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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, September 29, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 29 September 2016

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Mental Health Education, Early Learning and Childcare Provision, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


Contents


Early Learning and Childcare Provision

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-01703, in the name of Mark McDonald, on expansion of early learning and childcare provision. Members who wish to speak in the debate should press their request-to-speak buttons. I call Mark McDonald to speak to and move the motion.

14:30  

The Minister for Childcare and Early Years (Mark McDonald)

The current Scottish National Party Government has done more than any previous devolved Administration or other Government in the United Kingdom to expand entitlement to free early learning and childcare. When we first came to power in 2007, we increased provision of free early learning and childcare provision from 412.5 to 475 hours annually. In 2014 we legislated to increase entitlement to free early learning and childcare provision further to 600 hours annually. We also extended entitlement to two-year-olds who are looked after or in kinship care, and then to two-year-olds who are in families on low incomes. The Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 also placed duties on local authorities to consult parents and families as well as to provide flexibility and choice.

In short, the Government has achieved a lot, but there is more to do to achieve our ambitions. It is worth reminding ourselves why our policy of provision and expansion of free entitlement for all three-year-olds and four-year-olds and more than a quarter of two-year-olds matters. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has identified participation in early learning as a key policy to promote economic growth, higher productivity and social equality. The expansion to 600 hours has helped to reduce costs on families and to protect household budgets. Changes that we have made since 2007 are saving families an additional £780 per year.

The changes are also enabling more parents to return to work, education and training, thereby boosting family incomes. Scotland’s current female employment rate is higher than that of the UK as a whole and is the fourth-highest in Europe. International evidence also highlights the positive benefits of early years provision in helping to support more women into work.

Although the economic benefits of our approach are among the drivers, they are not the primary reason for seeking to expand and improve provision of early learning and childcare. High-quality early learning and childcare can play a vital role in our overall approach to narrowing the attainment gap. It is my ambition to prevent children starting school with any substantial gap in attainment.

Our approach means additional support needs can be identified and addressed earlier, thereby minimising the need for additional support in education. Studies in the US also suggest that there are significant social benefits from participation in early learning, with vulnerable children being less likely to become involved with the criminal justice system as young people and adults.

That is why this Government is determined to transform early learning and childcare in this parliamentary session by expanding free entitlement for all three-year-olds and four-year-olds and eligible two-year-olds from 600 to 1,140 hours annually by 2020. It is also why we have described—and will continue to describe—the policy as our most transformative infrastructure project. No other policy has such potential to change children’s lives, the fortunes of their families and the prospects of our economy in the short and long terms.

It is a policy with a purpose, so it is essential that we get the expansion right. We now have a substantial evidence base upon which to build. On Tuesday we published “Financial review of early learning and childcare in Scotland: the current landscape”, which provides a comprehensive picture of the current early learning and childcare landscape in Scotland. The review contributes robust data to our existing evidence base and will support our work to develop the funding and delivery models that will give effect to our transformative expansion plans.

The review highlights that 125,000 children and their families benefit from free entitlement to early learning and childcare each year. The early learning and childcare sector is diverse, with around 3,700 providers offering funded and non-funded provision. Of those, 46 per cent are run by local authorities, 29 per cent by the private sector and 25 per cent by the third sector. There are about 5,600 childminders currently operating. Partner providers in the private and third sectors play key roles in offering funded entitlement, and account for about 1,000 of the 2,500 settings that are offering the entitlement.

The review highlights that the cost of delivering provision is, relatively, more costly in local authority settings, when they are compared with partner-provider settings. However, the gap appears overwhelmingly to be explained by the relatively lower rates of pay in partner settings. We estimate that about 80 per cent of practitioners and 50 per cent of supervisors in partner settings are paid less than the living wage. I note that the National Day Nurseries Association commented yesterday that it wants to see the Government’s living wage ambition realised across the sector as part of the expansion. I am keen to work with it and with others to make that happen.

In terms of the funding situation that has been highlighted today by the BBC—the money that has been allocated does not all appear to have been spent as intended—it is for local authorities to account for their spending, but it is clear that the Government has met its commitments to fund the policy fully. We will use the learning from the review to inform our choices for the future.

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I tend to agree with the minister about that point, but does he accept that the Scottish Government has some responsibility for finding out exactly what has gone wrong?

Mark McDonald

I have had, and will continue to have, discussions with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. When we put in place a policy and the funding to follow it, we want to be sure that the funding benefits the children whom we want it to benefit. I take on board Liz Smith’s point; she should be reassured that the Scottish Government continues to discuss the situation with COSLA.

If the policy is to fulfil its potential, it must be developed around key universal and underpinning principles. I have identified four key principles that I consider to be central to delivering a policy that benefits children and families: quality, flexibility, accessibility and affordability. Quality is absolutely central to achieving the best outcomes for our children. It means ensuring a high-quality experience for all children and it complements other early years and educational activity to close the attainment gap. It recognises the value of those whom we trust to give our children the best start in life. It encompasses the following: support for positive child development and help for children to develop their cognitive, social and behavioural skills; help for the children who stand to benefit the most, which will resulting in a narrowing of the attainment gap; and a highly skilled and diverse workforce working in physical environments—indoor and outdoor—that are designed to maximise children’s experience.

Flexibility means ensuring that the expansion supports parents who are in work, training or study, and that patterns of provision are better aligned with working patterns, while delivering in a way that maintains a high-quality experience for the child. Flexibility encompasses effective partnerships between public and partner providers, a range of delivery options that meet the needs of parents and carers across Scotland—including improved links with working hours—strengthened cross-authority working, and implementation of a more accessible system for parents and carers to secure early learning and childcare for their children by exploiting the benefits of digital technology.

Accessibility refers to the geographical location of the provision—it must be as convenient as possible for families to access—but it also incorporates the need for children who have complex and additional needs to be offered appropriate and accessible early learning and childcare experiences. Accessibility encompasses the following: targeted investment to boost capacity in areas that have poor availability and areas of deprivation; innovative new capacity being delivered by the private and/or voluntary sectors, including opportunities for closely located employers to work together to offer early learning and childcare provision close to the workplace; encouragement of expansion within the social enterprise sector and exploration of how community empowerment could be used to encourage and develop community-led provision, particularly in remote and rural areas; and development within their locality of appropriate provision for children who have additional support needs.

Affordability means ensuring increased access to affordable early learning and childcare that will help to reduce the barriers to participation in the labour market that some parents face. It encompasses the following: delivery of a funding approach that sustains a range of provision for families; our ensuring that the cost of additional paid-for hours does not act as a barrier to employment, training or studying; our ensuring that we deliver on time and within budget, thereby paving the way for long-term financial sustainability; and improvement of integration with wider services, including hub-type provision in which a range of services for children and families are located.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

On affordability for flexibility, the key issue for a lot of parents is that too much provision is half days so they have to mix and match childcare, which is a fundamental cost. What will the minister do to address that point?

Mark McDonald

The Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 contains a requirement for local authorities to consult parents and to pay due regard to flexibility. It would be fair to say that, in a number of areas, we have seen shifts in the offer that is being made to parents, although I accept that more needs to be done. The expansion provides greater opportunity for that kind of flexible approach. I will go on to outline how we will take that forward.

We are at a pivotal moment in the development of our policy in early learning and childcare. Just as children have one real chance at childhood, which we in the chamber share a responsibility to support, we have an historic opportunity to create provision that gives our children’s educational and economic prospects a solid foundation for success. I believe that all parties broadly support our policy. There may be degrees of disagreement on its extent, the approach and how to achieve it, but I see that as a strength and not as a weakness. It is good that we can debate the detail of the policy, having collectively signed up to the principle.

Organisations, providers and, importantly, families have a view on what needs to happen to realise our ambition to ensure that every child benefits from their free entitlement to early learning.

I want to hear a diverse range of views—and not just within the confines of today’s debate. I want to consider the variety of ideas, views and experience that exist out there to ensure that we get absolutely right the blueprint behind the policy. That is why I can announce that we will undertake a consultation on our blueprint for early learning and childcare, which will begin on Friday 7 October. Once we have analysed the responses and determined our approach, I will report back to Parliament on the next steps.

I want to make it clear that it will be a genuine consultation. We have a better understanding of what is working well with existing provision and where we need to think more carefully about how we will take forward expansion. Within that, it is becoming clear that in order to deliver universal entitlement while also focusing resources where they can have the most impact for children and families, there might not be a single model that meets all needs. Instead, a more blended approach to funding and delivery might be what we should be considering. Quality will remain paramount, but I especially want to know more about which approaches work well to create the flexibility and choice that we need while also improving accessibility in its widest sense.

I hope that we will see positive engagement with the consultation that can help to ensure that our final approach delivers the best possible experience and outcomes for our children. In the meantime, we will also get on with delivering on commitments that have already been made that support our ambition. Our delivery model trials, which are due to be launched in January, will help to determine best practice in local-level delivery models.

We have committed to ensuring that nurseries in the most disadvantaged areas will benefit from an additional early learning and childcare graduate or teacher by 2018. To support that, we will increase the number of early learning and childcare practitioners undertaking the bachelor of arts degree in childhood practice from autumn 2017. I will continue to keep Parliament updated on our progress towards that ambition.

Good design guidance for early learning and childcare settings is being developed for publication by next summer, utilising up-to-date intelligence from the Care Inspectorate and the Scottish Futures Trust. We will develop a new induction and professional learning framework for childminders in order to deliver best practice in the profession, and we will continue to take steps to ensure that provision is appropriately tailored to suit the needs of eligible two-year-olds.

I have said that it is a policy that I believe commands broad support in principle both in Parliament and across Scotland’s communities. I believe that today’s debate and the consultation that we are about to undertake will help to ensure that we give Scotland’s children not just a better today, but a better tomorrow.

I move,

That the Parliament notes the publication of the Financial Review of Early Learning and Childcare in Scotland: the Current Landscape, which provides a comprehensive picture of how the funding provided by the Scottish Government to deliver early learning and childcare in Scotland is being used; welcomes the Scottish Government’s commitment to transform provision by almost doubling free entitlement from 600 to 1140 hours for every 3- and 4-year-old and eligible 2-year-olds; agrees that this transformational expansion must deliver a high-quality experience for children, involving a highly-skilled and qualified workforce, which is geographically accessible and meets the needs of children who require additional support, while also delivering the flexibility, affordability and choice, which parents need to support them in work, training or study, and agrees that the Scottish Government should consult on a policy blueprint for early learning and childcare in order to achieve this and ensure that this entitlement helps to ensure that more of Scotland’s children get the best possible start in life and contributes to the Scottish Government’s ambitions to close the attainment gap, tackle inequalities and boost inclusive economic growth.

14:42  

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I think that this is the eighth time in the recent past that the Parliament has engaged in a full debate about the early years programme, alongside the many committee sessions and ministerial statements on the same issue. That is a sign of what the minister just said about the issue’s prominence; it is also a sign that the issue continues to present the Scottish Government—if not the whole Parliament—with some of its most significant challenges, as the publication of this week’s report makes abundantly clear.

Even if we might dispute some of the figures and exactly whose fault the underspend might be, we learn from the report that such an underspend has taken place. I can well understand that some parents, when they saw that news this morning, might have wondered exactly what happened and might be a little perturbed.

The feedback from last week’s early years Scotland conference, which included some of Scotland’s foremost thinkers in the area, made plain exactly what the policy challenges are, as well as reiterating the compelling and consistent evidence about the importance of the early years. There is unanimous agreement about the challenges that we face but perhaps less agreement about how to confront those challenges.

I will set out the policy commitments from the Conservatives and I will press the Scottish Government hard to make one important and radical change by adopting another Scottish Conservative policy that it has said publicly that it is keen on, because of the feedback from parents, but which I notice does not appear in its motion. I will come to that a bit later.

First, I will deal with the earliest years—even the period pre-birth. I restate our firm commitment to the midwife and health visiting system, which commands the overwhelming trust of the public because it delivers some of the finest personal family care in Scotland, thanks to a dedicated and professional staff. The Scottish Government has rightly pledged to create 500 more health visitor posts, but that still leaves many professionals with huge case loads, and we know that there are recruitment issues in some areas.

Evidence from abroad suggests that we should seek to extend health visitor provision up to the age of seven years rather than just five, but that demands a major spending commitment. As that can be only a longer-term aim just now, there are perhaps other things that we can do in the short term.

Part of that should involve addressing neonatal care. We all know that a recent report from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health identified overworked staff, cancelled appointments and insufficient medical cover in some children’s wards. The report also said that staff did not get enough time off to study for the crucial training courses and qualifications that they need to do their jobs properly. Those are serious concerns.

I turn specifically to childcare and nursery provision, and I set my comments against the backdrop of the changes to schools policy that were recently announced. The Scottish Government has a laudable aim to deliver 600 hours of free childcare, but the reality is that the provision of places remains a problem. The majority of funded places are made up of three-hour slots, exactly as Daniel Johnson described. In many schools, provision can happen only in term time, and some families are forced to use private providers even if that is not their first choice.

On top of that, a number of local authority places can be purchased only in partnership nurseries, for which there is sometimes a capping policy. We know from the work that has been carried out by authorities, education experts and parents groups such as the fair funding for our kids group that there are serious pressures in provision. Despite the Scottish Government’s commitment to increase the number of hours that are provided, those pressures are putting barriers in the way of really flexible access for parents in choosing a place for their child. The net result is that both choice and flexibility are heavily constrained.

Here lies a contradiction in the Scottish National Party policy. The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, John Swinney, has said unequivocally that the best education needs to be based on strong pupil-teacher trust and that that is greatly enhanced when staff are liberated to follow their own professional instincts and when schools enjoy greater autonomy. If that is true—I whole-heartedly agree with Mr Swinney in that respect—surely that is also the case for childcare and nursery provision.

If the Scottish Government is now committed to the principle of freeing up our primary and secondary schools and to acting on “A Plan for Scotland: The Scottish Government’s Programme for Scotland 2016-17”, in which it says that it wants to spend £1 million on testing different delivery models—the minister hinted at that—why will it not also properly free up our nurseries and childcare facilities? Is the Government really committed to a child account, as was reported this morning? I will be interested to know when the minister sums up whether that is a specific pledge.

Like parents, the Scottish Conservatives firmly believe that we need to completely free up the system so that there is genuine choice and so that local authorities are not able to restrict places in the manner that has been flagged up by the fair funding for our kids campaign. At present, the mix of state, partnership and private provision is simply not working well enough.

As a start, we should perhaps look to some of the more flexible local authorities, which at least recognise the problem, even if they are not able to solve it completely. For nursery provision in Edinburgh, for example, a voucher is allocated to parents in the form of a number code that the parents pass to the partnership nursery in which they want to purchase a place. That sometimes does not happen in other council areas, which leaves parents with an unacceptable postcode lottery.

Should we perhaps look to a country such as Sweden, which operates a wholesale and highly successful child voucher system that gives families a choice between public pre-schools and nurseries and approved private and voluntary sector childcare providers? Indeed, should we go even further and introduce a voucher system that allows the state money that is due to a child in his or her early years to be spent in units on registered childcare or nursery provision as and when parents choose? In that way, money would truly follow the child, and the system would be wholly responsive to parental demand.

Mark McDonald

I am grateful to Liz Smith for her supportive comments. On the funding issues, part of the reason why we are taking the opportunity to consult on the blueprint is that we want to gain feedback on the different approaches that could be taken, although we recognise that there might not be a one-size-fits-all model. I know that the Conservatives have nailed their colours to the mast in their amendment, but part of the consultation exercise will be about looking at different approaches that could be taken and at the feedback that we get on them. I give Liz Smith that commitment.

Liz Smith

I am grateful to the minister for that. However, we already know some of the feedback. The Conservatives are responding to what has been a long-term campaign from many parent groups about what the nub of the problem is.

I will raise something else. If we went to the system that we propose, we would get rid of the problem of birthday discrimination that the SNP persistently seems not to want to deal with. If the SNP is absolutely committed to closing the attainment gap, which I believe it is, we should not tolerate such a system. It is clear that some children are receiving the full two years, some children are getting 18 months and another set of children is getting only 15 months. Changing the funding mechanism could get rid of some of that difficulty, which is a serious problem for many parents.

Notwithstanding that or today’s report, we recognise that no party is in a position to afford to do everything that it would like to do, so we believe that, in the short run, we have to focus on the families who face the toughest challenges. There is a thread of agreement there with the Scottish Government. That is very important.

I will finish by pressing the Scottish Government hard, because I would like it to commit to radical reform that would free up the system, reduce the inequalities and put the focus firmly on the quality of care delivery rather than on the numbers game of more and more hours of provision, welcome as that may be. We are in a qualitative argument. There is no use in debating the numbers game if we cannot provide flexibility that works to ensure access for all parents and all our youngsters.

I move amendment S5M-01703.1, to leave out from “almost doubling” to end and insert:

“increasing free entitlement; agrees, in light of the evidence related to the earliest signs of the attainment gap, that the priority should be extending hours to a higher proportion of disadvantaged one- and two-year-olds, and believes that, in order to address the growing challenges of increasing the provision and quality of childcare, the Scottish Government should be radical in its approach by adopting a fully-flexible voucher system that is wholly responsive to parental demands for different kinds of childcare and early learning and that removes barriers to the supply of places.”

14:52  

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

The Parliament holds consensus as one of its key virtues. The procedures that we adhere to, the committee structures and even the building’s architecture were designed to promote agreement on the issues that are important to Scotland. That is not always how it works out, but I think that we all agree that this is one of those issues on which we do agree. We agree that tackling inequality is one of the key things that we are here to do, and the role and importance of childcare in doing that are beyond dispute.

We are all aware of how stubborn the gender pay gap is: women’s pay is on average £175 less per week than that of their male colleagues, and flexible childcare is critical to helping working parents and especially mothers back into work. As the minister and Liz Smith pointed out, we know how critical early years education is to developing children’s education. By the time they reach school, children from the poorest families have a vocabulary of on average 3,000 words, while their wealthy peers have a vocabulary of 5,000 words. If we are serious about tackling the attainment gap, waiting until children are at school is simply too late.

That is why getting childcare right is so important because, without it, we will simply not make headway in tackling such inequalities. I welcome the commitment that the Government is showing to childcare. I welcome the free hours that are being provided and I think that it is right to deliver more.

As Mark McDonald said, although much has been achieved, there is still much to do. To achieve the aims, we need some honesty about what is being delivered and some realism about whether it is meeting the needs of parents and our children.

Most important, we need to know how the Government is going to achieve a massive expansion in capacity. We need three things. We need a plan—we need to know how the expansion is going to work and how capacity is to double. If I may be blunt, while it is welcome that a blueprint is being published for consultation, that is not a full plan.

Secondly, we need quality. Childcare has to improve children’s education and wellbeing. Thirdly, we need flexibility. If childcare does not fit with how work parents work, we are—frankly—barely getting started.

Let us look to the plan. The First Minister has called childcare the biggest capital project of this parliamentary session, and she is right. It will cost more than the Queensferry crossing, more than the M8, M73 and M74 project and more than any school or hospital. Its impact will also be far greater. However, we do not know how much the investment will be, where it is going, when it will be delivered or even who will deliver it.

Almost doubling the hours that are available will almost double the cost. Is the Government committing to spending—in revenue terms—an extra £300 million or maybe £400 million a year? The analysis this week does not spell that out.

On staff, the Government said this week that it does not know how much it will cost to advertise for, train and employ the promised extra 20,000 staff. Most childcare providers are not set up to provide lunch, so an expansion of the current local authority nurseries will require a huge capital injection not just to double the provision but to install hundreds, if not thousands, of kitchens.

We need quality, yet the average full-time early years practitioner who works in a private nursery is paid less than the living wage—they are paid a median of £7.71 per hour. However, nurseries are making a loss on their places, according to the National Day Nurseries Association. How can it be that partner providers are paying poverty pay to the people who look after our children? That cannot be the way to reduce the attainment gap. Any Government system that does not start with the living wage as its absolute minimum and the cornerstone of its calculations needs to look at how it is coming up with its numbers.

Save The Children is calling for all nurseries to include an early years teacher—a graduate with expertise in supporting children’s language development. As we expand funded childcare, we have to ensure that the extra money that is being invested delivers higher-wage, higher-skilled and higher-quality childcare.

We also need flexibility. Labour’s call is for the SNP to lift its sights to what the childcare commission and others have said should be Scotland’s long-term vision—52 weeks a year, and not 38; 50 hours a week, and not 30; provision for one and two-year-olds, too; and provision beyond the age of four.

We need childcare that is flexible enough for parents to use so that they can go back to work. As it stands, childcare is not flexible, and the Government must sort that out as it expands provision. Local authority nurseries are overwhelmingly half-day only. They provide their care in chunks of three hours and 10 minutes once a day, either in the morning or in the afternoon, and not in the school holidays. That is not how my working day runs, and it is the same for parents the length and breadth of Scotland. Every parent is therefore topping up childcare provision with other help and is sometimes ferrying their children—or asking grandparents or childminders to take them—from free provision to paid-for provision.

I ask members to imagine that childcare was totally flexible. If a parent dropped off their child at 8 am and picked them up at 6 pm five days a week from January, their 600 hours would run out by the end of March. Even if the provision was doubled, it would get them only to mid-June. With half-day childcare, we are only halfway there.

Because childcare issues do not go away when a child goes to school, we also need a plan for childcare that includes children beyond the age of four, with proper wraparound care. A great starting point would be a breakfast club being available to every child in every school. The arguments for breakfast clubs are clear and have been well rehearsed. They are great for parents who work, train or study. They are brilliant for children’s nutrition and they set children up for the rest of their school day. Despite those facts, however, the proportion of schools with breakfast clubs is lower in Scotland than it is anywhere else in the UK, and there is no plan from the Scottish Government to expand that provision. We therefore hope that SNP members will back our amendment.

The Scottish Government is right to expand childcare. If Labour members sound critical, it is because the current situation needs to be better. We need flexibility and more capacity. We need a plan for childcare. We need childcare that works for children, for parents and for working families.

I am pleased to move amendment S5M-01703.3, to insert after “training or study”:

“; notes the pressures that working families face in accessing affordable and high-quality childcare that fits round their daily lives; considers that a transformational expansion of childcare in Scotland must also look at how to provide affordable wrap-around childcare for all ages as recommended by the Commission for Childcare Reform; recognises the important role that breakfast clubs can play in a child’s start to the school day and to parents’ needs in work, training or study; agrees that the Scottish Government should provide additional investment in breakfast clubs, ensuring that they are available to all primary schools”.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I call Tavish Scott to speak to and move amendment S5M-01703.2. You have up to seven minutes, Mr Scott.

14:58  

Tavish Scott (Shetland Islands) (LD)

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I enjoy the poshness of your voice on these occasions.

Late last night—Mark McDonald will appreciate this, as a football fan—I watched a bit of the highlights of Celtic and Man City from Glasgow. Just after that, the news came on. I was surrounded by papers for the debate, the Government’s financial review and so on, but what got me last night was the haunting picture of that young boy from Aleppo who had been gassed in one of the Russian or Syrian attacks on that city. I call it a city, but it hardly exists any more.

I turned back to all the papers that were in front of me, and here we are, all asking for X hundreds of millions for this and X hundreds of millions for that—by the way, I should add that that is not my party’s policy. Quite a lot of me immediately thought that we should be discussing how to get humanitarian aid into that young boy’s life as much as we should be discussing our country. Maybe that was just the moment that I was in as I tried to think about childcare in Scotland; instead, I thought that childcare in Aleppo is a different concept—they are just trying to stay alive.

As Daniel Johnson and the minister said, there is a lot of broad political agreement on the direction of travel that is being embarked on. Liz Smith struck up an entertaining debate about vouchers. I seem to remember that being Conservative policy when I was a candidate in 1999, which probably shows that I am pretty long in the tooth. You probably remember the same policy, Presiding Officer, although you were not advocating it, I should swiftly add.

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

Tread warily when you talk about being long in the tooth.

Tavish Scott

Liz Smith talked about providing enough flexibility, and I guess that that will be part of the debate.

There does not seem to be much doubt about the importance of making the big switch and big investment in our children’s future. I would not disagree with the minister’s arguments about trying to do as much as possible to target those in our society who face the greatest challenges, whether in terms of their educational upbringing or the health inequalities that, to be blunt, very much exist in parts of Scotland. As Daniel Johnson rightly pointed out, when children from the most deprived backgrounds start primary school, their vocabulary is, on average, 12 months behind that of their well-off peers. The OECD, which is much cited by all of us these days, has confirmed that

“these gaps widen as children move up the school system”.

That, surely, is not acceptable. It is intolerable that we continue to see that.

Liz Smith

Is it not true that one reason why it would be helpful to have a flexible voucher system is that it would get rid of some of the difficulties around birthday discrimination, which prevents some of our youngsters from getting their full share of nursery provision?

Tavish Scott

That may be a good argument for a voucher system, but I can think of one or two others that are perhaps less good arguments for it. I will come to them later, not least because of the region that I represent in Parliament.

I will make two other points by way of introduction. The first is that I recognise that the Government has moved its position on the issue. For some time, Liberal Democrat members have argued for more investment in early intervention, and it is important to recognise that the Government has moved in that direction. Secondly, it is also important to cite Professor James Heckman’s Nobel prize, which gave worldwide recognition to the fact that a child’s life chances are improved if there is investment before the age of three. Research that he used shows that for every £1 that is spent before a child is three, £11 is saved later on.

I want to address the flexibility point that the minister, Liz Smith and Daniel Johnson made, in the context of rural and island areas. My amendment seeks to bring that point to Parliament this afternoon. I want the minister to consider three issues that arguably apply to the whole of Scotland, and which certainly apply to rural parts of Scotland, in terms of how we achieve the plan that Daniel Johnson was pushing back at the minister.

The first issue is workforce. Audrey Edwards, who is an executive education officer for Shetland Islands Council, told me:

“We currently struggle to recruit appropriately qualified staff to our remoter pre-school settings. The further away from the central area of Shetland”—

not Aberdeen or Edinburgh—

“you go, the harder it gets.”

Therefore, increasing entitlement will only become more of a challenge. What are the Government’s plans to support workforce development in the most remote and rural areas?

The Government is increasing the required level of qualification to improve quality. Perhaps the minister can address that issue when he winds up. I understand the point. We have seen such things in other areas. I seem to remember, some years ago, a long argument in the Parliament about the care sector, with a previous Government arguing for a greater level of qualification. However, that did not necessarily help us to get more carers in communities across Scotland. Although the principle of better qualifications is extremely laudable, there is a concern, not just in my local authority but, I am sure, in others, about how that will impact on the ability to recruit to those areas.

Mark McDonald

I take on board the point that Mr Scott makes. It is a question of making sure that we get the right combination of qualifications and career pathways, so that people know that they will have an opportunity to develop in the profession. We might address some of those issues by getting that balance right.

Tavish Scott

That seems an entirely appropriate way forward.

I also have a point to make about revenue funding, which I am sure that many other members will make. It relates to places in which pre-school provision has grown, but where there are no private providers. I make this point to counter Liz Smith’s argument about the complete freedom that the voucher system that she proposes would provide. I would love to have that freedom in places such as Shetland, but the reality there—and, I am sure, in many other local authority areas—is that the local authority is the provider. The Scottish Borders area is another good example. There will be some private providers, but there will have to be a whole lot more. We will have to encourage the development of that capacity if the target of providing 1,140 hours of early learning and childcare is to be achieved. I hope that the Government accepts that there needs to be a mechanism in the revenue funding streams that it is contemplating that will support not only the increased number of hours of provision, but the change in the model of delivery that is required.

On infrastructure, it will be the case not just in the islands but across Scotland that additions will have to be built on to many of our primary schools to enable them to have the capacity in nursery provision to cover the whole day. I hope that the minister will give some thought—in due course, if not today—to the best way of making capital funds available to the sector to allow it to achieve the policy objective.

I make it clear that we strongly support the growth in the number of hours of early learning and childcare that children will be entitled to for the laudable reasons that have been given by all the front-bench speakers. As Daniel Johnson fairly put it, the plan is now the most important aspect for the future.

I move amendment S5M-01703.2, to insert at end:

“; believes that the importance of having a robust long-term delivery plan in place is demonstrated by the fact that many parents have problems accessing current entitlements to free provision and that the financial review confirmed that only 7% of two-year-olds were receiving free nursery care at the 2015 census, and believes that this plan must address the additional challenges of ensuring that rural and island communities fully share the benefits of this policy, both on the provision of pre-school education and the capital costs that local education authorities will incur.”

The Deputy Presiding Officer

We move to the open debate. Speeches should be of up to six minutes, although there is a tiny bit of time in hand, so if members take interventions, I will make it up to them.

15:06  

James Dornan (Glasgow Cathcart) (SNP)

There is not a member of the Scottish Parliament who would disagree with the notion that children are the key to Scotland having a prosperous future. That point has been made by the three previous speakers. Every child in Scotland deserves high-quality education. It is essential for there to be more teachers and childcare graduates to provide that quality of care, and to provide protection for young children and assurance for parents. Deprived communities need more resources and staff to provide that high-quality care for low-income families.

Increasing the amount of time that children from disadvantaged backgrounds spend with highly qualified practitioners can contribute to our efforts to close the attainment gap in school. As our motion says, we aim to provide every child with the highest standards of literacy and numeracy, because we know that the young children who face the greatest disadvantages benefit the most from high-quality provision.

I would not disagree with anything that Daniel Johnson said. It would be fantastic to have such wraparound care for 50 hours a week, 52 weeks of the year, but I think that the step from where we are now to what we are proposing is a considerable leap, on which we should be being congratulated. What Daniel Johnson was talking about was almost an uncosted wish list, and we could all make one of those. I suggest that members should work with the Government to implement the current proposals and only then look at more ambitious targets.

Early learning and childcare provision should fit around families’ needs. Every family from a disadvantaged background must be given the flexibility to have access to affordable high-quality childcare. OECD and European Commission evidence shows that childcare costs are a barrier to participation. Expanding the amount of funded childcare will help those with young children to participate in the labour market. As well as helping parents to work, that will help the Scottish economy. As the Scottish Government outlined in its economic strategy of March 2015, it will promote inclusive growth through support for a more diverse workforce by removing barriers to employment, such as lack of childcare.

I was concerned to read in the financial review that some local authorities do not appear to be using the funding that has been provided to benefit children and parents through childcare, and I would hate to think that that was indeed the case. However, it is not entirely clear from the financial review and the information that has been presented which areas are doing particularly well and which areas might have issues with where the money is being spent. It would be helpful for me as convener of the Education and Skills Committee to know what is happening around the country, so I would welcome any information that the minister could provide to assist with that when he makes his closing remarks.

The Education and Skills Committee recently held an informal meet-and-greet on, among other things, early years issues in Raploch. Childminders, nursery staff, parents and people who work for community initiatives that support families came along. When I asked a group of parents from Raploch what the most important aspect of early years policy was for them, the clear answer was that it should be flexible so that providers can tailor their service to meet the needs of the children and their families. When identifying flexibility in care, the role of childminders must be acknowledged. Childminders provide a service that often cannot be beaten on flexibility.

Having spoken to childminders, I understand that those care givers take their role seriously and see themselves as much more than just a place to keep kids safe. They are educators, confidants and often a constant in children’s lives.

Early learning and childcare can be provided by a local council nursery, a nursery class in a primary school, a private day nursery, an independent school nursery, a playgroup or a childminder. However, there can be a problem, in that only some local authorities have decided to engage in early learning and childcare contracts with childminders. I encourage all local authorities throughout Scotland to re-engage with the childminding sector and carefully consider that extremely flexible arrangement for parents and the benefits of having an early learning and childcare contract with childminders. That can lend itself to the idea of tailoring care to meet the needs of every unique family and child. I doubt that the minister will disagree if I say that we will not be able to achieve the 1,140 hours without the childminding profession.

Family workers can also play a key role in identifying families who may need additional support. They enable parents to understand the nursery and school enrolment system and are key in parents and carers understanding what free provision is available to the children. I was delighted to hear about the work of the thrive project, an initiative based in Stirling that provides training to parents inside a nursery facility. The training can cover anything from managing stress to helping to find pathways to adult education and employment. That type of engagement with parents can lead to a better and more stable life for a child. If a parent is supported, the knock-on effect on children is invaluable and immeasurable. A child is led by example, and what better example to set to a child than building up strong and confident parents?

Early years childcare is imperative, and not only in setting a child out on their educational journey on the right foot or as a way in which parents can return to the workplace. It can take great strain off parents who are struggling with physical or mental health issues.

One young single mother of two shared her experience with me. She had a difficult-to-manage heart condition and an older child with severe health problems, while both her parents—her main support—were battling cancer. On the verge of a mental health breakdown, that young mother took her baby to a health visitor who realised that the mother was in danger of sinking and quickly got the baby a place in a local nursery. The mother was able to rest, her children were well cared for and her family and home life dramatically improved. The mother is now a success.

I was touched by how thankful that young lone parent was for that early years childcare, which she told me saved her life. She wanted me to make it clear to members that she does not think that she would have been around to tell me that story had she not had that support.

The story of that young mother is not unique. There are examples involving additional support needs from every area of Scotland. Regardless of socioeconomic status or geography, families can be hit with all types of problems during the early years of a child’s life. Postnatal depression is not the sole affliction affecting mothers of newborns—although it can carry on for many years into the child’s life. The respite provided by outlets such as playgroups and nurseries can be the start of recovery for women—and, in some cases, men—up and down the country.

Early years childcare is also the first stop in identifying any additional support needs that a child may have. Early intervention in addressing such needs is often key in equipping that child with the right tools for a successful, stable and constructive learning future.

I thank the Minister for Childcare and Early Years for bringing the debate to the chamber and welcome the expansion of early learning and childcare hours to Scotland. As has been said before,

“Education is not solely about earning a great living. It means living a great life.”

There is no doubt in my mind that, by increasing the number of hours and flexibility of childcare, we are responding to the needs of modern-day family life.

15:13  

Annie Wells (Glasgow) (Con)

Rarely do we see cross-party support and consensus in the chamber, so I am pleased to hear the Scottish Government echoing some of the Scottish Conservatives’ policies on expanding childcare provision. Although I welcome those policies, I look to my party for a vision of how they can be implemented, particularly when it comes to flexibility, which I will talk about later.

What is the point of a flagship policy if taking advantage of it becomes a logistical nightmare for parents? The best start in life for Scotland’s children needs to be created in a way that is realistic about the funds available. We also need to be honest about how much services cost and, most important, to prioritise help for the people who need it most.

Doubling childcare hours to 30 hours a week for all three and four-year-olds is great in theory, but I ask the Scottish Government whether the money could not be spent in a more effective and socially just manner. As it stands, the Government proposes that childcare provision be extended to a small proportion of two-year-olds—27 per cent—but we want a higher proportion of two-year-olds to receive it and disadvantaged one-year-olds to be brought into the system.

We know the benefits of children receiving high-quality childcare at an early age, and we know how, early on in a child’s life, gaps begin to grow between those from affluent backgrounds and those from less advantaged backgrounds. Understanding Glasgow reported, as part of its Glasgow indicators project, that in 2010 more than 10,000 children—9 per cent of the child population—were receiving social work input and that, in 2009-10, over 2 per cent of the child population had one or more parents with a substance misuse problem and were being supported by social work services.

The Scottish Conservatives offer an alternative use of public money that focuses the attention on disadvantaged children, as demonstrated in our proposal for the creation of a crisis family fund worth £10 million. We believe that focusing money on early intervention and support for troubled families is the best way of ensuring that all children grown up equally in Scotland.

Looking to help mothers to get back into work is also important. There are parents in Glasgow who have come to me because they have found a job but cannot afford childcare. Expanding the system to include a higher proportion of two-year-olds would surely ease some of the pressure that currently exists because of the gap between statutory maternity pay and free childcare provision.

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

Will the member take an intervention on that point?

Annie Wells

I am sorry, but I have quite a lot to get through.

I have been a mother all my working life, dropping my son off at half past 7 in the morning and picking him up at half past 7 at night for many years. It is an expensive business, and having to foot the bill alone means that work does not really pay.

Bob Doris

Will the member take an intervention on that point?

Annie Wells

I am sorry, but I just want to get on with this.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I can give you a little extra time, Ms Wells.

Annie Wells

No, I am fine. I have quite a lot to get through.

Flexibility in childcare is important. Although 30 hours a week is, in theory, fantastic, the provision is split into blocks of 3 hours and 10 minutes. For the majority of parents who live hectic lives and for anyone who works from 9 to 5 or does shift-pattern work like I did in retail, although the number of hours is high, the provision is unworkable and they do not add up. The Scottish Government’s motion talks about flexibility, but I see no evidence or mention of how its flagship policy achieves that. Fair funding for our kids, the Glasgow-based campaign group, has worked tirelessly to highlight the issue. Having begun its focus in the city, the group now champions reform countrywide, arguing that families are unable to make the most of their entitlement because of the unsuitable hours that are offered by most council nurseries. It has shown that a whopping two thirds of nursery places in Scotland are half-day only.

As Liz Smith has said, we need innovation such as we see in the Swedish system, with the use of a childcare credit or voucher system. Parents should be able to use their hours as they wish, using a mixture of private, local authority and partnership care. That is the only way in which we will be able to accommodate any increase. As it stands, under the Scottish Government’s proposals, doubling childcare eradicates the one-day model, which is made up of one morning session and one afternoon session. A new 9 to 3 model will require huge investment in childcare—something that is not accounted for by the Scottish Government. We estimate that 650 new nurseries will need to be built and that 3,250 new nursery staff will need to be trained. The move to 30 hours a week will result in a 40 per cent reduction in the number of available council places, with 72,000 places needing to be found.

The Scottish Conservatives have addressed mental healthcare provision for children through our proposal for a £300 million investment in mental health and—specifically for children—our proposal for a £10 million investment in a crisis family fund, which I mentioned earlier. The Scottish Government is currently failing our young people, as official figures have shown, and is struggling to meet the 18-week target that was set by the SNP for treating young people and children with mental health problems. There is genuine consensus on the importance of this area, and it is an issue that needs to be got right.

Although we agree, in principle, with the Scottish Government’s plans to increase childcare and mental health provision, it is the Scottish Conservatives who offer the innovative and focused approach that is required. Investment in our children needs to be affordable, flexible and, most important, fair.

15:19  

Gail Ross (Caithness, Sutherland and Ross) (SNP)

Before I start, I will say that my mother-in-law is one of the valued childminders we have been talking about today. That is not a declaration of interests, but she will be delighted that I have mentioned her. [Laughter.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer

You may get extra help for that.

Gail Ross

There are few things in life more important than aiming to give children the best start. They will grow into the leaders and decision makers of the future, the teachers, doctors, police officers, joiners, plumbers and childminders—and, indeed, politicians. They will go on to inform and invent, and it is our duty to ensure that they are given every opportunity to do so. I am glad to see consensus across the chamber for that principle.

As the party of government, we have made a commitment to make Scotland the best place in the world to grow up, and we believe that high-quality childcare is an important feature of that aspiration. Besides the obvious economic benefits that enabling parents and carers to go out to work brings, nursery education or childcare provision enhances development and gives children the best opportunity to achieve in later years.

Childcare has been the topic of many a debate both in the chamber and in the homes of parents across the country. Since the SNP came to power, we have increased nursery entitlement from 412.5 hours per year in 2007 to 600 hours in 2014, but we are not stopping there, because we believe that we can and should go further. We made a manifesto commitment to nearly double free early learning and childcare entitlement to 1,140 hours per year by 2020. We have also committed to closing the attainment gap in our education system.

That investment in preventive spend will help to ensure that all our children, no matter where they are from or what their circumstances, will have the chance of an equal start to their education. That is especially vital in our most deprived areas, where children have less opportunity. As part of the roll-out, we will ensure that every child in early education in the most deprived communities will have access to an additional teacher or childcare graduate by 2018. We know that that will bring massive developmental benefits and confidence and will equip every child with literacy and numeracy skills, and that that, in turn, will also address the attainment gap.

In my area, Highland Council’s director of care and learning, Bill Alexander, is committed to ensuring that children all over our vast and diverse region are given the same access to choice, but he realises the challenges of delivery in remote and rural areas. Despite that, Highland Council has already made good strides towards flexibility. There are 13 childcare managers in post in its schools, and many of them are now offering a level of choice that goes well beyond the fixed morning sessions. That is being well received by both schools and families. Cala and other partner providers continue to work towards developing more choice and flexibility for parents.

Bill Alexander has told me:

“There are many challenges involved in getting to 1140 hours (and even more flexibility) but we have an infrastructure in place that we are confident about. As well as working on this within Highland, we have agreed a collaborative framework with the other northern and island authorities (in the Northern Alliance) that will ensure we share best practice and pool our efforts to deliver not only 1140 hours, but the best possible service for children and families.”

Those hours are not just about childcare and support for parents to get back to work. As I said, they offer a real opportunity to promote positive child development and to assist and work in partnership with families. Highland Council is already planning to take forward those various elements. It has a senior manager in place to oversee that, and it has deployed family resource co-ordinators out to the various areas. The council has also reorganised its curricular support and that is proving to be very effective.

Across the chamber, we have agreement—I think—that that is great news for families all over Scotland who struggled in the past to find quality, flexible, accessible and affordable childcare. By the end of the session, the benefit to families will be worth more than £3,000 a year compared with 2007. We will support parents and carers who want to return to work or study and we will pilot a range of different approaches to find out what works best in each area.

Boosting the number of hours to 600 made a huge difference, and saved families an average of £707 per child per year, but many parents made requests for further hours and choice. In many areas, the system needs further work, but the flexibility that is built into the system going forward will make a huge difference to many families. We will work alongside local authorities and other childcare providers to ensure that we are getting it right—as we said at the start, getting it right for every child.

15:25  

Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I welcome the opportunity to have this debate today on the Government’s plans to expand free entitlement to early learning and childcare provision from 600 hours to 1,140 hours for every three and four-year-old and eligible two-year-olds in Scotland.

Working families across Scotland face a multitude of pressures when trying to balance their household budget and, often, the cost of childcare is a major contributing factor to that. The Scottish Government’s “Financial review of early learning and childcare” tells us that more than half of the hourly wage of a working parent on the living wage will need to go towards childcare costs, and that is before that person even thinks about other monthly costs such as rent or mortgage payments. For a single parent with two children under the age of five, the predicament becomes quite stark.

In the current climate, it is therefore certainly not surprising that the Scottish household survey revealed last week that single parent households—23 per cent of all households—are the most likely to report that they are not managing well financially.

Managing childcare costs can be a difficult and stressful task, particularly when parents are balancing their childcare commitments around work or study. That is why, with colleagues across the chamber, as well as parents across the country, I welcome the Government’s commitment today to expand free entitlement. However, it is also why I hope that today’s debate will generate some much-needed further consideration of how we can best serve the needs of parents and children in a way that provides not just affordable childcare but childcare that is high quality and flexible.

From conversations with parents in the Central Scotland region, which I represent, the issue that I hear raised consistently as a top priority is the availability of affordable childcare that is also flexible enough to meet the needs of parents’ commitments. As others have said today, in order to create a transformation of the childcare system, the expansion of free entitlement to childcare needs to fit around the daily lives of parents.

I would like to draw particular attention to a recent report that was published by the National Union of Students Scotland, which collated the childcare experiences of student parents, who we have not heard much about today. The findings showed that the availability of affordable, flexible childcare for parents who are studying is severely lacking.

The report—it is called “The Bairn Necessities”—showed that student parents face a significant shortfall between the childcare and student support funding that they receive and the actual costs of childcare. For college students, that ranged from £20 to £400 a month, with an average of £123; and, for university students, it ranged from £100 to £1,000 a month, with an average of £382. Across university and college, the most common monthly shortfall was around £200.

The reasons behind those figures are diverse but can be linked to an information gap at universities and colleges with regard to how many student parents they have, which leaves them unable to offer targeted support. In fact, only three colleges and nine universities were able to provide such information to the NUS during its investigation.

There were also issues around the differences in university and college term times and those of schools, the lack of affordable childcare and the necessary support for student parents to access it, which means that student parents are forced to miss significant amounts of study time or else pay for extra childcare hours.

Mark McDonald

I thank Monica Lennon for the points that she is making. I, too, have read that report and can say that, along with Shirley-Anne Somerville, I have looked into whether there are synergies in our review of student support and our work on expansion that could help to address the points that the report raises. The issue is very much on the Government’s radar, and we are looking into what can be done to address some of the concerns that have been raised.

Monica Lennon

I appreciate that clarification. That will be reassuring to the students who we are talking about. In the past couple of days, a college lecturer from—I think—the north-east of Scotland shared with me the experience of a single mother of three children who had applied for various part-time courses but could manage only to get on a waiting list, and was then told that numbers had been restricted because full-time courses were the priority. Childcare provision is not enough for her to do a full-time course and, in order to access a full-time nursery place, she would have to take her youngest child out of the local authority-run nursery and use a private one, which, aside from the expensive cost, would be impractical for picking her other children up from school.

People are having these experiences day and daily; as a result of this particular situation, the individual in question is being prevented from continuing her college education until her youngest child starts school. The warning signs are certainly there. For example, according to the latest figures from the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council, there are fewer women in part-time study in further education.

I do not think that it is good enough that we still have parents who, because of childcare restrictions, are being held back from contributing to the workplace or continuing their education, and I believe that this Parliament should make it its mission to ensure that we are doing much more to support parents to reach their potential. Expansion of free entitlement is welcome, but if it covers only some of the cost or some of the year, it will not solve the problem of how we can achieve wraparound childcare to deal with the diverse pressures faced by families across Scotland. In its recent report, which was based on freedom of information requests to all councils, the fair funding for our kids campaign highlighted that 65 per cent of all nursery places in Scotland were half days only.

Early years provision is vital and, as I have said, I support the extension of free entitlement. However, it will lead to a transformation in childcare arrangements only if we make it flexible to parents’ needs with regard to work and study commitments and if we also keep in mind that childcare issues extend well beyond the nursery years. Extension of childcare for two, three and four-year-olds must go hand in hand with transformation of pre-school and after-school care, and I hope that the Government will support Scottish Labour’s amendment on the important role played by breakfast clubs in the start to a child’s school day.

Truly transformational reform of the childcare system requires the Government to use the Parliament’s powers to invest in our vital public services and council budgets. Only then will we see a childcare system that serves the needs of all.

15:31  

Gillian Martin (Aberdeenshire East) (SNP)

I thank the minister for bringing this debate to the chamber, and I hope that those who want us to do more will reflect on how they might assist the Government in getting more control of the mechanisms that will allow Scotland to do that. I was very interested to hear Annie Wells mention the Swedish Government, as I recently read that it spends more on early years learning than it does on defence. Perhaps, then, we can stick the £170 billion that we might save on Trident renewal into childcare; I wonder how many childcare hours that would give us.

The potential impact of childcare on the economy is significant. Traditionally, economic debates about childcare programmes have centred on cost, but in my contribution to the debate, I will look at the economic benefits of publicly funded childcare and I hope to bring us back to one of the core reasons for the SNP putting an extended childcare programme at the heart of its manifesto in May.

It makes economic sense to make the pathway to work easier for parents, and the measures that are outlined in the commitment to extend free childcare are a massive step in addressing issues around the gender productivity gap. A lack of good, flexible and affordable childcare is a historical barrier to accessing work that pays. The financial dilemma of the working parent affected me when my children were small. The question was how could I earn enough to offset childcare costs and leave me with any income to justify my return to work—work that I loved, which utilised my qualifications and which was, in effect, a return on the Government’s investment in me through the free university tuition that I enjoyed.

For some, the answer is going part time, which means less money for the parent and less money going into the economy. As we know, part-time work tends to pay less pro rata, and women often cannot access part-time work that is commensurate with their skill set and qualifications, particularly if they have taken a couple of years out of the workplace after childbirth. Another answer to easing the dilemma is for another family member to take on the childcare responsibilities. It is very common to hear of grandparents going part time or giving up work altogether to help out, which means less income for them and, yet again, less money going into the economy. We talk about mothers because—let us face it—even in 2016, it is usually the mother who tends to stay at home or go part time when the financial dilemma hits, but lack of affordable childcare can also take grandmothers out of the workplace well before retirement age. As a result, there is an impact on two generations of female labour and a stubborn gender gap in workforce participation, all because of the cost of childcare.

Research has found that a 50 per cent reduction in the gender gap in labour force participation could lead to an additional gain in gross domestic product of about 6 per cent by 2030, rising by a further 6 per cent if the gap is completely closed. I take this opportunity to ask for more gendered data on productivity in Scotland. When we reflect on the success of the programme—maybe in about five years’ time—I would like to see data evidence that I am certain will show the productivity gap decreasing. That data does not exist at the moment.

It is helpful to look at the examples of countries that have undergone similar schemes and at the economic impact of those schemes. One cursory search of the internet reveals reams of studies on how free childcare policies of Governments around the world have dramatically increased a country’s productivity. We should be mindful that many of those studies cite countries that have full fiscal control, such as Norway, whose former Prime Minister cited free childcare and women playing a full part in the workforce as the main reason for its economic success. Yes, members heard right: free childcare is the reason, not oil and gas. Those on the opposing benches who ask us to do more and who ask about the affordability of the programme should take note of the studies that they quote with gay abandon when they think about Scotland’s budgetary constraints.

With increased productivity comes increased income tax contributions, busting the myth that childcare is a cost when, in fact, it could be a productivity and tax generation enabler. If members do not believe me, they only have to look at the countries with the smallest percentage gap. The common denominator is that they have childcare programmes.

With the easing of the childcare burden, it is not just the employment figures that we should examine when we assess the impact of the programme. The lack of affordable and flexible childcare is the top issue that is raised in my conversations with groups and women in business when we talk about the persistent gap in the number of women in enterprise—women who are a huge, untapped resource. Any boost to the number of women setting up businesses is wholly welcome.

I end with one of my favourite statistics, and I am not normally a fan of stats. It is estimated that if as many women as men set up in business, the contribution to Scotland’s gross value added would be £7.6 billion. That is a significant amount, and programmes such as the one that we are discussing are opening the door to that increase in productivity.

15:37  

Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green)

I welcome the opportunity to discuss the wider positive impacts that changes to early learning and childcare provision can bring, and how those positive impacts will be realised only if we ensure that the child is at the centre of the decisions that we take. I am pleased to hear the minister say that the economic benefits are not the primary driver.

Research has shown that the best ways to improve life chances begin before birth and pre-conception and involve ensuring that children have positive experiences in their early years. The greatest rate of child development occurs in the first five years of life. By the age of three, almost half our language capacity is in place, and by the age of five, when many children first enter primary school, that figure is as much as 85 per cent. The evidence from psychology, neuroscience and biology is clear: our experiences in our early years are the greatest determinant of our capacity to grow into confident, resilient adults who are able to handle life’s ups and downs.

I therefore recognise the urgent need to improve the pay and conditions of our childcare staff, who play an important role in providing stability and positive learning experiences for our children in their earliest years. The financial review of early learning and childcare provision made clear that pay for childcare staff is substantially lower in the private partner provider sector. The average salary for practitioners in local authority settings is estimated at £28,000, but it is only £15,000 in partner provider settings.

On average, for an early years practitioner, the public sector spends two thirds more than the voluntary and 80 per cent more than the private sector on staff-related costs such as wages and pensions. The same report says that that may be explained by the higher proportion of practitioners who are still in training in the partner provider sector, but the matter is too important simply to theorise about. I welcome the minister’s comments on the need to tackle the issue. It is vital that we do so as free childcare entitlement is expanded. As welcome as it is, we do not want to expansion of free childcare to happen by increasing the number of low-paid childcare workers, the vast majority of whom are women.

The career is massively gender segregated, so I would like to know what the minister proposes to do to attract more men into it. I am sure that we are agreed that all care workers, whether they care for elderly people, people with care needs or children, play a hugely valuable role in society, and that we must reflect that in their pay and conditions, regardless of the sector they work in.

Another challenge is increasing the number of staff available and making sure that there are enough qualified staff. The Fraser of Allander institute has estimated that an additional 20,000 qualified staff will need to be hired. Research from the Educational Institute of Scotland in February of this year shows that the presence of a qualified teacher in early years settings can have a range of positive outcomes for our most deprived children. The report “Sustaining the Ambition: The contribution of GTCS-registered teachers as part of the early learning and childcare workforce in Scotland” has shown that the number of General Teaching Council for Scotland registered teachers in that workforce has fallen by almost 30 per cent over the past decade, with the rate now at one teacher for every 84 children. That is due, certainly in part, to the scrapping in 2003 of the requirement to have one GTCS-qualified teacher for every 20 children, which has been replaced with an ill-defined requirement for all children to have access to a qualified teacher.

Local authorities operate different guidelines and charging structures for the deployment of teachers to private partner providers, which has resulted in some partner providers choosing to have no teacher support. As a result, the proportion of three and four-year-olds with access to a GTCS-qualified teacher fell from 85 per cent in 2014 to 82 per cent in 2015. The EIS argues that qualified teachers are a core part of the early learning and childcare workforce and that they give children the best possible start as well as providing well for vulnerable children and families in poverty. An EIS survey found that those teachers play an important role in the early level curriculum for excellence. They create good transitions from early years to primary school, co-ordinate with other agencies as part of getting it right for every child and take on training, mentoring, leadership and management responsibilities for the nursery team.

Although the Government pledge to have an extra graduate in nurseries in the most deprived areas by 2018 is welcome, I encourage it to go further and examine how educational inequality at the earliest stages can be tackled by delivering meaningful access to a GTCS-qualified teacher in every nursery. That was a Scottish Greens manifesto pledge that I was proud to stand on in the election earlier this year.

I urge members to recognise the opportunity that the expansion of early learning and childcare gives us to have a broader discussion about our values around childcare and about whether, by considering the impact of the expansion as fully as possible, we can better support our children. I turn to the research of Alan Sinclair in his report “0-5: How Small Children Make a Big Difference”, which was done for the Work Foundation. The report is part of the “Provocation” series, and some of the questions in it may be provoking. He points out that some parents have their children in childcare not out of choice but out of financial necessity. No matter how high quality the childcare is, they perhaps feel that the day is very long for their child, but they struggle to juggle the demands of an increased workload, an insecure job market and a long commute. The expansion of childcare provision has to allow parents greater choice and flexibility to build childcare into their day-to-day lives. In that regard, I completely agree with James Dornan’s comments regarding the need to consider and invest more fully in childminding.

Sinclair shows that the UK’s ranking in the bottom 25 per cent of OECD countries for levels of child wellbeing and the roots of many of our social problems of low educational attainment, health inequalities and alcohol misuse can be traced to what happens in the first five years of life. I welcome the fact that we are having this discussion in Parliament and I look forward to being involved in its continuation.

15:44  

Willie Coffey (Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley) (SNP)

There are a few occasions in the life of the Parliament when we as members get an opportunity to take part in something that will transform the lives of Scotland’s youngsters and their families. The proposal to offer 30 hours each week of fully funded childcare for all three and four-year-olds and those two-year-olds who are most in need will give our children the best possible start in life. It will transform the lives of their parents, too, giving many the opportunity to return to work, and it will provide up to 20,000 new jobs in the childcare sector. I endorse the comments that Alison Johnstone made about the need to have more men working in the sector. This is such an important development for Scotland and I am sure that all members will be proud of the part that they play to support this policy.

When I came here in 2007, the provision was around 400 hours per year, or about 10 hours a week. The steady progress from that to 15 hours per week and now on to nearly 30 hours, or a full week of funded childcare, is astonishing; it will be one of the finest achievements by this SNP Government. The policy will help about 120,000 children and it will save families about £700 per child each year—which my colleague Gail Ross mentioned earlier—in addition to allowing families to get back into work.

As early as January of next year, the Scottish Government will start a programme of trials to test different delivery models to see what works best and to pave the way for this expansion. I hope that those trials will address a number of the points that members have made today about having flexible models to deliver this.

With such an expansion, costing £500 million, a number of consequential impacts will arise that will need to be carefully managed and prepared for. We need professional training for the staff delivering the service, including enhancing the role for childminders—several members have mentioned that—and we will need about 600 new early learning and childcare centres in order to deliver it successfully.

One of the key issues to consider is how to make any arrangements as flexible as we can; they have to be possible to fit around parents’ working hours. Employers, too, need to offer some flexibility so that every family that is eligible but which has working obligations can access this service fully for their children.

As usual, we will rely heavily on our local authority partners to drive this forward and make it the success that we all hope it will be. I am grateful to colleagues from East Ayrshire Council for sharing their experience and their advice in advance of the debate. They stress the importance of flexibility in allowing parents to access any new arrangements, with spare capacity being built in to provide patterns of flexible hours. Workforce planning will be crucial, as they anticipate quite a movement from the independent and third sectors as the early years workforce expands to reach the 20,000 additional posts that will be needed.

As part of the consultation that it carried out in January this year, East Ayrshire Council found that 66 per cent of parents preferred the term-time sessional model of delivery. However, a significant 33 per cent of parents wanted to see a more flexible model, perhaps offering longer hours or full days or some access across a calendar year. A model that supports longer opening hours will probably lead us towards consideration of shift working patterns, and there will need to be discussion about that if it is what we want to deliver.

The proposal to pilot the scheme for parents in low-income households using a deposit guarantee scheme—which is often a barrier—and the plans to provide an additional qualified teacher or childcare graduate in every nursery are crucial interventions for those children and families who probably need this kind of help most. I also like the idea of encouraging early learning providers to set aside an hour a week to be spent outside, running the “daily mile”, as it is described in the programme for government, or doing some other outdoor activity. I am sure that that will be music to the ears of Mr Whittle—he is not in the chamber, but I am sure that he is listening.

The expansion of early learning and childcare has the potential to completely transform the lives of our young children and their parents in Scotland. It will help thousands of families to overcome many of the barriers that have been systemic in our society for generations. It will unlock doors and lead on to greater opportunity.

The fruits of this policy may not be evident for 10 or 15 years as these youngsters make their way in life. My hope in this parliamentary session, during the time that we are here, is that this once-in-a-generation investment in Scotland’s youngsters will genuinely transform their lives and make Scotland the fairer and more equal country that we will be proud to hand over to the new generation.

15:49  

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

I declare that I am a city councillor here in Edinburgh.

I agree with the minister that there is broad agreement among all parties in the chamber today on the general principles of early learning and childcare. We need to look at how it works in practice at the grass roots. We can have a theory but if it is not working in practice, we need to go back and look at it again.

I would like to talk about two points this afternoon. The first, capping, has already been raised by my colleague, Liz Smith. Most local authorities in Scotland offer free childcare only in slots of three hours and 10 minutes and in term time only, with no option for parents to buy extra hours for the rest of the day even if there is the capacity within the nursery for parents to have that service. A recent report by the fair funding for our kids group found that 65 per cent of all nursery places in Scotland were half days and 89 per cent of all council nursery places for three to five-year-olds were half days and were available only during term time. In order to access those places, a working parent needs to make alternative arrangements for drop-off and pick-up on working days and during the holidays. Such a patchwork of childcare is impossible for many families to manage and almost useless for most working parents.

Although most local authorities buy extra spaces at private partnership nurseries, there is no requirement for them to buy enough places for all the eligible children in their area. Thus, children miss out or have to move to another partnership nursery.

Further challenges arise because of the underfunding of private nurseries by local authorities. Either the partnership nurseries have to make a loss per child or the cost is passed on to the parents, which puts extra financial pressure on them. Sometimes that means that they do not go into a career because it simply is not financially viable.

That begs the question of whether the policy, which the Scottish Government informs us aims to

“support parents to work, train or study, especially those who need routes into sustainable employment and out of poverty”,

is doing what it says on the packet. It is a Scottish Government policy that we all agree with, so surely the Scottish Government has responsibility for ensuring that local authorities are actually providing the 600 hours childcare for three to five-year-olds.

I would like to tell the chamber about one family’s recent experience of trying to access funding for appropriate childcare here in the Lothians. The family recently moved from Edinburgh to West Lothian and they were sending their son to a private nursery in West Lothian. The nursery was able to provide flexible opening hours, which meant that both parents were able to work. Unfortunately, their application for funding was refused because there was a council place available close to their home. The council did not seem to care what was best for the child or for the family. The family has found a solution, as it appears that there is an agreement between City of Edinburgh Council and the bordering councils for partnership funding, so the family now sends their son to a private nursery in the west of Edinburgh. However, that is not ideal because their son has had to leave his old nursery and has lost some of his friends.

It seems bizarre that West Lothian Council is willing to fund a private nursery that lies outwith its council area but not one within. These might seem to be small issues to us as parliamentarians, but to parents who are trying to make the system work, it is just another obstacle. It also means that people who live in West Lothian but do not work in a neighbouring area do not benefit.

For many of us, childcare that works Monday to Friday and nine to five is an old model that might have worked in the past but does not work today. In order to provide a childcare sector that is fit for purpose, we need to look at what people are doing within retail, healthcare and hospitality, as working patterns are changing. I was encouraged by a recent conversation with officials from a council who are thinking about offering nursery care for six days a week; they are also looking at offering it during the holidays.

I ask the Government these questions: how many three to five-year-olds are receiving 600 hours of free care? How many women are returning to work as a result of the policy? How many partnership places are being capped?

In order to judge a policy’s success, robust data needs to be collected. However, no one knows how many children are actually getting their entitlement. The fair funding for our kids campaign has repeatedly expressed its disappointment that the Scottish Government continues to claim more than 90 per cent registration for funded childcare, despite reassurances from the First Minister back in March of last year that she would find ways to improve the figures when research suggested that around one in five children are missing out.

If we want to design a solution that works for parents, we need to understand the practicalities. I urge the Scottish Government, as it carries out the consultation, to also carry out a national survey that looks at the socioeconomic background of service users, what childcare provision parents are using and how it can be improved. Then we will see what transparency there can be to ensure that there is a level playing field across Scotland that will help to make the policy more successful and make it work for all the families in our nation.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I have been quite kind, letting members run over their time, but I will eventually have no generosity left. I call Rona Mackay—do not take it personally, Ms Mackay—followed by Mark Griffin.

15:56  

Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

The Scottish Government has said that bridging the attainment gap for all children is its defining mission—and rightly so.

I believe that bridging that gap should start as early as possible in a child’s life and that is why I am delighted that our Government is investing in expanding early years education.

As we have heard in the chamber, our Government is doubling free early learning and childcare entitlement by 2020. The extension in provision will help around 120,000 children per year and will save families up to £707 per child per year.

It is an ambitious goal but one that we believe it is crucial to implement, as investing in our children is surely the best investment that any Government could make.

As the minister has said, as well as doubling the provision, we are determined to deliver provision of the highest possible standard. Quantity without quality is not what we are striving for.

Our childcare staff are not glorified babysitters; they are highly skilled professionals who are entrusted with the care and education of our children—the future generation of Scotland.

Scotland is one of the few countries in Europe that employs multidisciplinary professional teams to support individuals or small groups. I am proud that, during 2017-18, the Scottish Government will pilot approaches to providing support for the up-front costs of childcare to parents in low-income households.

We will ensure that every child in early education in the most deprived communities has access to an additional teacher or childcare graduate by 2018. That, in my view, is bridging the attainment gap and I welcome those initiatives.

Of course, our third sector agencies play a huge part in helping us to achieve our aims. Barnardo’s Scotland works with expectant and new mothers in the home on attachment-based approaches, as does the excellent Home-Start organisation. They believe that adopting a nurturing approach across early learning and childcare should make a significant difference to children’s attainment levels later in life.

They agree that it is crucial that investment in the expansion of early learning and childcare includes disadvantaged children and families as a central part of the system and that support should be continued for better attainment as children grow older.

A nurturing approach to early learning and childcare helps children to learn, thrive and ultimately achieve better educational outcomes.

Childminders, too, will be central to providing more flexibility and choice for parents, as my colleague James Dornan has already said. We will create a new quality standard and induction programme for childminders in order to deliver best practice in the profession.

Our aim is to develop a high-quality and—crucially—flexible early learning and childcare system, which is accessible and affordable for all. In short, we want Scotland to be the best place in the world to grow up.

A shining example of excellence in early years learning is the Lullaby Lane nursery, based in my Bearsden constituency. Despite being open for just three years, it has just won Nursery Management Today’s 2016 training and development award at the Scottish nursery awards. I am very much looking forward to visiting the nursery with the cabinet secretary next month. Lullaby Lane, along with other first-class nurseries in my constituency such as the Tower Nursery in Lenzie, which is currently undergoing accreditation, represents exactly the model that we aspire to create throughout Scotland.

I believe that parents are the best judge of how good a nursery is, and I know that many of my constituents believe that the money should follow the child when it comes to nursery choice. While we balance the need to ensure that all nurseries in Scotland are of the excellent high standard that we expect for our children, hence the need for nursery partnership with local authorities, there is a little confusion over how much autonomy local authorities have to fund placements. I am pleased to hear that the minister will look at all options for funding during the consultation.

We need nurseries that parents and children are happy with and that provide the best possible start for all our children, regardless of family background or circumstances.

Our transformational increase in childcare is a remarkable achievement, and once again we are leading the way against all odds. Despite an ever-decreasing budget handout from Westminster, the fact that Scotland punches way above its weight on this issue in comparison with the rest of the UK and many other countries shows just how important investing in our children is to us in Scotland. I am proud that we are leading the way in this area, and I whole-heartedly support the motion.

16:01  

Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab)

Transforming childcare is certainly one of the biggest challenges that we face, and if it is done properly there is a big prize in the form of increased economic activity, access to work and—crucially—closing the attainment gap.

In the One Parent Families Scotland programme for change, second only to tackling the attitudes and stigma that exist around being a single parent is the need to transform childcare to ensure that it is high quality, flexible and affordable.

I recognise the commitment from members on all sides of the chamber to tackle the childcare challenges that we face. One of the big challenges right now is that children across the country are missing out on the 600 hours that they are entitled to. We often hear in the chamber and in Government releases that there is an apparent 97 per cent take up of free nursery places, but that simply does not reflect reality. The fair funding for our kids campaign says:

“For parents who can’t afford the high cost of private childcare, the half day sessions available in council nurseries are often their only available option. Rather than supporting parents into employment, this model of provision simply becomes another barrier to work: few of us can find a job that will fit around three hours and ten minutes of childcare per day.”

The reality is that, despite the promises of 600 hours of free early education and childcare, many working parents are simply unable to access the free places that they are entitled to.

Mark McDonald

I want to be clear—I have made this offer to the fair funding for our kids campaign too—that if members identify that there is a specific issue in their local area around lack of availability, they can write to me and I will investigate the matter and speak to the local authority concerned. I am not necessarily speaking about individual cases, but a trend of lack of availability. I make that commitment clear here and now, but at present I am not seeing such examples coming to me from members in the Parliament.

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

I can allow you the additional time, Mr Griffin.

Mark Griffin

The minister will see some personal testimony on the fair funding for our kids website. I am sure that the campaign would be able to present a case load of examples for him to look at, and I am sure that it would more than welcome his intervention in the matter.

For many parents who work full time, accessing a free space that is available for only three hours and 10 minutes a day for 38 weeks a year is not always an option. How many children are being offered places so inflexible that working parents simply cannot access them? How many children are not able to access their free 600 hours at all because they attend a private nursery and all the funded places have been allocated? How many children are attending a nursery that is not a partnership provider, which means they are not able to access funding at all? How many children are attending a pre-school nursery but not benefiting from the full 600 hours because the provision does not fit in with the school day, which means that they miss out on the extra hours?

The answer is that we can only speculate. Although three and four-year-olds have a right to 600 hours of free early education and childcare, no one actually knows how many children are benefiting from this policy. The fair funding for our kids group have pointed out examples of what they believe is double counting. Parents do not want to hear that we are on a journey to a better system; they do not want to hear that it will be sorted out by 2020, by which time their children will be at school. They want the flexibility in place that means that they can access the 600 hours that they are entitled to right now.

Although in today’s debate we are calling for the Scottish Government to take steps now to ensure that 600 hours is a reality for every eligible child, that does not fix the entire range of childcare challenges faced by families across Scotland. Childcare challenges do not begin when children turn three, or end when they start school.

The spiralling cost of childcare in Scotland continues to pose a headache for working parents. We pay more for childcare than in any other European country except Switzerland. Costs are rising in Scotland faster than anywhere else in the UK. Part-time childcare for two children under five costs more than the average mortgage. Many parents have no choice but to reduce their hours to make work pay or to give up their job altogether. If we are going to transform childcare, then much more attention needs to be paid to the overall childcare challenges that parents face. What we need is a real childcare revolution that will transform the lives of working parents.

Promises of 30 hours in the future would sound more convincing to those parents who are now entitled to receive 15 hours if they were actually getting them. I have listened to the minister and he is saying that his ears are open and he is willing to make interventions on behalf of those parents who are not getting the entitlement because of issues around flexibility. They would welcome that. It is time for the Scottish Government to deliver a childcare system that delivers for children, parents and for our economy.

That would be a system that puts flexibility and affordability at its heart and ensures that all our children have the very best start in life.

16:08  

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

I very much welcome the publication of the “Financial review of early learning and childcare in Scotland: the current landscape”. It is vital that we have a robust map of the baseline of existing provision, including not just the numbers of children and families benefiting from that provision—and it is worth stressing that more are benefiting from more hours than ever before despite issues within the system; that is just a fact—but also, as the minister outlined, the variety of childcare provision that is out there. As previously indicated, that is 46 per cent local authority provision with the bulk of the remainder made up by private and third-sector providers.

It is vital that we know the bricks and mortar of childcare provision. That is my first substantive point. We must ensure that local authorities are, right now, examining the bricks and mortar of childcare provision. What does current capacity look like? What are the opportunities to expand that current provision, not just local authority provision but partnership nursery provision? As things stand, what does the existing infrastructure potential look like? What are the opportunities to develop further and new provision, to make sure that the range of provision is suitable, that it is in the right location and that it is suitably flexible? Local authorities have to be asking those questions right now.

I will give two examples from my constituency of cases involving opportunities to forward plan. First, I point to a local childcare provider called Summerston Childcare, which operates from Bellcraig community centre in the Summerston community, but also at two other sites. It is keen to expand and it identified a former care home that is now sitting closed within that community. It thought that that might be just the place to co-locate all its childcare facilities and look at expanding, working in partnership with the local authority and Government to help to meet needs, given the increased childcare provision.

Initially, the local authority looked to discuss that, but then it decided to sell the property on the open market and take the capital receipt. Of course, that was Glasgow City Council’s prerogative and was its decision to make. I merely make the point that this was the second time that Summerston Childcare had identified a property in the community that would be suitable for its purpose, only for the property to be put on the open market for a capital receipt. That might be short sighted, because in the future there will have to be capital investment to bring bricks and mortar to the community in order to expand childcare provision.

The second example from my constituency is from Royston, where two wonderful local childcare providers—St Roch’s Childcare Service and Rosemount Lifelong Learning—are working in partnership with a local youth organisation, Royston Youth Action, to look at the possibility of co-locating a community sport hub with a childcare facility at Glenconner Park in Royston. That involves looking at a procurement exercise and getting moneys from different pots of cash, and it represents some blue-skies thinking about the best way to meet future childcare needs. Local authorities must challenge themselves and the Scottish Government must work in partnership with them to realise the work that has to take place, which is needed now and not just in the future.

Moving on to my second substantive point, I suppose that I should declare an interest as the dad of an eight-month-old baby, Cameron, who will benefit at some point in the future from expanded childcare provision. We have looked at two nurseries—neither is a local authority nursery—to put Cameron into when my wife returns to work in the national health service. One is a partnership nursery and the other is not. We have no way of knowing, when Cameron eventually qualifies for free childcare provision, whether the first will still be a partnership nursery with Glasgow City Council.

I raise that not because it is my personal case but as an example to illustrate the point. Constituents have previously had experiences of putting a baby into a nursery when mum goes back to work with the anticipation that the partnership place will be sustained. There need to be better guidelines—and thus more security for working parents—to ensure that partnership nurseries sustain that status, unless of course there is a direct and significant deterioration in standards.

Other constituents, because of their working patterns, have had to access partnership childcare provision in East Dunbartonshire. I brought that case to the minister’s attention. Initially, provision was not forthcoming, but it is a two-way process because at times Glasgow has not provided partnership places for East Dunbartonshire families. That case was resolved through positive, constructive dialogue between the local authorities, which is positive. I merely make the point that, if ever local authority boundaries should not matter, it is in relation to flexible childcare provision. We have to look at that.

No matter how universal and wonderful childcare provision is, there will always be cases where it does not suit the working realities of parents. I understand that, but things are improving. Perhaps, once we reach the target that the Scottish Government set, we will have to start looking at what a reasonable offer of childcare provision looks like, and perhaps there should be an alternative system whereby parents can say to local authorities that might be trying to sweat the asset of local authority nursery places just to fill them up, “We don’t accept that that’s a reasonable offer.”

It would be remiss of me if I did not finish by pointing something out to a Conservative member, Annie Wells, who spoke earlier. If she wants to talk about lowering the cost of childcare for working families in the constituency that I represent, I draw her attention to the 2015 Scottish Parliament information centre briefing that says that 197,200 families totalling 346,000 children have been hit by changes to tax credits. I know families that are no longer in work because of Tory welfare reforms. Before members come to the chamber brandishing their childcare policies and saying how ethical they are, they should look at their own back yard. What is happening is not acceptable and it is not meeting the needs of my constituents.

16:15  

Alison Harris (Central Scotland) (Con)

I am delighted to contribute to this debate on a subject that is of great importance to every parent, grandparent and carer in Scotland. Everyone wants the very best start in life for all our children. Early learning and childcare play a vital role in ensuring that.

Parents who were asked, through the Scottish Government’s discussion paper, what their priorities are in respect of early learning and childcare made mention of a number of issues, but three kept on coming up. First, parents want to know the quality of the provision, and that it is not being compromised by headline-grabbing attention to the number of hours of childcare. Secondly, they want to know that their children are with qualified professional and motivated staff. Thirdly, they want to know that the hours and services that are being offered are fair, flexible and suit the needs of modern families.

Sadly, many of the reasonable hopes that parents have for children are not being realised by the policies of the Government. Indeed, the current target of 600 hours of childcare provision is not being met in some local authorities—never mind the proposed increase in hours by 2021.

Let us look at the example of birthday discrimination, which the SNP has failed to address despite the problem being highlighted by the Scottish Conservatives and Reform Scotland, among others. Birthday discrimination is the reason why so many children are not getting the headline 600 hours of funded childcare a year—indeed, the shortfall can run to as many as 200 hours a year. Those are hours that Scottish children are not getting because of the inaction of the SNP Government—hours that, once lost to a child, can never be replaced. Birthday discrimination arises because funded childcare starts only the term after a child turns three. That illogical approach from the Government means that children who are born between March and August receive a full two years funding, but children who are born between September and December will get only eighteen months of funding. If parents have a child who is born in January or February, the SNP says that their child qualifies only for fifteen months of funding. Why is a child entitled to less childcare because it was born on the last day of February rather than on the first day of March? Is that illogical? Yes it is. Is it discriminatory? Yes it is. Is it plain daft? It most certainly is. Birthday discrimination needs to be addressed.

I want to move on. At this point, the words of a respondent to the Scottish Government discussion paper on ELC are well worth mentioning. The person said:

“Parents should be able to choose an Early Learning and Childcare setting (subject to meeting nationally agreed quality criteria) which best suits their child, family working circumstances and locality rather than their local council’s choosing of where to fund the hours”.

Flexibility in terms of hours, location, and provider are very important to parents. Even supposing that parents have a car—many do not—they do not want to drive for half an hour to a council nursery if after five minutes driving they pass a perfectly good private nursery or the door of a suitably qualified and registered childminder. That makes no sense on many counts, including time, convenience and environmental impact.

Councils and the Government need to do more to recognise the roles of all who are involved in childcare. Councils, the private sector and the voluntary sector all have important parts to play, and it is in no one’s interests if failure to provide for increasing costs causes some providers to drop out, which results in fewer places, rather than more.

I commend groups such as the Glasgow-based fair funding for our kids, which highlights not only that the vast majority of local authorities are offering an hourly rate that is below the national average cost of a nursery place, but that 89 per cent of council-run nursery care is for half days only. That is simply not flexible enough for modern lifestyles, nor is it sustainable for long-term childcare provision.

Only by working together across all providers can the increased expectations of parents be met. Parents do not want to travel miles, or to have to chase funding and relocate their children, which they often have to do more than once. That is totally disruptive to the child and the parent.

I said at the beginning of my speech that everyone wants the very best for the children of Scotland. I believe that it is great to offer as many hours as possible, but the provision must be tailored to parents’ and children’s needs. It should not discriminate on the basis of the lottery of date of birth but should be fair to all. The patchiness of provision and the lack of flexibility that we now have in many areas leave many parents frustrated and children short-changed in their formative years.

In meeting the needs of parents and Scotland’s youngsters, the Government clearly has room for improvement. That being the case, I will be supporting the amendment in the name of my colleague Liz Smith and the opportunities that it offers to boost the quality and flexibility of childcare provision.

16:20  

Jenny Gilruth (Mid Fife and Glenrothes) (SNP)

I note that the Liberal Democrat amendment highlights the fact that, under current levels of funded entitlement, last year only 7 per cent of Scotland’s entire population of two-year-olds—as opposed to 97 per cent of three and four-year-olds—took up funded ELC provision. Although the financial review notes that, overall, roughly 125,000 children and their families benefit from free ELC each year, it is clear that there is still work to be done by the Government in reaching out to families of eligible two-year-olds in order to ensure that that entitlement is taken up.

Of further concern in the financial review—as my colleague Alison Johnstone highlighted—is the gap between staff pay levels in local authorities and those in private providers. In common with other members, I was certainly disappointed to note that 80 per cent of practitioners in partner settings are paid less than the living wage, and I share the minister’s ambition to ensure that that situation changes in the future.

I am delighted that the minister has today announced a commitment to ensuring that nurseries in the most disadvantaged areas will gain an additional ELC graduate or teacher by 2018. That action supports the professionalisation of early years education, which for too long has not been treated with parity with its primary and secondary education counterparts.

Accreditation of early years practitioners helps to build confidence in the system among not just staff, but among parents and carers. It also helps to make the vocation an attractive career prospect. The Government is committed to closing the attainment gap in our schools; today’s announcement supports that aspiration by acknowledging the professional importance of early years education accreditation.

Early years education is not about babysitting. We know that the formative zero to three years in a child’s life are those that make the difference. They are the years in which behaviours are formed and in which children develop coping mechanisms. I have previously highlighted in Parliament the work of the former chief medical officer for Scotland, Dr Harry Burns. His research identified the link between babies’ growing up in stressful households and learning of behaviours that will stay with them the rest of their lives. Therefore, good-quality early childcare has a fundamental role to play in closing the attainment gap for Scotland’s poorest children. In its totality as a report card on the delivery of ELC, the financial review is clear: there is room for improvement.

The motion commits the Government to a manifesto promise to almost double free childcare, but as we have heard, the way in which that childcare is delivered needs to be flexible. There is an argument around geographical proximity and how childcare is delivered in rural communities, where childminders often play a vital role.

I recently met Maggie Simpson, who is the chief executive of the Scottish Childminding Association. She was keen to highlight to me the disparity that exists nationally in the use that is made of childminders in the entitlement provision. Some local authorities, including Fife Council, do not make use of childminders in that provision. In total, 11 local authorities have no contract with childminders to deliver early learning and childcare. It is clear that there is an issue in that respect with regard to flexibility, so local authorities need to look critically at the ways in which they deliver childcare to ensure that the provision is flexible and meets the needs of the populations that they serve. I find it extremely hard to understand why Fife Council makes no use of childminders to fulfil its provision. After all, it is an urban and rural council area that is made up of lots of little towns and villages.

Childminders often provide mums and dads and carers with the flexibility to come home from work later or to drop their children off on the way to an early morning shift. Local authorities should not narrowly direct parents to provision that is centred in local authority-run nurseries, for example, just because it best suits the authority’s needs. Indeed, the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 introduced a requirement on local authorities to offer more flexibility and choice in how funded hours are delivered.

Accessibility and affordability have been central themes in today’s debate. Those issues are of particular importance to women in Scotland, who remain the traditional care givers in many families across the country. We know that that work is not valued the same as traditionally male work is valued. One of the biggest barriers that women face is in getting back into employment after having children. The “Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings: 2015 Provisional Results” recorded the fact that 42 per cent of the women who are employed in Scotland work part time, compared with just 13 per cent of men. That means that women are often prevented from having promotion opportunities, because part-time hours support their childcare needs. Women account for 75 per cent of all part-time workers in Scotland, but only 10 per cent of senior managers in the science, engineering and technology professions are women. There is clearly an equalities agenda here, which, I am sure, the Government’s aspirations for childcare support.

Within ELC employment, gendered stereotypes continue: 97 per cent of childcare and early years education employees are women and 98 per cent of classroom assistants are female. We need to place greater societal value on those jobs. Additionally, we need to ensure that more men are brought into early years education because role modelling plays a vital role in developing aspiration in the next generation.

Today, the Government has committed to publication of a blueprint that will set out its milestones on early learning and childcare. It is clear that we need local authorities to play their role in delivering the transformational change that the Government has envisaged for childcare, but we cannot narrowly look to councils to fulfil that obligation. If the Government is to commit fully to its pledge to deliver 1,140 hours for every three and four-year-old and eligible two-year-olds, the blueprint should consider staff pay in the sector. It must consider how to deliver the flexibility that the 2014 act enshrined. It must look at the best way forward in developing a supportive approach to childcare that will provide children with the best start in life.

16:26  

Tavish Scott

When we start the round of wind-up speeches, we always describe the debate as worthy, thoughtful, interesting or—that worst of all words in politics—consensual, which is an appropriate way to describe this debate. We cannot knock political lumps out of each other all the time, which is just as well.

Many contributions from around the chamber have addressed a couple of points. The first point is that, over a number of years, to many mums and dads—and grandparents and carers, as others rightly said—childcare has been a financial decision. The question has always been whether the family, the single mum or the individual can find the money to look after the child at some stage when the balance with work becomes impossible. It is important that the Parliament and the Government are trying to create something for the future that takes the money out of that equation by providing an entitlement to childcare for the long term—an entitlement that can make a genuine difference to people’s lives. That is a laudable aim for any Government or Parliament to seek to achieve.

James Dornan, the convener of the Education and Skills Committee, mentioned wraparound care. I think that he was the first member in the debate to do so. I must confess that my kids do not always think that I am a modern dad. When I said that I was doing a childcare debate, my seven-year-old said to me, “Dad, does wraparound not mean when I get a hug?” In some ways, that is a nice definition of wraparound care because of the importance of men in primary school teaching and childcare. That is one of the aspects about which Alison Johnstone—with whose contributions I invariably agree—made a strong point.

I will not be the only constituency member who spends plenty time drinking tea in staff rooms in schools, particularly primary schools, throughout their constituency to learn about education and the current challenges to find that the staff room is full of brilliant and able teachers who tend to be women. Many of my headteacher friends—a lot of schools in my patch are led by brilliant women—tell me that they could do with more men being involved in primary school teaching and in childcare as we consider how it will expand.

That is a very well made point, as was the point that Gail Ross made about the northern alliance. I confess that I have still not got my head round what the Government’s education reforms are—perhaps none of us quite yet knows—but Gail Ross made a good point about the benefits that the northern alliance can provide by sharing ideas on how to deliver childcare. It seems to me that using the expertise of, in her case, Highland Council that can be beneficial to other authorities is self-evidently the right way to implement that change. There will be common issues across many of the large areas of Scotland that many of us represent.

Alison Johnstone also made a couple of points about placing children at the centre of decisions. That is how we should view such matters. She talked about the wage and cost differentials between the private and public sectors. Many members have raised that point this afternoon and, indeed, the minister addressed it in his opening remarks. I do not think that that helps the voucher approach that some are articulating, because if the wages that are currently paid in private sector nurseries and to childminders are very different from the wages that are paid in the local authority set-up, that makes me wonder how the heck a voucher system would work.

I agree with Alison Harris that we need a range of provision—not just public sector provision, through nurseries, but private sector provision and childminders. For me, that is vital given the growth in childcare that there will be. There is no way that local authorities alone will be able to provide all that childcare; that will not be remotely possible. The aspiration is to see a much wider provision made available and the flexibility that many members have called for, and it will be necessary for that wider provision to be available if we are to see the growth in childcare that we are expecting.

The Labour amendment, which concentrates on breakfast clubs, which Daniel Johnson mentioned, seems entirely sensible. I take James Dornan’s point—I think that one or two other members, including Bob Doris, made the point as well—that there is an element of aspiration about the Opposition parties. That is our job, and it is perfectly reasonable. I remember good friends and colleagues in the SNP making exactly the same points when they were in opposition; I do not think that it should be a barrier to our making a case for a particular point of view. My youngest son has benefited from a breakfast club in Daniel Johnson’s constituency, so I take that point and think that it is entirely reasonable.

Liz Smith made many points that I broadly agree with, particularly in her opening remarks about health visitors and the earliest stages of life—indeed, she mentioned the period before life, which I thought was a dangerous area to get into, and I am certainly not going to do that. There is a news report out today that childcare costs for parents in parts of England could skyrocket as nurseries get less UK Government funding. There will always be such challenges, and it is important to recognise that those challenges will exist in whatever scheme is devised.

I will conclude by picking up two points that the minister made in his opening remarks, about the consultation and the delivery model trials that he said will start early next year. I encourage him to ensure that one of the delivery model trials—if that is the right expression—that the Government is considering is in a rural or island area in order to give a contrast with a city or larger, more urban, area. That will be important in building up the right provision. I also ask the minister to clarify that the consultation will cover all the issues—particularly revenue funding—that local authorities, and especially rural local authorities, have raised today.

In that spirit, I hope that many of the measures will be taken forward to achieve the growth in childcare that we all want to achieve.

16:33  

Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab)

I agree with Mr Scott that the debate has been consensual. In fact, it has achieved almost a metaconsensus whereby almost every speaker has commented on and agreed how consensual the debate has been.

We have had the debate many times before, as Liz Smith mentioned. I think that she said that we have already debated the topic eight times in this session of Parliament. That could mean one of two things: either the subject is of great importance to the Government and all of us, or the Government sees an opportunity for self-congratulation on the subject. If I am honest, I think that there is a bit of both in the choice of topic.

We agree how important early years childcare is, and there are two strands to that, which different members have explored to different degrees. First, there is the attainment gap. The minister quite correctly made a lot of that, and Daniel Johnson illustrated it graphically when he talked about the different vocabularies—3,000 words and 5,000 words—that children have at the time of going to school. That is a gap that we will struggle to close and probably never succeed in closing in later life, so it makes enormous sense, as the minister said, to address it in the early years.

The other strand is in allowing parents to go to work, so that family income can be improved and so that women in particular can resume their career and not have to face the disadvantages that Jenny Gilruth talked about in her speech.

We agree on how important all that is. Across most of the chamber, there is quite a lot of agreement on the problems that we face at the moment, including the problems of difficulty of access. Many members have talked about the work of fair funding for our kids. We should simply acknowledge what a sterling job that group has done over a number of years in highlighting the reality of the difficulties that parents have found in accessing their entitlement to 600 hours of funded nursery place. The group really has done a tremendous job. Its key figure, to which some members have referred, that two thirds of nursery places are provided as half a day, graphically illustrates how unsuitable that is for many people who are trying to find a way to work. Monica Lennon illustrated how difficult it can be for people—usually young women—who are trying to get to college and study, because of the difficulty of accessing childcare.

Many members have talked about quality. If we are going to close the attainment gap, we must remember that it is not just about looking after children; it is also about education, including early years education. The minister talked about the commitment that was made by the First Minister some time ago now to have additional nursery teachers in areas of deprivation. If we do not open the champagne for that, it is perhaps because—as we should remind the minister—the promise was for that to be available in every nursery class. Welcome though the measures are, they fall rather short of what had originally been promised.

Much of the contribution from the Government benches has been about the next stage, which is the doubling of free nursery hours. That is a move that we support—we absolutely support it. It is a good thing, and it will surely go some way towards helping with some of the issues around half-day provision. It might not solve the problem for every family, but it must make it better, I think. All of that is good. Our only concern is the need for a plan of how that will be funded and delivered. The problems that we have had with the 600 hours of provision were largely because its delivery was not well thought out or planned with councils. That has been the basis of some of the problems. However, it is welcome that we start with the blueprint early on for how the next phase will be delivered.

In mentioning delivery by councils, the minister did not, in fairness, labour the point from the funding review about councils spending less than they have been given on childcare. However, I make the point that, considering how councils have faced a reduction of £500 million in their budgets—an 11 per cent cut—over recent years, that is an argument that has been prosecuted in a glasshouse using stones, and it is probably better to stay away from it.

Our key point was made by Daniel Johnson: the blueprint is also an opportunity to begin to plan beyond the provision of free hours for three and four-year-olds and some two-year-olds. We have a blueprint for that already, because the enormously important commission for childcare reform produced a suggestion, which was simply that the need for childcare, which encompasses the minister’s own four principles of quality, availability, flexibility and affordability, does not end at the age of five. No matter how good families’ childcare is for three and four-year-olds, for too many of them that comes to a crushing end when the first child goes to school.

We need access to all-year-round, all-age, wraparound childcare. Much of that may not be able to be provided completely free, but we should consider how we could provide it and ensure that it can be provided in a way that families can afford. Mr Scott is right to say that that is an aspiration. I am sorry, but I have to disagree with Mr Dornan, because the needs of parents cannot simply be curtailed to suit the convenience of the Scottish Government’s current plans, no matter how welcome they may be.

James Dornan

Will the member give way?

Iain Gray

I am in my last minute.

That is what parents and families in Scotland need. We are not saying that the Government should deliver it by next year; we are saying that we should start planning now how it can be delivered.

A significant step forward, which we can afford, would be to support our amendment and commit to providing a breakfast club in every school in Scotland. In Wales, 96 per cent of schools have a breakfast club, so it must be possible to get to that level. In Scotland, where the level is 72 per cent, the proposal would cost something like £10 million or £13 million at most, compared to the more than £300 million annual cost of the Government’s childcare policy. That would be a sign to parents that the Government is moving forward but is listening to what they need in the long term. It would be a great thing to do, and all that we need to do is to support the Labour amendment this evening.

16:41  

Ross Thomson (North East Scotland) (Con)

I declare an interest, in that I am a councillor on Aberdeen City Council, and I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests.

In her opening remarks, my colleague Liz Smith acknowledged the Scottish Government’s laudable aim to expand childcare but challenged the Scottish Government on the reality on the ground, which is simply that the provision of those places remains a significant problem, particularly with regard to flexible access for parents.

Local authorities will have to deliver the Scottish Government’s expansion of free childcare to 1,140 hours by 2020, and we have to be conscious of the challenges that they will face in meeting the expectations of the Scottish Government. From my discussions with senior education officials in the north-east, it is clear that there is genuine concern about the ability of local authorities to deliver that commitment within the timelines that are available. In Aberdeen alone, with 3,500 new places having to be secured, it will require 15 new nursery facilities to be built. To achieve the deadline, work on those facilities should really have started last year. The situation is even more challenging when councils such as Aberdeen face difficulties in accessing land to ensure that the facilities are built in the right place.

Further, the programme for government states that 20,000 qualified practitioners will be required. However, in the north-east we are already struggling with a chronic shortage of workforce in teaching and nursery. Aberdeen, in particular, is struggling to recruit new nursery nurses, yet staff projections show that, to meet the requirements of expansion, the city will need an additional 267 qualified practitioners. Even if all 267 of them were in training right now for their qualification, they would not be finished until 2020, which means that they would not qualify in time. Further, with colleges having their funding cut, resulting in a reduction in part-time and flexible places, the Scottish Government is not making it easy for local authorities such as Aberdeen to meet that challenge.

Educationists in the north-east have been clear with me that there needs to be a rapid expansion of private early years education. However, the Government’s current policy does not provide enough incentives for providers to move into the market.

As Ruth Davidson announced in February 2015, those of us sitting on this side of the chamber advocate parental choice and flexibility within the childcare system. That involves a childcare credit so that parents can choose where and when they will use their entitlement for funded nursery provision in order to support them to combine work and family commitments. We learned this morning of a proposed child account to ensure that money follows the child rather than the institution. That is a welcome proposal and, if the Scottish Government is truly committed to it, it will show that Scottish Conservative arguments on flexibility and freeing up the system have finally sunk in. However, we on this side of the chamber are sceptical that the SNP leopard has truly changed its spots.

In her speech, Annie Wells touched on a number of very important issues. What Scotland’s young people need is not mere political tokenism but support and early intervention. Drawing on her experiences in Glasgow, Annie talked about the need to support disadvantaged children and troubled families; in her further reflections on being a mother all her working life, she made a convincing case for why flexibility in childcare is so crucial.

I welcome Daniel Johnson’s remarks about flexible childcare being critical in helping mothers back into work and ensuring that parents who are able to get back to work have that childcare support. If we do not provide that, we will, in his own words, have barely even started.

Tavish Scott spoke interestingly about how, when he was a candidate back in 1999, the Conservatives were even then talking about vouchers. I thank Mr Scott for reminding the chamber that the Scottish Conservatives are always consistent.

Gillian Martin focused on an economic argument—and rightly so. I absolutely agree with her about the need to get people back into work. However, a balance needs to be struck because, as research shows, children need to spend time with their families. We need to avoid really young children spending more time in institutions than with their families.

Bob Doris made an interesting contribution that did not just take the party line. In raising questions that affected his constituency, he set out a sensible challenge to the Government, and I hope that ministers were listening to and act on what he said.

One of my other colleagues, Alison Harris, touched on another extremely important point: the inequality and injustice of birthday discrimination. As the member made clear, the Scottish Government’s approach is illogical, and I agree that it is “just plain daft” that a child is entitled to less care if they were born on the last day of February than if they were born on the first day of March.

In his speech, Jeremy Balfour challenged what is a patchwork of childcare for working parents. He also raised the issue of the underfunding of partner providers. The fact that their staff work on very low wages can compound existing workforce issues, particularly attempts to secure the recruitment of new practitioners. Such a proposition is not enticing.

Mark McDonald

I made it quite clear in my opening remarks that I want the issue of pay in the private sector to be addressed. However, it is fair to point out that the partnership rates are set by local authorities. Until recently, Mr Thomson was the vice-convener of education in Aberdeen City Council. Has he done anything about this issue?

Ross Thomson

Absolutely. We have been calling on the Scottish Government to support Aberdeen with a weighting allowance. Had it done so, we would have been able to do something about that. I am sure that the minister will be keen to engage with me and other council colleagues in achieving just that for Aberdeen.

It is absolutely right that we invest in high-quality childcare alongside early intervention schemes. As we have argued, the Government’s priority should be to extend hours to a higher proportion of disadvantaged two-year-olds and one-year-olds in the first instance, with a gradual expansion of part-time hours to all one to four-year-olds. Scottish Governments have continually argued that that is where childcare provision should be primarily targeted and that it should be flexible and responsive to parental demand. The Scottish Government needs to radically reform the current system in order to widen choice, enhance flexibility and improve affordability, which will ensure quality in its delivery.

Scotland’s children deserve the very best start in life. By accepting Scottish Conservatives’ calls for reform and a flexible system that allows money to follow the child, the Scottish Government can begin to make real progress in narrowing the gap in the life chances of children from poorer and more affluent backgrounds.

16:49  

Mark McDonald

It is fair to say that we have had a very interesting debate, with a number of worthy contributions. I will try to encapsulate as many of them as possible in my summing up.

It might be helpful if I begin by outlining the Government’s position on the amendments that have been lodged. We are unable to accept the Tory amendment. Given my quite clear statement of the Government’s intention to undertake a consultation on funding models, it would be entirely wrong of us to pre-empt that consultation by nailing our colours to a particular funding model. Indeed, Tavish Scott quite rightly highlighted some of the potential pitfalls of the Conservative approach.

Liz Smith

Will the minister give way?

Mark McDonald

Perhaps I could just get a little further into summing up before taking some interventions.

I feel an alarming sense of déjà vu regarding the Labour amendment because it strikes me as similar to a previous amendment proposed by Labour. I agreed with much of it but, given the points that I made about our commitment to flexibility and autonomy regarding local priorities, we cannot take the universal breakfast club approach that Labour wants us to commit to.

We will accept the amendment lodged by the Liberal Democrats. To clarify, the figure of 7 per cent relates to the total population of two-year-olds, not the eligible population of two-year-olds. I accept that we have more work to do on that, but it is important that we take time to understand issues of rurality. Tavish Scott made a number of salient points in that regard.

Iain Gray said that today’s debate was somewhat about self-congratulation. I know that Labour members would much prefer that every debate was about self-flagellation, but I prefer our debates in the chamber not to mirror too heavily Labour party conferences.

On Ross Thomson’s points, I visited one of Aberdeen City Council’s series of events that took place in my constituency. It was a drop-in session for parents to discuss the future of early learning and childcare and the expansion plans required. My discussion with officials was remarkably more optimistic about the opportunities of the expansion than the views that were relayed by Ross Thomson. I guess that it depends on whether one reflects those opportunities through the prism of a half-empty glass, as he appears to do.

Liz Smith and a number of other speakers mentioned a numbers game versus true flexibility. This is not about a numbers game. It is about creating the capacity of hours to deliver the flexibility that families are looking for. It is not a zero-sum game.

Liz Smith

I am grateful to the minister for taking my intervention. Will he clarify whether the Scottish Government will consider the child account that was mentioned this morning in the consultation? Is that on the table?

Mark McDonald

We are in the process of developing the final consultation document, which will seek views on a number of different funding models. There is potential for individuals and organisations to suggest funding models that perhaps are not listed but that they might consider more appropriate, if they think that a different approach can be taken. At the moment, that is as much as I can say about the consultation that begins next Friday.

A number of members mentioned childminders. I am clear that there is a significant role for childminders in the expansion plans. On Saturday, I will speak at the Scottish Childminding Association’s conference in Dunfermline, where I will take the opportunity to highlight the pivotal role that childminders can play in helping us to achieve our ambitions.

The convener of the Education and Skills Committee sought further information on the data captured in the financial review. I will write to the committee with the details that he requested and welcome the committee’s input to the on-going consultation.

Annie Wells covered a much broader spectrum of points than simply focusing on the early years expansion. She mentioned the Conservative policy on developing a crisis family fund. This Government has a range of policies designed for early intervention. The point is to deal with issues before they get to the crisis stage, rather than to have a fund in place to deal with crises that have emerged. That is the approach that this Government will take.

Gail Ross highlighted the situation in the Highlands and the projects that have been developed there. She also mentioned the work of Cala, whose conference I will address in Inverness tomorrow morning. I have visited Cala and am encouraged by its work on developing the workforce for early learning and childcare.

On gender issues, Gillian Martin made a telling contribution about tapping into the resource of women in enterprise. There is a dual flexibility that needs to be considered: there is the flexibility around childcare and the provision that we put in place, but there is also a duty on employers to look at the flexibility that could be provided in the working practices that they offer to employees, which might help to address some of the issues that arise in those areas.

Daniel Johnson

The report that was published this week showed that take-up was over 100 per cent, which is worrying. Gillian Martin made a good point about the need for productivity data. Will the minister commit to rectifying the data in that report from this week and will he perhaps address Gillian Martin’s point about productivity?

Mark McDonald

We are confident that we are capturing data that gives us a picture of what is happening. Daniel Johnson highlights the issue that some local authorities perhaps report children on more than one occasion, but we think that, from within that, we can capture what is happening with the uptake of the provision.

Obviously, productivity data is not one of my ministerial responsibilities, but I commit to consulting with ministerial colleagues on whether that is possible. Obviously, if it is, we will look to take that forward.

Alison Johnstone mentioned the work of Alan Sinclair and said that it is often necessity rather than choice that leads to children being in childcare. The reverse is also true, in that it is often necessity rather than choice that leads to parents being unable to get back into the workforce, because of an inability to access childcare. That is one of the issues that we are keen to address as part of the work that we take forward.

Willie Coffey asked us to ensure that there are opportunities for play and outdoor activity, and he spoke about one hour a week to run the daily mile. I am not sure whether that is measured on how long it takes Mr Coffey to run a mile, but nonetheless we are absolutely committed to ensuring that opportunities for outdoor and play-based learning are built into what we offer in early learning and childcare.

Jeremy Balfour and a number of other members raised specific individual cases. If members cannot gain satisfaction through raising those issues with individual local authorities, as the minister, I am of course willing to look into what I can do. Bob Doris mentioned a case that he brought to me on which we were able to instigate discussion between local authorities on their cross-boundary arrangements.

Rona Mackay highlighted the good example of Lullaby Lane nursery, and she mentioned that the cabinet secretary was going to visit it. I do not want to be the bearer of bad news, but it is just me she is getting. Nonetheless, I am sure that it will be an enjoyable visit. As I did at the time, I congratulate the nursery on its award-winning success. Rona Mackay also made the important point that having quantity without quality would mean that we would not deliver the best opportunities for our children. As well as providing the additional hours and flexibility, we have to ensure that, at the centre point of all this work is the quality of provision that children receive, so that they get the best possible outcomes as a result of our expansion.

Mark Griffin, Alison Harris and others mentioned local authorities where the 600-hour entitlement is not being met, but they did not mention which authorities those are. Our evidence suggests that the entitlement is being met, but if members have evidence of local authorities that are not meeting that, please write to me and I will take that up with those authorities and find out what is being done. Gail Ross and colleagues from across the chamber spoke about the flexibility that is being afforded in a number of local authority areas, so it is not beyond the wit of authorities to deliver that flexibility. Under the 2014 act, it is incumbent on local authorities to consult parents and give due regard to flexibility. If that is happening in some places, I do not see a barrier to it happening in others. Therefore, I am keen to work with members and local authorities to ensure that we deliver that flexibility, not just when we deliver the 1,140 hours but in relation to the 600-hour entitlement in the here and now.

In general, the debate has been positive, although, obviously, a number of points have been raised. Before we finish, I want to take a moment to pay particular credit to Bob Doris, who highlighted a number of issues that need to be addressed. On the continuation of partnership provision, we can perhaps do some work to ensure that there is long-term certainty for parents, which perhaps does not currently exist. Bob Doris also highlighted a number of positive examples from his constituency where thinking is taking place outside the box on potential hub arrangements and new ways of delivering early learning and childcare, in terms of practice and environment. I pay tribute to Bob Doris for that and I thank him for bringing his points to the chamber.

As always, I remain committed to listening to what members have to say. The consultation, which we will launch on Friday next week, will be an opportunity for parties from across the chamber and outside it to feed into the plans that we take forward. I look forward to continuing our discussions as we progress to ensure that children have the very best start in life.