Only half of 4,000 extra nursery workers recruited ahead of August deadline

More than 4,000 nursery staff need to be recruited to allow for the increase in free early learning and childcare (ELC) hours later this year, Audit Scotland has said.

Reviewing the progress of the Scottish Government’s promise to increase free childcare hours from 600 to 1,140 a year from August 2020, Audit Scotland said there has been “steady progress”.

But it warned the success or failure of the policy is “critically dependent on achieving much in a short time”, with extensive recruitment and building works urgently required.

Councils, which have been given £567 million to deliver the pledge, have recruited the equivalent of 4,310 full-time staff – approximately half the amount required.

Latest estimates now anticipate a smaller proportion of children will receive funded ELC by council services, with more private providers being used.

It is forecast that 72% of the childcare will be provided by councils by April 2021, down from 76% at the last estimate, with 26% private or third-sector organisations – up from 22% – and an unchanged 2% by childminders.

The recruitment drive is slightly below what was expected, with current staff numbers 3% below the 4,444 full-time equivalent workers that had been forecast.

Caroline Gardner, Auditor General for Scotland, said: “The Scottish Government and councils have worked well together to increase early learning and childcare hours, and we’ve also seen improvements in how the project will be evaluated.

“But the timeline remains tight and there are big risks around infrastructure and workforce.”

The Scottish Government has said staffing levels in the sector have now reached a record-high of 40,000.

Children’s Minister Maree Todd added: “We are on course to deliver the most generous, high quality early learning and childcare offer in the UK, which can transform the lives of children.

“Through our strong partnership working with local government so much has already been achieved.

“There are already thousands of additional staff in post and councils will continue to grow their teams over the coming months.

“We have also been delivering a large-scale infrastructure programme to provide high-quality settings.

“Hundreds of nurseries have been built or refurbished, with work continuing across the country.”

She added: “We are committed to delivering the rollout from August and councils have contingency plans in place for all critical projects due to complete this summer so we can be confident that the places will be there to deliver the expansion for Scotland’s children.

“The expansion also opens up more opportunities for playgroups, private and third sector nurseries, and childminders to be involved in delivering funded hours.

“The quality of ELC provided is absolutely key. That is why we are investing in the workforce and developing improved learning opportunities for them to increase their skills and share best practice.

“With a passionate and dedicated workforce across all parts of the sector, and fantastic places for children to learn and play in a nurturing environment, there has never been a more exciting time for our childcare sector.”

“The Delivery Progress Report show that we are making steady progress towards our targets, and over the next six months Councils will be working closely with our local partners to ensure that all aspects of the expansion, including recruitment and infrastructure are in place for August.

Councillor Stephen McCabe, Cosla’s children and young people spokesman, said: “Over the next six months, councils will be working closely with our local partners to ensure that all aspects of the expansion, including recruitment and infrastructure, are in place for August.

“It’s fantastic that over 50,000 children have already benefited from these additional hours, which will give children new opportunities to play and learn, and give parents the opportunity to return to work, take up training or just have more flexibility in their childcare arrangements.”

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