Meeting of the Parliament
Meeting date: Wednesday, January 25, 2023
Official Report 1276KB pdf
Agenda: Point of Order, Portfolio Question Time, Urgent Question, Point of Order, Homelessness, Housing, Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, Public Order Bill, UK Infrastructure Bank Bill, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Childcare
- Point of Order
- Portfolio Question Time
- Urgent Question
- Point of Order
- Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill
- Public Order Bill
- UK Infrastructure Bank Bill
- Business Motion
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-07412, in the name of Meghan Gallacher, on the future of childcare. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.
That the Parliament notes what it considers the serious concerns reportedly raised by stakeholders in the Central Scotland region and throughout the country regarding the roll-out of the 1,140 hours of funded early learning and childcare programme; understands that the issues raised by nursery owners in the private, voluntary and independent sector relate to the fairness of the 1,140 hours roll-out and their ability to run a successful business while providing first-class childcare; notes the reported comments by the National Day Nurseries Association that what it considers the emerging “crisis” in the early learning and childcare sector is attributed to the growth of the local authority sector and the COVID-19 pandemic; believes that the Scottish Government has failed to address embedded issues such as staffing, childminders leaving the profession and private nursery pay, which have led to this reported crisis; considers that the Scottish Government has a responsibility to ensure that this programme is a success, and notes the calls on the Scottish Government to address these issues as a matter of urgency to secure the future of the 1,140 hours programme, in order to give children the best possible start in life.18:16
Good early years education is fundamental for developing vital skills that will help children to succeed in life. Promoting, developing and nurturing those skills, along with strengthening families, are important ways of improving long-term outcomes for children. Research shows that the development of important emotional, cognitive and behavioural skills takes place early in life. Those foundational skills are important not only for a successful transition to primary school, but for later academic achievement and social adjustment.
Giving our children the best start in life should be a priority for every member of the Scottish Parliament. I am passionate about early years education and it is one of the many reasons why I got involved in politics. I want Scotland to be the leader in early years by supporting parents and giving our young people the tools that they need to achieve.
The reality in Scotland today, however, is that the 1,140 hours policy is failing our children, parents and the private, voluntary and independent sectors. The Scottish Government is facing a crisis on top of a crisis: parents not being able to choose which nursery their child attends, PVI nurseries closing their doors, staffing shortages, a reduction in the number of childminders, out-of-date systems, relationship breakdowns, and nursery owners not knowing whether they can afford to stay in the childcare sector. All of that is happening on the watch of this Scottish Government.
Since returning from maternity leave, I have been in contact with nurseries, charities and organisations that have raised concerns about the Government’s handling of the childcare crisis. The Scottish National Party has a responsibility to make sure that its policy works for parents and their children. If free childcare cannot be delivered, it will result in a worse start in early years for education. Parents will be unable to work because they cannot get the childcare that this SNP Government promised them.
I had hoped that things would improve during my maternity leave and that the Government would finally get to grips with the problems that I and others have been raising for years, but nothing has changed. A former nursery owner in Aberdeen told me that she just could not take it any longer. She has now sold her nursery and left the sector completely. Modern apprentices in South Lanarkshire are being paid more than fully-qualified childcare practitioners, but the private, voluntary and independent sector is still being expected to train and not retain.
In North Lanarkshire, a legal dispute has delayed parents’ access to childcare. Those parents are now in limbo because they do not know when they can book nursery places for later this year.
In another council, the PVI sector was told that it is no longer a partner but a contractor. The sector is at the end of its tether, and the silence coming from the Government about 1,140 hours is deafening. We have been told that reviews are under way, but no statement on early years education has been made to the Parliament recently. Reviews should lead to action and action should result in change. Where is that change?
The disparity in rates between local authorities and the PVI sector has existed for as long as the 1,140 hours policy. It is widely known that local authorities determine what proportion of early years funding the PVI sector receives, and we know that local authorities get more money per child than their competitors. Parents have a right to know why a child who attends a PVI nursery is apparently worth less than a child in a local authority setting.
Does Meghan Gallacher recognise that not only are local authorities service providers but that they have a legal duty to ensure that every eligible child is able to access the statutory entitlement to funded ELC, including when it is not commercially viable for PVI providers? Is she aware that funding is also provided for additional support needs, the provision of equity and excellence leads, meals in early learning settings, and crisis support, including for families from Ukraine?
As a rebuttal to the minister, I would like to ask her how a local authority can be a banker and a competitor at the same time. That is the fundamental flaw in the 1,140 hours policy. The Government has effectively created a policy that allows councils to mark their own homework and set their own rates. As we know, they are not setting sustainable rates. Disparity of rates across the country is having a huge financial impact on the PVI sector, and it flies in the face of the Government’s 1,140 hours policy, which states that sustainable rates should include the ability to generate a surplus. However, because of the policy, PVI nurseries cannot generate any surplus because the Government has removed the competition from the market.
It is not just the inequity of rates that has led to the current crisis. There has been a complete breakdown in the relationship between councils and nursery owners. That is played out in council chambers, where the state of early years education has been raised time and again. Parents have contacted councillors to say that they cannot access their first, second or third nursery choice. The whole point of the policy is to give parents choice.
Then we have seen councillors refuse to meet nurseries because there has been tension around the delivery of the policy and, instead of trying to resolve the issue, the Government has sat back and let it happen. I have had countless conversations with the PVI sector about the lack of partnership working from councils, and I mentioned earlier how the sector has been treated and how that treatment has led to it feeling completely disillusioned.
In July 2022, I submitted a written question about the Ipsos MORI survey. In her response, the minister stated:
“The guidance is clear that the findings of the cost collection exercise are only a part of the rate setting process, and local authorities will also consider local ELC market conditions and ongoing consultation with providers.”—[Written Answers, 29 July 2022; S6W-09554.]
However, we know that many nurseries did not fill in the survey. We also know that local authorities determine around 70 per cent of PVI finances, so there is little room for nurseries to grow their business.
Will the member take an intervention?
No. I am in my final minute and I have got more to say.
The 1,140 hours policy is a mess. The SNP Government has reviewed it time and again with no meaningful change. While it chooses not to act, childminders leave the profession and nurseries close. Parents have been promised 1,140 hours of free childcare and they expect the Government to deliver that.
Should the minister ignore the concerns that MSPs will raise today, this vital policy will fail. My debate is about the future of childcare, and it is time that the Government gets to grips with the crisis in our childcare sector before it is too late.
I finish by welcoming the minister’s contribution and I look forward to hearing how the Government intends to fix the mess that it has created.18:23
I thank Megan Gallacher for bringing the debate to the chamber.
We can all agree that the first few years of a child’s life are instrumental for their development and in shaping their potential. Parents and caregivers therefore need to be supported in creating a nurturing environment in the home and through access to high quality, affordable childcare.
The Scottish Government continues to demonstrate its commitment to achieving those aims, not least through deferral, the successful baby box scheme, free school meals for all primary school pupils, and the expansion of funded early learning and childcare.
It was not mentioned earlier, but the SNP Government inherited a system that delivered just 412 hours of childcare. Now more than 83,000 children in Scotland are accessing 1,140 hours of high-quality funded ELC. My understanding is that that represents 87 per cent of children. That is not to be complacent, but it provides a bit of context for what has gone before in this debate. However, it is vital that we continue to work towards creating a society where all parents have a genuine choice about how their families will balance employment and caring duties. As well as benefiting families, our wider economy will reap the rewards.
A recent study in Quebec found that, for every $1 invested in childcare infrastructure there, the economy benefited by up to $2.80 in increased employment. That is why the Scottish Government’s commitment to continuing to expand funded early learning and childcare is so vital for Scotland’s long-term prosperity. It is right that we are ambitious in our vision for Scotland’s childcare, and all types of providers have key roles to play.
The motion for today’s debate rightly highlights the damaging impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the childcare sector, but it also cites the
“growth of the local authority sector”,
which, in the view of the National Day Nurseries Association, is the reason for what it calls a childcare “crisis”. However, the growth of the local authority sector has been instrumental in expanding access to childcare for all eligible preschool children, irrespective of their circumstances. Again, that has to be acknowledged.
Does the member not realise that local authority control of the sustainable rates for the PVI sector creates a fundamental flaw in the policy, because the PVI sector cannot compete against the local authorities? Does the member agree that the funding formula that is used to set the rates needs to be reviewed?
I certainly do not claim that the system that we have at the moment is perfection, but I think that we should celebrate the fact that local authorities are paying attractive rates and running effective childcare across the country. The funding agreement between the Scottish Government and COSLA allows local authorities to pay sustainable rates at a level that enables private and third sector services to pay at least the real living wage to staff who are delivering funded ELC. That should be noted in its own right.
The Scottish Government investment has resulted in childcare staffing numbers rising from 33,000 to 38,000 over the past five years. I acknowledge that, as is the case in many sectors, recruitment and retention of staff continue to pose a challenge—not least partly as a result of Brexit, it must be said. However, I acknowledge examples in my own constituency of problems created by staffing shortages. For instance, I can think of a private nursery provider that had to abruptly close one of its rooms just before Christmas. The local authority has worked hard to find spaces for all the displaced three to five-year-olds at short notice. However, parents there—I accept that the same is true in other places—have understandable concerns about the situation, not least because there is no alternative provision for children under 2 in the area.
Dr Allan, I must ask you to conclude, as you are over your time.
I will conclude there, Presiding Officer.18:28
When the First Minister announced the scheme for 1,140 hours she was at Fallin nursery in Stirling. She said:
“All children deserve the best start in life. Providing access to free, high-quality early learning and childcare enriches children’s early years and provides them with skills and confidence for starting school and beyond. It also supports parents’ ability to work, train or study.”
The then COSLA children and young people spokesperson, Councillor Stephen McCabe, said of the programme:
“These additional hours will be transformative for families, ensuring children have more time to play and learn while parents and carers will have more opportunities to work, study or volunteer.”
I mention that because the ethos behind the programme was not only to provide Government-funded childcare for under-fives but to allow parents and caregivers to have time for themselves, which in most cases they use to return to work. I would go so far as to say that for the 1,140 hours scheme to work properly, it has to meet the needs of working parents and allow them to do just that.
Most working parents commute to work. Fallin nursery, which is the one that the First Minister visited, opens at 8 o’clock in the morning. If someone lives in the Stirling area and works in Edinburgh, they need to catch the 7.29 train to guarantee that they will get to work for 9. Coming home, they need to catch the 5.33 from Waverley, which arrives in Stirling well after 6, which is when the nursery closes. That assumes that the trains are actually running or are on time.
A simple blend of having a childminder to top and tail the nursery offer would be perfect, but that blend is proving problematic. We have heard from my colleague Meghan Gallacher about the issues that are faced by the private nurseries, but the childminding offer is in sharp decline and under threat too.
The Scottish Government’s 2022 report, “Childminding workforce trends: qualitative research report” comes up with the following points:
“The childminding workforce has declined by 28% in Scotland between 2014 and 2020”;
the annual decreases of childminders have been accelerating since 2017; the proportion of childminders over the age of 55 has steadily increased, from 11 per cent in 2010 to 24 per cent in 2020;
“a quarter of respondents to the Scottish Childminding Association ... 2020 members’ survey said they were unlikely to still be childminding in five years’ time”;
“the process of becoming a childminder was generally viewed ... as time consuming and overly bureaucratic”.
On pay, the report states:
“The amount of administration required was seen as exacerbating the low pay issue because of the longer hours it requires of childminders”.
I could go on, but I have only four minutes. Nevertheless, that is quite a damning list. What is the point of the follow the child funding programme when blended childcare is becoming limited at best? The current level of funding is insufficient to work in this situation, but that is for an entirely different debate.
I look at the decline that has been highlighted by both the National Day Nurseries Association and the Scottish Childminding Association: nursery staffing in crisis, childminding in crisis, the wage disparity, the on-costs and the administration and bureaucracy. We are rapidly heading towards having no offer at all. Let us be honest: that cannot help but reduce the 87 per cent that has already been mentioned here today.
A mix of childminder, public and private offers is imperative to fit in with the needs of the family as well as for the children whom it is meant to provide for. Setting up a nuanced mix of what is available so that a child becomes settled, safe and secure in the time away from their parents is fundamental.
If we do not sort this out, the objective of the 1,140 hours will fail. It will fail to provide for working parents, for rural nurseries, for childminders and, most of all, for all children, which cannot be allowed to happen.18:33
It is a pleasure to follow Roz McCall in this debate. I also extend my thanks to Meghan Gallacher for securing this important debate.
When we discuss the future of childcare, it is important to acknowledge that it is an issue that disproportionately affects women. The lack of childcare, specifically affordable and flexible childcare, prevents many women from working, studying and training. It is also inherently a women’s issue in that 95 per cent of the ELC workforce are women. If we want to support women back into work, and support the women in our workforce, we must address the issue of childcare.
Like many members across the chamber, I welcomed the introduction of the 1,140 hours of funded childcare. However, as the Poverty Alliance has pointed out,
“this entitlement must be viewed as the starting point, rather than the end point, of reform.”
I take the opportunity to thank the minister for a meeting that we had recently on a number of matters regarding ELC, and I will touch on a couple of them, in the hope that the minister will put on the record some of the responses that were received. The first has already been mentioned, which is the relationship between our local authority and private sector nurseries. It is true that there is a tension across many local authorities between those two services. Work needs to be done to facilitate a meeting of minds and understanding, so that our young people can be properly served through the early years service. The Scottish Government can make a more positive contribution to facilitating those discussions.
The Scottish Government has worked closely with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities because we would not have been able to roll out the 1,140 hours without working with it and the PVI sector. What does Martin Whitfield suggest that the Scottish Government do over and above what we have done already?
It is to the credit of the Scottish Government and COSLA that work has gone on between the two over the roll-out of the 1,140 hours, but the issue is also about the relationship with private sector organisations, many of which rightly feel that they are excluded from committees, work parties and, sometimes, contributing to the debate about early years provision. The simple answer to how that can better be achieved is to invite them into the circle and ensure that they are at the table when decisions are considered and made.
I will make some comments about another specific area that the minister may find useful: the challenge that the private sector—when I talk about the private sector, I am also talking particularly about parents groups and charity groups—faces in gaining access to local authority properties, particularly primary schools, to provide wraparound care. There seem to be great challenges about getting access to those buildings, where some of our early years children are during the day anyway, to enable them to stay later into the evening to counter the travel challenges that we have already heard about.
I realise that time is short, but I wonder whether the minister would also be able to comment on concerns that constituents have raised with me about catchment areas. There is a challenge in understanding the fact that there is no catchment area for the purpose of nursery provision but there is for primary 1. Is the Government looking at that? Parents fail to understand why their child cannot go to the nursery that is attached to the primary school that they will go to. That, in turn, causes transition problems because, sometimes, the private sector nurseries on which parents rely are too far away to hand the children on.
Ninety per cent of lone parents are women. As long as we fail to fix early years provision, we are failing women up and down the country who would, can be and should be an invaluable asset. They are a huge loss to our economy, but we are also failing our young people at their most vulnerable time, when they need support to transition into a successful education.
The future of childcare needs to remain a priority for the Parliament. We cannot assume that providing the 1,140 hours has fixed it. We must not forget that women and children sit at the centre of the debate.18:37
I thank Meghan Gallacher for bringing the debate to the chamber. I hope that we manage to persuade the minister that there is an issue, at least.
The expansion to 1,140 hours is great. I am delighted that it has worked relatively smoothly in many areas, that it has given some flexibility and that it has certainly increased the hours that are available.
Early years provision is good. It is the best start in life for young people. We know that it can transform their opportunities. It sets them on a good course for life. It also gives parents the opportunity to get back to work. I remember all too well the real challenges of juggling the children from childminders into the nursery, so I know that having fully comprehensive wraparound support is important.
Therefore, I give credit to the Government for moving forward on the 1,140 hours but there is a real problem with the disparity of pay levels between the private and voluntary sectors on one hand and the public sector on the other. It is built into the system. We have a host of examples of people who are doing exactly the same job but are paid dramatically different rates of pay. In Falkirk, a local authority head of centre is paid 71 per cent more than their private nursery manager equivalent. In Glasgow, a deputy head of a nursery is paid 87 per cent more than the equivalent in the private sector. In North Lanarkshire, it is exactly the same.
I understand that their responsibilities are different—the minister made that point—but they are not that different. The pay differentials are massive and it is no wonder, therefore, that we have a significant movement of staff away from the private sector, sometimes to other jobs altogether, not to council nurseries. The pay rates are not sufficient.
We must recognise that the childcare industry is a mixed economy and that employers in the private and third sectors are responsible for the business decisions that they make. Public funding accounts for only 33 to 45 per cent of the overall income of private childcare services.
I accept that point. In the past, that cross-subsidy was acceptable because the proportion that the state was contributing to nursery businesses was relatively small, but it is now huge. There is a debate about how much the state is contributing to private nurseries: some people say that it is 55 per cent, and we could have a discussion about that, but it has certainly increased, so the ability to cross-subsidise is not there to the extent that it used to be. Why should private clients—parents—pay for the state’s inability to pay the staff properly, at the same rate that it is paying similar staff in the public sector? I do not think that there should be cross-subsidy to that extent. Putting all the pressure on private clients is unacceptable.
We need to fix this. Matthew Sweeney revealed it all to the Education, Children and Young People Committee back in May, when he said:
“We are being told by the Scottish Government that the funding that it has given us is to allow private and partner providers to pay the real living wage. At the same time, funding for local authorities must be able to meet the nationally set rates—through collective bargaining—for our workforce.”—[Official Report, Education, Children and Young People Committee, 25 May 2022; c 34.]
That quote encapsulates the problem. The Government has accepted and has baked into the system the fact that private nurseries pay up to the national living wage while council nurseries have nationally negotiated rates of pay. That is the problem that we are building into the system.
I understand how that has happened. Private nurseries used to get private income, so they set their own pay rates, but the Government is now paying the majority of those private nurseries’ income, which builds in that disparity. It is no wonder that there is an exodus of staff from the private sector. I understand how we got there, but the minister must at least accept that we have a problem and must try to fix it. I accept that we cannot do that overnight, because it will require a massive amount of money, but we must at least have a plan to close that gap and to stop the exodus.18:42
I thank my colleague Meghan Gallacher for bringing this debate to the chamber and thank all the PVI sector nurseries for their continued updates and briefings on the roll-out of the 1,140 hours of childcare.
I usually look forward to speaking in these debates, but this is not the first time that we have had to bring the crisis in the PVI sector to the chamber. I find myself frustrated and bewildered that, after several years of debating the issue, we are still here and still bringing the same fears and concerns from the industry to the Scottish Government.
That is strange, because we all support the premise of 1,140 hours of free childcare and the many opportunities that that can bring. This debate is not about policy: it is about the roll-out and implementation of the policy. The debate is about the Scottish Government’s continued refusal to accept that there is a serious imbalance between public nurseries and those in the PVI sector. We cannot hide from those facts any longer.
I accept that the pandemic has been a major inhibitor of the roll-out free childcare. I am sure that we all agree on that. However, that should have given the Scottish Government time to consider the issues that had been raised on many occasions on behalf of the sector by members from across the chamber. Willie Rennie talked about the huge disparity across the country in council treatment of private nurseries, which is far from ideal. It is clear from speaking to a number of owners of private nurseries that there is serious concern about how those nurseries are treated and whether they can sustainably be part of the scheme. Those issues remain.
I know that the minister will have examples of local councils whose attitude and approach are collaborative and reflect the way in which the Scottish Government’s delivery plan is set out, but there seems to have been little progress towards ensuring a uniform picture across the country. I have heard stories of local authorities openly stating that they do not believe in private nursery childcare and that they intend to bring all childcare in-house and have no intention of partnering with private nurseries.
What Mr Whittle alleges is very concerning. If he has evidence of that happening, I would be happy to receive correspondence from him on the matter.
Those concerns were raised with the previous minister, so I will forward them on to Clare Haughey.
Unfortunately, the view that I described is still pervasive in certain council areas. As I said, those local authorities have no intention of partnering with private childcare nurseries, which have delivered decades of top-quality care and have become an integral part of their communities. Every nursery whose view was represented highlighted the issue of local authorities recruiting directly from partnership nurseries into local authority nurseries. The private nurseries are losing so many highly trained, qualified staff that the Care Inspectorate is downgrading them because of an increasing turnover of staff.
Local authorities are able to pay a higher rate for apprentices than the partnership nurseries can pay for qualified staff, yet local authorities are asking the partnership nurseries to train their apprentices. We therefore have a ludicrous situation in which apprentices are being paid more than those who are training them. That is not a partnership.
There are huge discrepancies between what the minister has asked local authorities to deliver and what some of them are delivering. There are local authorities that consult partnership nurseries and treat them as a crucial part of the scaling up of childcare in Scotland. However, as I have highlighted, a significant number of local authorities are treating those nurseries as anything but partners, to the point at which many are under threat.
The fact is that, in many cases, local authorities are, in essence, setting themselves up in competition with their partnership nurseries, according to those nurseries. In order for the minister to deliver this crucial policy, she will need all those partnership nurseries, but the truth is that she is in danger of losing them and all their years of experience in dedicated care in the communities. Once they are lost, it will be next to impossible to get them back again.18:47
I thank Meghan Gallacher for bringing the debate to the chamber.
In November, I met Graeme McAlister, the chief executive officer of the Scottish Childminding Association, who raised some very important issues surrounding the future and welfare of childminders in Scotland.
The childminder workforce in Scotland has now declined by 30 per cent, and with that we have seen the loss of more than 10,000 childminding places for families. As the number of places drops and the cost of childcare rises, many families find themselves unable either to afford childcare or to find it. We cannot allow that situation to continue.
There is currently not enough support offered to the childminding workforce in Scotland, and the sector is under pressure, with a lack of trained professionals available to fill much-needed positions. Childminding is a vital and valuable industry, but the childminding workforce requires significant support to carry it through the current decline.
Many in the workforce are reporting that delivering the funded early learning and childcare hours has caused a significant increase in paperwork. That has resulted in many childminders undertaking an additional, and unpaid, five-plus hours of paperwork each week, resulting in a loss of focus on the child.
Childminders who were previously providing funded childcare hours are no longer choosing to do so because of an unsustainable amount of paperwork. The provision of funded childcare hours must continue, but the Scottish Government needs to ensure that it is supporting the workforce to do that.
Even more alarmingly, 60 per cent of childminders who were surveyed believed that they would have to reduce their heating settings this winter, when children are present in their homes. It is shocking that some are considering switching off their heating when their own families are present, let alone when their home is open for their childminding business during the day. Only 13 per cent of childminders said that they believe that they can pay themselves the living wage and almost all respondents reported that they worked extra unpaid hours every week. That statistic is deeply concerning.
The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the cost of living crisis is putting this vital industry at risk. It is time for the Scottish Government to recognise the pressures on the childminding workforce in Scotland. Underpaying and overworking this integral sector will never allow it to flourish. The Scottish Government must take measures to encourage and support the much-needed recruitment of childminders and demonstrate that it values Scotland’s children and the dedicated workers who care for them.18:50
Initially, it had not been my intention to speak in the debate, so thank you for allowing me to do so, Presiding Officer. I am sure that you will be glad to hear that I might not take up four whole minutes.
I thank Meghan Gallacher for bringing the debate to the chamber. As the minister will know, I have had some input into the issue and I have been contacted by PVI nurseries in my constituency, some of which also reached out to Meghan Gallacher. They have expressed concerns about the current situation and the provision of 1,140 hours. As Meghan Gallacher said, some of those concerns relate to pay but, as we discussed earlier today, there are other concerns about the cost of living crisis. That is all coming together.
One of the private nurseries in Coatbridge is Kirktonholme nursery. I should declare an interest, because my daughter goes there one day a week. It is an absolutely fantastic nursery. If the minister were so inclined, I am sure that the nursery would love to have her come to visit its forest school. I have visited as well as having been there with the wee one—it is really good. Parkview nursery, which is also in my constituency, is also really good. Some really good work is going on there.
I agree with other members that we are in a difficult position if workers in the PVI nurseries are paid significantly less than workers in local authority nurseries. Those PVI nurseries are doing a fantastic job. That might not be the case across the board, but it seems to be the case in North Lanarkshire. Do not get me wrong, in North Lanarkshire there are some excellent local authority nurseries, such as Stepping Stones and Sgoil Àraich Tollbrae, which is the fantastic Gaelic nursery where my middle child went.
Overall, the provision of 1,140 hours is a major success. However, when I have dealt with the private nurseries who have come to me for a bit of support—more or less all the nurseries in my constituency have approached me at one time or another, either collectively or individually—I have felt that there is a bit of a stand-off. The local authority nurseries are really moving forward with pay and have been able to pay their staff really good wages. We should be proud of that, and I am sure that the minister is really proud of it. However, the current system means that the PVI sector is falling behind and, as we have heard, staff are leaving. Is there some way that we can have both?
As I said, I had not prepared a speech but just decided to speak during the debate. I will end with a couple of asks. The first is for Meghan Gallacher—I know that she will be up for this. In North Lanarkshire, before the legal dispute, or whatever we call it, there was going to be a meeting between MSPs of all parties and the private nursery sector. The lead person, Ms Leggat, contacted us to say that, because of a letter that they had received from the local authority, they were no longer able to have that meeting. When the time is right and any proceedings, whatever they may be, have finished, I wonder whether we could have that meeting. I see that Meghan Gallacher is nodding. I would be happy to attend a local meeting on a cross-party basis.
The second ask is for the minister and is just what Willie Rennie and others have asked. Will she take another look at the provision of 1,140 hours? It is an excellent policy that is working really well but, as a constituency MSP, I have picked up that something is not going completely right with the PVI sector. I hope that she can look at that, either nationally or for specific areas across the country, to see whether there are solutions. I heard the point that reviewing the funding formula might be one way to address that. I am not sure about that, but I ask the minister to respond to that in her summing up.18:55
This has been an important debate. It is critical that we put on record the significant collective achievement of delivering 1,140 hours and again thank our partners in local government, as well as the private, third and childminding sectors for all their hard work in making such a success of the expansion so far. I am particularly proud that the offer is available to all eligible children, regardless of their parents’ working status, meaning that Scotland has the most generous childcare offer in the United Kingdom today. I will continue to make the case that children’s needs must always come first.
It is testament to the efforts of everyone in the sector that we now have near-universal uptake among three and four-year-olds: 99 per cent in the latest published statistics. It is also good news that the number of two-year-olds who are registering for funded ELC is at the highest-ever level. I am pleased that we have secured a legal gateway with the UK Government that finally means that local authorities in Scotland will be able to access the information that they need to contact eligible households later this year. That will make a real difference to levels of uptake, and my officials are working closely with councils to support them to reach as many families as possible.
I am also delighted to read about the positive experiences that families are having with funded ELC. Quality and flexibility are at the heart of our 1,140 hours offer, and survey results that were published in December show that we are delivering for families. As many as 97 per cent of parents are satisfied with the quality of the funded hours that their children access, and more than 88 per cent of parents are satisfied that they have the flexibility to use their funded hours in a way that works for them.
There has been discussion about the rates that are paid to providers. I reiterate that, throughout the expansion to 1,140 hours, we have used the significant public investment that we have made in funded ELC—it will be almost £1 billion in 2023-24—to seek to support and improve conditions across the private, voluntary and childminding workforce that delivers this vital service.
We all agree on the principle of 1,140 hours—it is universally accepted across all political parties. However, will the minister agree to fix the rates system for the PVI sector? That is a huge ask, and it will make a big difference to that sector as we continue to roll out 1,140 hours.
I hear what the member says, but I do not accept the premise that ELC is failing or that it is in crisis in the way that she describes.
Scotland is the only part of the UK to have made a commitment to paying staff the real living wage for the delivery of funded ELC, and we have made real progress. Before the expansion, approximately 80 per cent of staff who were delivering funded ELC in the private and third sectors were paid less than the living wage. In contrast, our 2021 health check indicated that 88 per cent of private providers intended to pay the real living wage to all their staff from August 2021.
Our investment in sustainable rates is also critical to enabling employers to pay the real living wage to professionals who are delivering funded ELC, and to ensuring the quality and sustainability of provision.
Will the minister give way?
As a result of the ELC expansion, the average rates that are paid to providers to deliver funded ELC to three to four-year-olds have increased by 57 per cent since 2017. The average rate that is paid for three to four-year-olds by Scottish local authorities is the highest in the UK in 2023-24, at £5.77 per hour, compared to £5 per hour in Wales and £5.15 per hour in England.
Will the member give way on that point?
I think that Mr Rennie wanted to intervene.
I accept that the rates in Scotland are higher than those in England, and that the real living wage is an advance on what was being done before. However, the disparity is causing a problem, and I hope that the minister will accept that—I have heard her talk about that in committee. Nurseries and rooms are closing, and we need the PVI sector for the flexibility that parents desperately need. I understand all the arguments that the minister is making, but she has to accept that there is a problem.
We have debated the issue in committee. I cannot remember whether, when Mr Rennie raised it there, I referenced the most recent ELC census that was published in December. He mentioned a reduction in the services that provide funded ELC. The census found that there has been a reduction of 1 per cent, so there has not been the mass closure that some people might have heralded. I am not accusing Mr Rennie of that.
I appreciate that, for providers, conditions are challenging, particularly as a result of the pandemic and the cost crisis. That is why we are continuing with the nursery rates relief scheme, which provides 100 per cent relief on non-domestic rates to eligible day nurseries beyond 30 June this year. It is worth noting that the temporary discount on rates for nurseries in England ended on 1 April 2022.
We are also developing a programme of tailored support to enable childcare providers to access specialist advice on strengthening and diversifying their businesses. I would like to take a moment to recognise the unique and invaluable role that childminders play in delivering high-quality funded ELC, which Mr Choudhury spoke about. Recent years have been challenging for childminders, but we continue to work closely with our partners, including the Scottish Childminding Association, to increase the number of childminders in Scotland through the implementation of the Scottish Government report entitled “Our Commitment to Childminding in Scotland”.
The number of childminders in Scotland fell from 6,752 in 2012 to 4,829 in 2021. Does the minister accept that if the number continues to decline in that way there will be no childminding sector left?
I was about to come on to the work that we are doing to promote and increase recruitment to childminding. I accept that there has been a drop in the number of childminders in Scotland—that is a fact. However, the decline is replicated across the UK and is not unique to Scotland.
We are working with the Scottish Childminding Association to support the delivery of targeted recruitment models such as the one established by the innovative Scottish rural childminding partnership, which aims to recruit and train 100 new childminders in remote and rural areas. We are funding an extension of the recruitment pilot to urban areas. We have also recently committed to funding a new pilot to provide targeted support to childminders to help them to streamline the administrative burdens associated with their practice.
In response to Martin Whitfield’s point about engagement with the sector, I advise that, tomorrow, the childcare sector working group will meet representatives from across the PVI sector, local authorities and the Scottish Childminding Association. We are establishing a new national childcare providers forum that will be a space for strategic policy discussion. We are keen to have as wide a representation of the sector as possible there. We are also providing up to £500,000 over the next two years for the Scottish childcare sector representation and sustainability fund to support eligible childcare sector representative bodies to deliver their representative functions, which are key. We need to hear their voices and strengthen their long-term sustainability.
Those are strong foundations for us to build on. I look forward to continuing to work closely with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and our partners in the sector to deliver the new legislation on deferrals from August and on other priorities, including continuing to deliver progress on sustainable rates and the uptake of the offer for two-year-olds. I also look forward to continuing our work on building a new system of childcare for school-age children and developing the evidence around expanding ELC for one and two-year-olds, which will deliver on our ambitious commitment for Scotland’s children and families.
That concludes the debate.Meeting closed at 19:04.