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Education / Future early years funding brought into spotlight in council chamber

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

CONCERN was raised in the council chamber this week over the future funding of expanded provision of early learning and childcare.

Depute leader Gary Robinson said local authority association COSLA should be tougher on the issue.

The national expansion of early learning and childcare, to offer children an increased 1,140 free hours a year, is been fully funded by the Scottish Government since its phased introduction a few years ago.

But Shetland Islands Council’s acting finance manager Hazel Tait told a meeting of the policy and resources committee on Monday that in the future this specific grant will be “subsumed” into the general funding the SIC receives from the Scottish Government each year.

“So we are less sure just how much we will actually receive – there’s no guarantee everything will be fully funded,” she said.

The meeting heard that at moment the council receives just over £2.6 million from the Scottish Government to assist with the 1,140 hours commitment.

Not only does it involve extra staff but the increase in funded hours also saw nurseries undergo refurbishment and expansions.

Dennis Leask. Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

The issue cropped up in discussion after development committee chairman Dennis Leask questioned figures relating to the increased number of staff employed by the council. In 2018/19 that number was 2,251 and in 2021/22 it has risen to 2,322.

Human resources manager Denise Bell said she assumed this related to the increased number of early learning and childcare staff needed to cater for the expansion of hours.

Leask said the council has to be careful of building services on short-term funding – but he was reminded by fellow Lerwick South member John Fraser that the expansion was a statutory obligation.

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Robinson said COSLA takes a view that if the Scottish Government wants local government “to do more, then it should fund it”.

“I think there really does need to be some pressure on that because we can’t continue to take on statutory obligations from the Scottish Government without the ongoing funding for that,” he warned.

“I think there’s a really strong case to be made at COSLA to push back against this kind of thing, where additional costs are heaped on local government at the same time grants are being cut.”

North Isles member Robert Thomson also claimed that the national expansion has “probably destroyed most of the private childcare in Shetland”.

The 1,140 hours scheme also includes childminders but many of those in Shetland no longer find it viable.

A council meeting earlier this year heard there had been a “significant reduction” in the number of childminders in Shetland, with “bureaucracy, the paperwork, the policies and procedures” also a factor.

Meanwhile Shetland Central councillor Catherine Hughson said social care has also been impacted by national policy.

“What we should be saying to the government is give us the money and we’ll make it work in our locality. rather as having to take some sort of prescribed way that we have to spend the money,” she said.

“We know what Shetland wants, they don’t.”

In response a Scottish Government spokesperson said: “In 2022-23, we are investing more than £1 billion in funding through local government for early learning and childcare (ELC).

“This is sufficient for local authorities to continue to offer 1,140 hours of high quality funded ELC to all eligible children.”

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