Sturgeon admits ‘flexibility issues’ exist with free childcare policy

Nicola Sturgeon has acknowledged flexibility issues remain with her flagship free childcare policy after campaigners warned provision in most parts of Scotland is unsuitable for working parents.

The First Minister said she is working with councils to improve flexibility, claiming her commitment to expand free childcare even further to 30 hours a week would address some of the flexibility issues.

Ms Sturgeon visited Burnfoot Community School, in the Borders town of Hawick, to confirm a £2.8 million attainment fund for 46 primaries largely in deprived areas.

She pledged to raise standards in schools and close the “long-standing stubborn attainment gap between the most and least well-off children”.

The visit comes after a survey of local authorities by the Fair Funding for our Kids group revealed childcare provision in most parts of Scotland is unsuitable for working parents.

Nine out of ten of council childcare places were for half-days only while two-thirds of nursery places were half-days only, campaigners found.

Ms Sturgeon told the Press Association: “We’re determined to work with councils to make sure that not only our existing commitment is delivered – and it is being delivered to the vast majority of parents.

“We have said that there are issues around flexibility, which is why we have already taken steps to ensure that councils are offering greater flexibility.

“We are also determined to work with councils to deliver our increased commitment to childcare.

“Over this parliament we intend to double the provision of childcare.

“Moving from a commitment to providing childcare for a half to a full day will help us deal with some of those issues of flexibility.

“We have made that commitment and it will be backed by increased funding and support from local government and national government working together to ensure that commitment is delivered.

“We know that, as well as helping parents that want to get back into the workplace, good-quality early-years provision will help us go a long way to raising attainment in schools.”

Burnfoot is one of two primaries in the Borders benefiting from Scottish attainment challenge primary schools programme, part of the £750 million the Scottish Government intends to invest in its attainment fund over the course of the current parliament.

Scottish Labour education spokesman Iain Gray said: “Labour have outlined a series of positive policies to cut the gap between the richest and the rest.

“We would scrap unfair charges for exam appeals, which favour private school pupils over those educated in state schools, and we would introduce a Scottish Graduation Certificate to replace the failing baccalaureate.

“Whilst the First Minister poses for photo ops in the Borders, her government is only delivering attainment funding to two schools out of sixty-three in the area.

“If the SNP were serious about cutting the gap between the richest and the rest in our classrooms they would deliver more investment by stopping the cuts to education and backing Labour’s plan for a 50p top rate of tax for those earning over £150,000 per year to invest in our schools.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat spokeswoman for children Sheila Thomson said: “Childcare needs to be fully adaptive to the lives of working families across the whole of Scotland, allowing working families to receive the entitlement they need.

“Working parents need more flexibility so that they are able to have the childcare they require. The Scottish Government knows there is a problem, which is why it has three working groups trying to work out how it can deliver its childcare promises.

“The situation at the moment is failing families and we cannot afford for it to continue.”

Alison Johnstone, the Scottish Greens’ children and young people spokeswoman, said: “Childcare arrangements in Scotland remain one of the most expensive in Europe and also woefully patchy and inflexible.

“Improving the provision of childcare in terms of hours is important, but so too is the need for raising the quality of training and pay for childcare staff.

“If we invest in good quality childcare there’s a better chance of tackling unemployment, giving parents easier access to further and higher education, and reducing inequality.”

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2016, All Rights Reserved. Picture – First Minister Nicola Sturgeon meets P5 and P6 pupils during a visit to Burnfoot Community School, Hawick, to announce funding to raise educational attainment in deprived areas. (c) Jane Barlow / PA Wire.