Pre-school shake-up presents challenges and opportunities
A mountain of work is due to be undertaken by council staff as plans to increase the hours of free early learning and childcare entitlement take shape.
The Scottish government wants the SIC to offer 1,140 hours per year by 2020 – almost double the level set in 2014, when the entitlement to free hours increased from 475 to 600.
There have also been moves to include “specific entitled” two-year-olds, such as those who are looked after by the local authority or whose parents or carers receive specific benefits.
The policy, which is being funded by the SNP administration, had been on the back-burner until the Holyrood elections were out of the way.
Now, with an albeit minority SNP government in place in Edinburgh, plans are afoot to establish the post of quality improvement officer, who will manage the expansion and take forward the implementation of the 2014 Children and Young Peoples (Scotland) Act in the isles.
But there is still uncertainty over what funding the SIC will actually receive from Holyrood.
Quality improvement manager, Audrey Edwards, told Monday’s education and families committee: “We feel now that the Scottish elections are over and we have an SNP administration in place, it’s important to highlight the significant piece of work facing us to meet the ambitious aspirations of the SNP administration to expand early learning and childcare.
“To lead our project team we are in the process of recruiting a quality improvement officer for early learning and child care.
“What we’re facing is an almost doubling of the entitlement. The question we have to consider is what will that almost double entitlement consist of?”
Responding to questioning by Davie Sandison, she said one of the biggest challenges was meeting differing needs in different parts of the isles, adding preferences for pre-school education in the central areas often differed from those in more rural parts.
Mr Sandison later concluded that one of the biggest challenges would be in rural areas.
Among the challenges the Scottish government move will bring to children’s services are:
• How it will expand the service to meet differing needs within the isles;
• How it will make staffing arrangements;
• What role teachers will play within any revised model;
• The suitability of current settings for the expanded service, and any capital implications which may emerge as a result.
Peter Campbell was anxious to know when it was felt that the new model should be “ready to go”. Knowing that, he said, would help determine more accurate costings.
Mrs Edwards told him: “I would say we have to get the new model worked up within the next year.”
The development was described as a “huge issue” by chairwoman Vaila Wishart.
“This is a significant challenge ahead of us here,” she said, “we do need to get on with this work.”
Some members voiced recognition that the changes, however difficult, should prove to be a huge benefit to children.
Michael Stout said the temptation would be to look at the difficulties posed by implementing the service. “But essentially this is a good thing. There will be advantages to people in Shetland with this,” he said.
Mr Sandison said the first thing was to recognise that the Scottish government had made a “major commitment”.
“Hopefully, they’ll back that up with the resources to deliver it,” he said.
Ms Wishart said the move would help improve attainment levels.
“The best way of tackling the attainment gap is before children get to primary school. This is really a significant step being taken here.”
Citing the difficulties facing staff she added: “I’m sure our officials are up to it.”
But the last word went to political leader Gary Robinson, who said the Scottish government needed to be held to account for every penny that was required.
“Financing of this is going to be absolutely critical,” he said.
“We tell them what the capital cost is and they fund it. It’s essential we feed in the information, and give them a true cost without holding back. It’s absolutely essential that in the first instance we get the right figures fed into that.
“I’m aware of one council in Scotland that got its figures wrong for free school meals,” he added, stating that the Scottish government did not look too kindly on it once the mistake had been realised.
“They’ve [the Scottish government] agreed to fully fund it, and it’s for us to hold them to that.”