Early learning investment threatened by construction and recruitment risks

3 Mar 20
Ambitious plans to expand early learning and childcare in Scotland could be undermined by risks around infrastructure and workforce, auditors have warned.

A report out today has found that the Scottish Government and local authorities are making “steady progress” towards the flagship policy of increasing funded childcare for eligible two-, three- and four-year-olds to 1,140 hours annually from August.

But it noted that around half of the required building work was still unfinished, while half of the additional early learning and childcare staff that will be needed were yet to be recruited.

The report, prepared for the Accounts Commission and Auditor General for Scotland, said that private and third sector providers - which are expected to deliver over a quarter of the hours – also continued to report significant workforce challenges that threatened their sustainability.

“These plans are critically dependent on achieving much in a short time,” it said.

“This creates a number of significant risks around getting enough people and buildings in place to deliver the expansion.

“In addition, it is likely that some aspects of the policy, such as delivering flexibility and choice, will not be fully implemented by August 2020.”

Delays in completing planned building work were a particular risk, it added.

Councils are to receive an additional £567m in revenue funding by 2020-21 to deliver the expansion, which will see the number of funded hours increase from 600 to 1,140 a year for eligible children, equivalent to 30 hours a week in term time.

Caroline Gardner, auditor general for Scotland, said the Scottish Government and councils had worked well together to increase early learning and childcare hours, and there had also been improvements in how the project would be evaluated.

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

Accounts Commission chair Graham Sharp said that the risk of delays to the project would have to be carefully managed.

“Given the amount of work due to be completed over summer 2020, it’s important that councils continue to work closely with the Scottish Government to manage the risks of any delays, including how best to keep parents informed,” he said.

Scottish Government children’s minister Maree Todd said Scotland was on course to deliver “the most generous, high quality early learning and childcare offer in the UK”, with thousands of additional staff already in post and a large-scale infrastructure programme underway.

“We are committed to delivering the roll-out 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,” she said.

Stephen McCabe, children and young people spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, said councils were committed to delivering their part of the expansion, which would have a “transformational effect” on Scotland’s families.

“The [report] shows 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 all aspects of the expansion, including recruitment and infrastructure, are in place for August,” he said. 

Article amended at 10.43am on Tuesday 3 March to add comment from CoSLA.

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