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Education / Expanded early learning deadline removed due to virus pandemic

Chairman of Shetland Islands Council’s education and families committee George Smith said the council was in a ‘fairly strong position’ already

The Happyhansel Primary School in Walls has had an extension built to provide additional space for early years activities. Photo: SIC

THE DEADLINE for councils in Scotland to fully deliver the increased 1,140 hours of funded early learning and childcare by August has been removed due to the coronavirus crisis.

The Scottish Government confirmed Monday that the deadline was being called off to allow councils to concentrate on responding to the virus outbreak.

Chairman of Shetland Islands Council’s (SIC) education and families committee George Smith said the council was in a “fairly strong position” already with the expansion of funded hours.

A number of local settings are already ‘live’ as part of a phased roll-out and some childcare facilities have been refurbished.

Education and families committee chairman George Smith.

The 1,140 free hours a year for three and four year olds – and eligible two-year-olds – is a significant increase on the 600 previously on offer.

The Scottish Government is funding the expansion.

Children and young people minister Maree Todd and COSLA spokesperson for children and young people councillor Stephen McCabe issued a joint statement on Monday which said the government had been on track to deliver the expanded hours by August.

Councillor Smith said the SIC had been doing well in its efforts to meet the deadline, although a halt on building works due to the virus pandemic could pose a problem.

“In terms of the expansion we welcome the joint statement from COSLA and the Scottish Government and we will now review our progress to date and begin to revise our plans accordingly,” the councillor said.

“Overall, due to our phasing, we are in a fairly strong position and a lot work had already been done in relation to the recruitment of staff for the final settings which were to be phased in.

“The building works will be more challenging. There are two settings where contractors are on-site and a further four refurbishments that are required for expansion. We will work through all of this over the coming weeks.”

Todd and McCabe said it was “not realistic or reasonable” to expect councils to deliver the hours for all by August with the coronavirus response taking up huge amount of resource.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has made it impossible to continue with the planned recruitment and infrastructure projects required to support expansion,” they said.

“As we focus on saving lives and looking after people most vulnerable to the virus the immediate priority is to ensure that we have the emergency childcare in place to support families during the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Smith, meanwhile, said the SIC was operating a “responsive childcare service” at the moment to meet the needs of essential workers while schools and nurseries are closed.

He praised the work of staff who are enabling the childcare services to run in “difficult times”.

“Four local authority settings, two private providers and four childminders have been involved in the delivery of this,” Smith said.

“We have been able to provide staff through our existing ELC/out of school staff and have been supported by our learning support colleagues and staff from the schools’ cleaning and catering service.

“We will continue to review the service as demands change over the forthcoming weeks. I am really appreciative of [quality improvement officer for early learning and childcare] Sam Flaws and her team for putting this in place and of all those delivering this childcare in what are difficult times.”