1,140 hours a year of funded early learning and childcare by August 2020.

At the moment, 600 hours of free early learning and childcare per year – equating to around 16 hours per week during term time – is offered to all three and four year olds in Scotland, as well as vulnerable two-year-olds.

Members of the education and families committee were given an update from capital programmes manager Robert Sinclair on the roll-out of the expansion scheme in Shetland.

The council will receive ring-fenced capital funding of nearly £3.5 million to 2020/21 for upgrading Shetland’s young learning facilities, as well as recurring revenue funding of £3.14 million which is ring-fenced until 2021/22.

While most of the revenue spend will go towards staff, the capital money will be used in phases through to 2020/21 to upgrade and expand existing facilities, like school nurseries and preschool facilities such as the Little Tikes playgroup in Tingwall.

Children’s services director Helen Budge confirmed that 1,140 hours was already available in Whiteness, Brae and Dunrossness, while Happyhansel Primary School in Walls is currently undergoing an extension to enable early learning and childcare to be offered in the school.

Sinclair said that two of the major pieces of work will be at the Bell’s Brae and Sound primary schools in Lerwick, adding that tenders for these would go out in March. Plans for the Baltasound and Cunningsburgh schools, meanwhile, are progressing at a similar rate.

Some of the construction work has been scheduled for the summer holiday period to minimise impact.

The Fair Isle, Fetlar and Foula primary schools, however, have no timescale in place due to staffing difficulties, with discussions to take place with parents.

Councillor Smith sought reassurances that the work will be carried out in the timetable planned, with Sinclair responding that “this is the project we are giving our focus to at the moment.”

Smith was concerned that the work at Bell’s Brae, Sound, Baltasound and Cunningsburgh – with an estimated combined cost of over £800,000 – were all scheduled to take place between August and October next year.

Sinclair added that “every effort” would be made to stick to the timetable, although he admitted he was not naive to potential difficulties.

Chairman George Smith, meanwhile, questioned if the local construction industry was aware of the work that will be on offer.

“They are keen to see this coming out,” Sinclair stressed.

Council leader Steven Coutts suggested that while the funding for the programme was ring-fenced, the Scottish Government’s recent draft budget saw declines in funding elsewhere.

“We are getting squeezed all over the place,” George Smith replied, adding that this was money that had already been allocated before the draft budget.

One focus for the revenue funding will be to “upskill” the existing workforce so that there are enough qualified staff members for early learning and childcare.

There will also be increased hours for some existing posts, and a number of new jobs will be created.

The additional annual cost of providing the 1,140 hours is anticipated to vary across Shetland, from £23,000 Lunnasting Primary School to £144,000 at Bell’s Brae.

A timetable of the proposed capital works can be found here.