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Nursery threatened with closure after early learning bid fails

Peerie Foxes owner Caroline Henderson. Photos: Chris Cope/Shetland News

A LERWICK nursery has found itself under “serious threat of closure” after its latest application to become a funded early learning and childcare (ELC) provider was turned down.

Peerie Foxes owner Caroline Henderson said the nursery is challenging the decision from Shetland Islands Council, which was made earlier this month amid a national rollout of increased free ELC hours for three and four year olds funded by the Scottish Government.

She said: “We cannot sustain a downturn of nearly 60 per cent of business turnover, which is what the current wraparound care provided to three to five year olds represents”.

It comes as the Private Central Nursery in Sandwick, which also does not offer funded ELC places, is set to close in June as it struggles to recruit staff while council run nurseries offer better rates.

Shetland MSP Tavish Scott said he is “very concerned that the government’s childcare policy does not recognise that parents want some choice”.

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 some two-year-olds.

This is being increased to 1,140 hours, with Shetland in the midst of a phased rollout through to 2021.

Funded Lerwick settings – the council run Bell’s Brae, Sound and Isles Haven – are due to offer expanded ELC hours from August this year following refurbishment.

Private nursery Peerie Foxes – which has six staff and is located at Fox Lane – has tried to become a partner provider of funded ELC for pre-school children since 2013, but Henderson said Shetland Islands Council had reiterated it already provided enough commissioned spaces.

Henderson explained in a letter to parents, however, that Peerie Foxes was always told that it would be needed once the rollout of the increased 1,140 hours of ELC was phased in.

But she said the nursery, which does offer funded places for eligible two year olds, has been turned down again.

Unlike other Lerwick nurseries, Peerie Foxes – which has space for 24 children – is open from early until late all year round, meaning that it currently takes in children who may have a funded ELC space elsewhere for a portion of the day.

Henderson warned that when funded hours are expanded at other settings then there would be less demand for Peerie Foxes’ wraparound care – putting the business in doubt.

The business, which launched in 2007, has already scaled down its operations in recent years by closing a rented second property at Hill Lane and cutting back on staff numbers.

Early Years Scotland has now advised the nursery to show there is demand from parents wanting to use Peerie Foxes for their entitled hours for three and four year olds.

Henderson said the nursery has “planned for the delivery of ELC and have the experience, facilities, knowledge of CFE (Curriculum for Excellence), amazing staff and infrastructure in place to deliver what I believe could be the best nursery ever”.

Henderson added that Peerie Foxes was last inspected on 28 April, meets the required national standards for funded ELC and has places available.

The rollout of expanded childcare is open to public, private or third sector facilities, as well as child minders, as part of a “provider neutral” programme which is due to be formally put in place when the full roll-out of expanded ELC hours has been completed in 2020.

“It will also place choice in parents’ and carers’ hands, enabling them to access their child’s funded entitlement from any provider that meets the new national standard, has a place available and is willing to enter into a contract with their local authority,” government guidelines said.

Peerie Foxes staff is in dialogue with Shetland Islands Council chief executive Maggie Sandison, and they are encouraging parents to get in touch with councillors and MSPs.

Sandison suggested there has not been enough demand for the council to seek out additional capacity for funded early learning places.

“In preparing the offer for parents for 2019/20, full consideration was given to the options available for families within each locality and where there was a provider who met the required standards they were included within the options for parents during registration week, which took place in February,” she said.

“All early learning and childcare places for 2019/20 were allocated in April.”

Sandison said the council is finalising the process for how it commissions the delivery of funded early learning and childcare from providers, in line with Scottish Government guidance.

“This process will support the delivery of the expansion of early learning and childcare when it becomes a statutory entitlement in August 2020,” she added. “This process will be shared in due course.”

Local MSP Tavish Scott met with Henderson recently and he said he was concerned that the “government’s childcare policy does not recognise that parents want some choice, that they need holiday cover and that childcare does not start and finish with school hours”.

“I have stressed these points in letters and in Holyrood debates to the Scottish Government along with MSPs across the political parties including the SNP,” the Lib Dem continued.

“Yet the government’s approach seems to be based on the public sector i.e. local authorities, providing the whole service. As we can see in Shetland, that will not work.

“We have lost Sandwick Central nursery and now Shetland is in danger of losing another essential private childcare provider.

“I have asked the SIC to look again at how they are commissioning childcare within Shetland. I have also written for the second time, to the childcare minister (Highlands and Islands list MSP Maree Todd) asking for the government to have a realistic approach to this – not one that drives nurseries out of business.”