An Equal Start

The First Steps To A Universal Early learning and Care Service?

Professor John Davis, Professor of Childhood Inclusion at the University of Edinburgh compares the Scottish Government’s plans for a quality, flexible, accessible and affordable early learning and childcare service to the Common Weal’s proposals for a universal service.

Last Thursday, the Scottish Government published its action plan for how it will double the amount of free early learning and childcare for all 3-4 year olds and ‘eligible’ two year olds. The SNP have set out a strategy for how they will meet their 2020 manifesto committed to deliver 1,140 hours per year of early learning and childcare (30 hours per week for 38 weeks) and enable hard pressed families to save up to £4500 per year.

Readers will be reminded of the Common Weal ‘An Equal Start’ report published in 2016 which sought to highlight the key issues and barriers that might hinder such an aim and that set out an ambitious longer term proposals for developing a universal early learning and childcare service by for 2-5 year olds by 2025 (which would include a blend of provision offered by centres and childminders).


capacity challenge


In his statement to parliament, Mark MacDonald, The Minister for Childcare and Early Years explained that quality, flexibility, accessibility and affordability would be the cornerstones of the Scottish Government’s action plan for early learning and care services.  So what are the issues that the government need to overcome if they are to meet their target?

The Common Weal ‘An Equal Start’ report suggested that there was a lack of capacity in the sector to meet the requirement for 45000 new places, 1125 new childcare centres and 11000 full time (or up to 20,000 part-time) posts by 2020.  It argued that there were:

  • barriers to private sector involvement in the free hours scheme (e.g. around 30% of funding went to the private sector providers who became ‘partners’ with local authorities)
  • insufficient all day provision (e.g. 8am to 6pm) due to issues with the costs per hour paid to providers
  • a lack of training for staff on how to work with disabled children and ‘eligible’ two year olds
  • huge pay inequalities between private and public sector employees and a lack of national pay scales commensurate with other degree level professions
  • a need for a national framework/organisation to strategically plan capital investment to expand the number of buildings
  • a need to advertise and raise public knowledge of the new Childhood Practice degree that around 2000 managers had completed or were now studying for.

We argued that the huge amount of funding available to early learning and childcare provided a unique opportunity to develop and regenerate local town and village centres and produce quality early services that were embedded in wider local and community-based integrated services:

‘There being little point in developing high quality early years centres if we do not, at the same time, address the whole system around the child and family.’

We also suggested there should be an audit of local authorities to ascertain capacity and infrastructure issues and a task force to address these issue. So let us see how far the government have travelled when compared with our ‘An Equal Start’ plan.

The government statement (and accompanying documentation) set out a clear action plan:

‘That involves removing barriers to private and third sector providers delivering funded ELC. The service model for the future must ensure more financially sustainable provision across all sectors – including community-led provision, such as the approach to extending hours being supported through the Argyll and Bute Trial involving the Mull & Iona Community Trust. ‘

That’s a good start and chimes well with our ideas for developing local communities set out in the Common Weal Book of Ideas which asked readers to:

‘Visualise an early learning and childcare sector that provides free childcare for cash strapped parents, involves children spending at least 50% of their time outdoors and revolutionises the way we think about the role of community and local spaces.’

On Thursday, Mark MacDonald confirmed £60 million will be spent in 2017-18 to support the first phase of capacity building to create new spaces for childcare. So it looks like the government has been listening.  In October 2015 in a Bella Caledonia article on the Common Weal Book of Ideas we suggested that the capital spend going into early learning and care could help to regenerate local communities.


book of ideas

We estimated, in our ‘An Equal Start Report’, that 800 million might be required for new buildings. Mar MacDonald stated:

‘we will provide greater certainty to local authorities over multi-year revenue and capital funding assumptions over the coming weeks and months. ‘

So it will be important to keep an eye on the details that emerge and who has access to the capital spend that goes to each local authority area. Speaking to local authorities, the suggestion is that the first phase of spending will look to ensure maximise the repurposing and expansion of existing buildings. We had suggested a national task force was required to ensure capital spend was not wasted and we questioned whether the buildings developed from the capital spend would actually be designed from the perspective of young children.

So, it was splendid news that the Government will partner with the Scottish Future’s trust and Care inspectorate to produce guidance on innovative design (of both indoor and outdoor spaces); that the Scottish Futures Trust will produce regular ELC infrastructure progress reports; and that the government will establish a multi-disciplinary team (co-designed with local authorities) to provide expert professional and technical delivery support to local authorities.

Full marks here for the minister who stated that such a multi-disciplinary delivery support team will enable local authorities to develop the additional service innovation and redesign capacity required whilst producing economies of scale by sharing solutions for common and complex issues. A national team is definitely excellent news for those of us who were worried local authorities might fritter away the money (a la the Edinburgh Trams fiasco) and we are also pleased that this team will be backed up by the Futures Trust who will also have to report, at a strategic level, on progress made.

There was also a positive shift away from Tory ideas on early learning and childcare. Page 11 of the action plan removed the immediate likelihood of the SNP adopting a Tory plan (for vouchers or learning accounts) that might lead to a huge increase in private provision and mean that more local children, at an early age, were channelled into private school nursery provision and therefore divided from other children in their communities.

The announcement of a:

‘feasibility study to explore potential costs and benefits of introducing an Early Learning and Childcare Account in the future.’

Should mean that this idea cannot be implemented unless greatly amended. The delay in implementing learning accounts might enable the Greens, Labour and Liberals to get their act together and produce a united policy that Scotland should, in time, move to a universal early learning and care service, free at the point of use.

Slovenia, who out rank us in the PISA scores that compare children’s educational ability at aged 15, has had a universal childcare service since 1970’s and it was introduced on the back of a huge movement for women’s rights. Mark MacDonald’s plan, by increasing quality and capacity, could act as an excellent stepping stone to a position where the Scottish government announce (e.g. in a future referendum) that a universal service will be the founding block of an independent Scotland that ensures all children are given an equal start in life.

The labour policy on this issue is particularly unclear on their website at present – so here is hoping they remember that their party once thought of a universal childcare service as a positive policy for women’s rights.

An independent Scottish government could move to a universal service by increasing funding to 1900 hours per year (8.00 am to 6 pm provision) or introducing a policy that reduces the working day to 6 hours (as per recent experiments in Finland and Sweden).

The Minister announced on Thursday that his action plan is currently provider neutral (the money will follow the child where ever parents can find provision).   If you ask business people, they will tell you it is very difficult to garner a profit from government funded early learning services that involve being a ‘partner provider’ that adopts local authority standards. The government recognised on Thursday that there are disincentives to the private sector:

‘We know from our Financial Review and responses to the Blueprint consultation that there are two key barriers to private and third sector providers delivering funded ELC: (1) the current partnership agreement process, which can be cumbersome and restrictive; and (2) the hourly rate offered by local authorities doesn’t meet the costs of provision. The new service model will be underpinned by a more open, proportionate and consistent approach, which makes it more attractive for high quality providers to deliver funded ELC.’

This aim could raise concerns that we are moving in the opposite direction from a state run universal service, however, the requirement that private providers can only access government funding if they become ‘partner providers’ (who adopt local authority standards) should avoid any chance there is a race to the bottom where standards are reduced in the search for profit.

impact of early yeras economicsThe ‘An Equal Start Report’ recognised some issues concerning quality in the private sector and suggested a National Child Care Service could be utilised to increase quality, expand the use of outdoor provision and overcome fears that a move to 1140 hours will simply lead to the institutionalisation of early childhood. So, it was also great news that Mark MacDonald announced: a ELC Service Models Working Group to develop the details of the new ‘Funding Follows the Child’ model; a national standard for a more open process to becoming a funded provider; and a common set of standards for quality, availability, affordability, flexibility and staffing.

In so doing, Mark MacDonald began to address fears about the impact on young children’s learning of variations in quality between the private and public sector. Indeed, by stating that the government will work with local authorities to set a national standard for funded provider status and local authorities will continue to have a statutory responsibility to ensure that funded entitlement is available for all eligible children in their areas, he set out a universal approach to quality and accessibility.  The buildings will be owned by a range of private, public and voluntary organisations but what happens in the buildings will have to meet national quality standards set by the public sector local authorities.

One issue of concern about the role of local authorities has been that the huge amount of retirements and job cuts in the public sector mean that their can sometimes be a lack of staff with early years qualifications making strategic decisions in local authorities. Similarly, many services are now co-located with primary schools or teachers are redeployed into early years, or, primary heads manage both the school and nursery but have no qualifications in early years pedagogy.

On top of this issue of a lack of knowledge, skills and experience relating to early learning, by raising the funded provision to 1140 hours, the Scottish Government has also created a need for an increase in the numbers of qualified staff in the sector (e.g. all leaders of early years services now have to have the BA Childhood practice qualification or equivalent to register with the Scottish Social Services council and all workers must have an HNC or VQ3). Hence, there have been numerous calls for increases in budgets for training and qualifications in the sector.

Quality services depend on well qualified workers, therefore the sector will have been relieved to hear Mark MacDonald’s statements on qualifications and training:

‘We are providing local authorities with £21 million in 2017-18 to invest in the first phase of the workforce expansion – both increasing the size of the workforce and equipping existing staff with new skills. This local investment will be complemented by an increase in the number of places available on further and higher education courses in the 2017‑18 academic year. The Scottish Funding Council will provide an additional 350 graduate-level places (which includes places to support the Additional Graduate commitment) and 650 places for practitioner-level qualifications across our further and higher educational institutions…. …We are providing funding of £1.5 million to the Scottish Funding Council to increase teacher training and other ELC‑related graduate places in the 2017-18 academic year. … … As part of our work to develop the Quality Action Plan, we will work with professional bodies to consider how we can further strengthen the role of teachers in delivering learning in ELC settings ‘

Unlike teaching or nursing, this is a sector where employees and employers have had to fund their own qualifications.   This is the first time that a minister in our field has set out such an ambitious plan for qualifications and training.  Again, the devil will be in the detail, but at first glance this looks like a brilliant example of a listening government responding to the requests of its citizens.

Similarly, Mark MacDonald was the first minister to seriously develop research on pay on conditions in the sector. Common Weal raised the issue of pay in our ‘An Equal Start Report’. This led Mark MacDonald to commissioned a report entitled the Financial review of early learning and childcare in Scotland: the current landscapewhich identified that 80% of practitioners and 50% of senior staff were payed below the living wage (as report here by common space).

On the 18th of March Nicola Sturgeon announced £50 million to ensure the living wage for private sector early learning and care workers (see announcement here) and on Thursday Mark MacDonald announced a requirement for the promotion of Fair Work practices across the sector, including ensuring that staff are fairly remunerated and that partner providers agree pay rates with local authorities.

The Scottish Government have been criticised for taking their eye of the day job when: producing detailed Scotland specific responses to the result of the EU referendum, setting out plans for a future referendum and seeking to ensure that Scotland is not dragged off a Tory die-hard Brexit cliff. Yet, in Mark MacDonald’s announcement we can see that the ‘day job’ has not been ignored and that the SNP government have been working very hard to produce concrete, detailed and wide ranging plans for early learning and care. Plans that will raise the status of this sector in ways that will make it more attractive sector to work in:

‘And we will work with delivery partners to develop recruitment and career pathways to assist in attracting and retaining high calibre candidates in the workforce, to raise the profile of a career in ELC amongst under-represented groups and to seek to improve gender balance across the sector… …We will also increase the focus on access to graduate-level early years educators, seeking to strengthen the practice-based element of graduate level training, with clear measures to be set out in our Quality Action Plan.’

Other announcements included a new fund for accessible provision for disabled children; more effective partnership working to support transitions into, through, and out of, ELC; increased funding for childcare for professionals studying for childhood practice qualifications; and a Learning and Development Pathway for all childminders to ensure that the mix and blend of provision is widened.

SCMA logo

The announcement on Childminding is another example of where having a parliament in Edinburgh enables organisations and workers to collaborate closely with Government to ensure their policies meet and respond to local and national concerns. Maggie Simpson, Chief Executive of the Scottish Childminding Association, who has campaigned for a greater role for childminders in local authorities, welcomed the announcement (see SCMA statement here):

 “SCMA welcomes the findings of the Blueprint Consultation on Early Learning and Childcare and an acknowledgement that childminders have a key role in the future delivery of funded entitlement.” Said.  However, there is much to be done to make this a reality. Up until now childminders have played a relatively limited role in providing funded entitlement despite being keen to be active partners… …  The expansion provides an opportunity for childminders to have an enhanced role in the delivery of funded ELC but to achieve this, local authorities need to show willing and embrace this opportunity.

The Government’s action plan is a serious good document that has great potential to improve the sector, increase standards and regenerate communities. In the longer term, we need to keep our eye on the detail of how capital spend will be accessed and how much will go to the private sector. For example, on a recent trip to New Zealand we encountered anecdotal evidence that access to capital spend had enable excess profit for some private sector companies and we need to ensure that such possibilities, for the misdirection of public funds, does not occur here.

We would have liked to have seen an announcement on a longer tem movement to all professionals in the sector (including teachers) registering with the SSSC, all practitioners having a degree and all managers being trained to masters level. But, there is nothing in the statement that would hinder such a shift in the future.

The government commissioned Skills Development Scotland (SDS) to publish a Skills Investment Plan (SIP) to grow the ELC workforce, improve gender balance and increase the number of ELC Modern Apprenticeships. These steps are to be welcomed but they also raise questions as to whether such a plan exists for growing the skills of those who will be involved in developing the buildings that will enable the expansion of the ELC sector?  We are keen that the capital spend is utilised to develop skills that remain in our communities long after the buildings are completed and that this spend is not simply extracted out of Scotland by big business (as has been the criticism of some PFI and PPI projects).

To conclude, in The Common Weal ‘An Equal Start Report’ we asked for a strategy to ensure money is well spent, we asked for fair pay, we asked for a focus on child specific design, we asked for flexibility for local areas, we asked for funding for qualifications and we asked for a greater role for the public sector leading in time to a universal early learning and care service. The Scottish Government has responded emphatically on all of these issues.

A universal service, is the only phrase missing from Mark MacDonald’s plan (and his four pillars of quality, flexible, accessible and affordable). In spite of this omission, we hope to be able to look back at this government announcement and conclude that it was, in fact, the day that the first serious stepping stones to a national universal early learning and care service were clearly set out.