Revealed: The nurseries failing Scotland’s children

Thousands of Scottish children are being put at risk by nurseries and childminders that are allowed to remain in business despite repeatedly failing to meet basic standards of childcare.

Reports show 224 nurseries and 111 childminders were ranked as weak or unsatisfactory in at least one category during their most recent inspection by the Care Commission.

Two nurseries and two childminders were given the lowest ranking of unsatisfactory in each of the four categories rated by the regulator.

Despite years of rule-breaking and repeated poor inspections at some institutions, it has emerged for the first time that no nurseries have been closed down directly because of Care Commission enforcement action since the organisation was established as the industry regulator in 2002.

Individual reports on dozens of failing institutions reveal nurseries that are dirty, under-staffed and laced with fire hazards, loose electrical wiring and broken toilets. Inspectors also found staff who lacked basic childcare or first-aid training, smoked around children and did not know how to safely feed or put babies to sleep.

Kate Groucutt, policy director of the childcare charity Daycare Trust, said: “It is concerning to see so many childcare providers being ranked as weak or unsatisfactory.

“It is crucial that all childcare settings follow the correct safeguarding procedures, and ensure they are providing a safe, comfortable and stimulating learning environment for the children in their care.

“It is important to remember that the vast majority of childcare providers do provide this and that there is very strong evidence about the benefits to children from receiving high-quality early-years education and care.

“Parents in the UK pay for the majority of childcare costs and it is essential the Care Commission informs parents about the results of inspections so they are able to make appropriate choices about the care their child is receiving.”

The catalogue of failings at day-care centres includes instances where babies’ lives are endangered by incompetent staff in unsafe facilities. Inspectors warned that, in one nursery, “infection risks to the children are reaching crisis point” while other reports describe childminders leaving open bottles of alcohol and adult medicines in children’s playrooms.

Although the Care Commission, which publishes reports on its website and expects service providers to make copies available to parents, can issue improvement notices, subsequent poor performance in inspections suggests that these are regularly ignored by nurseries.

Even after it launched legal action to close All Stars Nursery in Aberdeen, after staff force-fed children and served out-of-date food, the nursery remains open as the case is repeatedly appealed and adjourned at court.

The Care Commission’s remit will soon be overtaken by Social Care and Social Work Improvement Scotland and, under the new rules, a sheriff may be able to make an interim order suspending the registration straight away. In England, Ofsted has previously suspended the registration of poorly performing nurseries.

Labour MSP Karen Whitefield said the findings from the latest Care Commission reports were unacceptable.

“We always have to be vigilant. We should be intervening and acting to stop children being left in those vulnerable situations,” she said. “There is an obligation for the Care Commission and the Scottish Government to ensure that there is appropriate enforcement action to ensure that the highest standards are being met in nursery and childminders.

“I would want regulators to keep under review those establishments which have failed to meet the highest standards and ensure that improvement action is taken. Where it isn’t taken, registration should be withdrawn at an early stage.”

A spokesman for the Care Commission said the regulator worked closely with failing services to drive up standards. However, he added: “If no improvement is made we may take further enforcement action against these services.”

He said the Commission would take action to cancel registrations “in extreme cases and as a final resort” under the Regulation of Care (Scotland) Act 2001. However, he added that under current rules, nurseries could stay open while a cancellation was appealed, adding: “Regrettably, court proceedings under the Act can become protracted.”

New regulations to come into force on April 1 will allow a sheriff to make an interim order that could suspend a nursery’s registration while court proceedings are under way. The Care Commission spokesman added: “At all times we work with services to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of people using the services is paramount.”

A need for continued vigilance on nurseries

The Herald reports shocking details today of shabby conditions and inadequate care provided by dozens of Scottish nurseries and childminders.

Some are almost unbelievable – children allowed to crawl the floor and chew on dog toys in one establishment, while in others children faced health hazards through being left to sleep in heavy clothes, or were exposed to potential risk from alcohol, faulty wiring, unhygienic toilets or animals.

It should be acknowledged from the outset that these findings apply to specific establishments and many childminders and nurseries provide excellent care. But hundreds of nurseries and childminders have been ranked as “weak” or “unsatisfactory” in at least one of four categories inspected.

This is perhaps the most alarming issue: These are not revelations uncovered directly by this paper. These failings were found by inspectors from Scotland’s Care Commission – in some cases unresolved despite multiple visits.

Members of the public are entitled to ask why an establishment ranked “unacceptable” in all four categories – there are four such businesses – remains open at all?

The Care Commission says that it makes every effort to help establishments which are struggling to meet standards, and that cancelling registrations is a last resort.

But this has a familiar ring. When this paper exposed dozens of upheld complaints and poor inspection reports relating to care homes for the elderly in 2009, the Commission rehearsed the same argument. It was the same when we revealed the litany of problems, spanning repeated inspections, at a Renfrewshire Council Children’s Home last December – we were again told that the Commission was working with the council to improve standards.

Parents have a responsibility here too. They can inform themselves, as inspection reports are published openly – albeit with a lack of accessibility and clarity – on the Commission’s website.

But there seems to be a case for requiring nurseries to make reports available much more readily to existing parents and would-be customers. If this was demanded, one suspects that Care Commission gradings might be taken more seriously. That could only be to the benefit of parents, but also to the majority of nursery owners and managers who do insist on high standards.

The Commission does have sanctions at its disposal – it can issue improvement notices, which can be followed by cancellation of registrations if there is no improvement. Not meeting requirements issued by inspectors is an offence, and can lead to a provider being prosecuted. Yet only the first of these sanctions seems to be used.

The Commission itself is not long for this world. From April 2011 its functions will be taken over by a new body, Social Care and Social Work Improvement Scotland (SCWIS).

This presents both an opportunity and a threat. The new body will have the chance to set out its stall afresh and take more serious action, earlier, against providers who do not meet their obligations. What would be disastrous would be if it begins with a blank sheet, issuing a whole new batch of “final” warnings, to those it finds to be sub-standard.

However there is additional reason for concern. The new body, and its partner Health Information Scotland, are charged with introducing more self-evaluation into the inspection mix. This, according to the architect of the changes Professor Lorne Crerar, was to enable “a reduction in the volume of external scrutiny”.

Today’s revelations show that we should be cautious about rushing towards any such reduction.