SCOTLAND’s education secretary says he thinks people would be complaining if he was “dictating from Edinburgh” how the roll-out of expanded free early learning and childcare (ELC) was being carried out in Shetland.
John Swinney reiterated during a visit to the isles this week that it is up to local authorities to engage with service providers as the Scottish Government looks to nearly double the number of funded ELC hours to 1,140 by August 2020.
It comes after a private nursery in Sandwick, which did not offer funded places, closed its doors in June after failing to recruit staff at a time when council run nurseries have been boosting their own numbers to cope with the expansion.
Lerwick’s Peerie Foxes, which recently failed in a bid to the council to become a funded provider for three and year olds, also warned that it may have to close if there is less demand for its services once expanded hours are rolled out elsewhere in the town.
At the moment, 600 hours of free early learning and childcare per year – equating to around 16 hours per week during term time – are 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.
Building work has been taking place at some of the isles’ early learning centres to upgrade facilities.
The expanded ELC hours can include private nurseries, but concern locally has been around the knock-on effect on other providers which do not offer the funded places.
Peerie Foxes, which the council said it does not have the demand for, offers free hours for eligible two year olds but does not for three and year olds, as does Scalloway’s Hame Fae Hame.
Swinney reiterated that the government has provided full funding to councils for the roll-out, with the local authorities tasked with liaising with their own nurseries and also independent providers.
“I think the key point is about how local authorities work in partnership with private nurseries,” he said.
“I think for me, it’s of the greatest priority to make sure that local authorities engage positively with private nurseries, because private nurseries can provide significant opportunities for the policy of early learning and childcare to be undertaken in all localities in the country.
“We know these providers are there, we know the quality of what is being offered and therefore they are vital partners. I would encourage any private provider that’s concerned in any way about how that is being taken forward, to talk to the Shetland Islands Council to make sure that they are fully involved in the roll out of early learning and childcare for children and families across the Shetland Islands.”
Swinney added that “we now rely on local authorities to engage in dialogue with private providers and internally to decide how they’re going to fulfil the commitments that they have entered into”.
“I think people would be complaining if I was dictating from Edinburgh how that should be done,” he said. “That really is a matter of local decision making for Shetland Islands Council.”
Shetland Islands Council’s direction of children’s services Helen Budge said “we would want to work very closely with all the provision” when it comes to early learning.
“Those private providers offer a range of ages outwith that early learning as well, sort of after school and before the school starts in the day as well,” she said.
“They have a range of different provisions that they provide as well as the early learning. I absolutely want to work very closely with not just the private providers but with the voluntary sector ones too.”
Budge reiterated that Peerie Foxes’ application to become a funded partner for three to four year olds was turned down because the council does not currently need any more places.
“We are looking at our commissioning strategy and we’re not looking to take on any new providers until we have that finalised,” she said.
In terms of childcare in Sandwick, Budge said the local authority offered support and signposted people after the Central Private Nursery closed.
“As far as we understand those people that did use the Sandwick provision have been able to find alternative provision,” she said.