FOUR of the ten candidates standing in the Shetland by-election have responded to a call for help from a Sandwick family who has been left struggling with work and childcare commitments after the village’s Central Private Nursery closed its doors earlier this summer.
In a letter to Shetland News, mother of three Jenny Welsh said the closure earlier this summer left the busy community with no adequate childcare provision for working families.
“Families living in Sandwick are at a considerable disadvantage compared with communities such as Dunrossness ten minutes away who are already offered many more free pre-school hours,” she writes.
The gradual introduction of the Scottish Government’s flagship policy that guarantees parents 30 hours of free childcare and early years education a week by August 2020 has forced some private nurseries, not just in Shetland, out of business.
Unable to compete with wages paid by local authorities, Central Private Nursery closed in June this year. Lerwick based Peerie Foxes has also said they may not be able to continue unless they are accepted as a childcare provider included in the programme which is managed by Shetland Islands Council.
Visiting Shetland at the end of July, education secretary John Swinney reiterated the government’s view that local authorities had to work in partnership with private nurseries to offer the increased number of funded childcare places.
Responding to Jenny Welsh’s call to come up with some practical suggestions to her difficulties, Labour candidate Johan Adamson was the first to get in touch.
She said: “If private nurseries close, this means early morning and after school private childcare will not be available, and this is an unwanted consequence of this government policy.
“Sadly many women end up having to curtail their careers and shorten their working day in order to make up for the inadequacies of childcare, this leads to the gender pay gap and the government should try to support families and solve both the childcare issue and curtail the gender pay gap.
“What we obviously need is more childcare available to cover working hours of parents, consistently between schools, but in the meantime my practical suggestion is to start a scheme with other parents if you are able to share childcare, or enquire locally if any child minders are available, whilst this is not ideal it will solve the immediate problem.”
Liberal Democrat candidate Beatrice Wishart said her party had been working to convince the SNP that expanding childcare is one of the best investments a government can make.
She added: “The present SNP scheme doesn’t give parents the flexibility they need to really take advantage of it.
“We have lost Sandwick Central nursery and last week I have visited Peerie Foxes in Lerwick which is in danger of going under too.
“As these private nurseries provide wrap around care as well as places for babies, one-year-olds and many two-year olds, there will be a massive hole in local childcare provision.”
The Conservatives’ Brydon Goodlad said the phased-in expansion of funded childcare needed to be brought forward as a matter of urgency.
“The SNP government is very good at headline-grabbing policy launches, but the reality rarely matches the lofty rhetoric,” he said.
“Here in Shetland, there are clearly issues to be addressed. Juggling work commitments and childcare can place a huge strain on families.
“In addition, the government and local council should work together to provide incentives and attract a private operator to improve provision”
Speaking for the Holyrood government, SNP candidate Tom Wills said the guidance on the expansion of childcare was “absolutely clear” in that it “should be anchored around existing private provision”.
“The SNP is often accused of centralising resources to the mainland, and while I don’t agree that’s the case, the childcare roll-out is an example of local authorities being handed the power to make the best decision for their area,” he said.
“Ultimately, decisions on how the expansion is put into practise in Shetland isn’t for politicians in Edinburgh but for local councillors like Beatrice Wishart who sit on the SIC education and families committee.”