Our Commission has had some fascinating conversations over the last few weeks and months with parents, providers, employers and the public at large. As we start developing our proposals for improvement to the system of childcare provision in Scotland, we want to test and refine our thinking. Here are some initial ideas.
Early learning and childcare, and out of school care, must put the needs of the child at the centre. Our proposals for change will be based on the needs of the child at different life stages: from babies who need to develop attachment to their parents and family to school-age children who need good quality, enjoyable out-of-school care.
You have asked us to be ambitious. Families need high-quality provision that is affordable, including for parents on low incomes. It needs to be available to all who want it, at the times they need to work or study, as well as contributing to their child’s development. Scotland does not yet have that level of flexible affordable provision, and this remains the driving vision for the Commission’s thinking.
You have also encouraged us to be realistic. For example, provision should not expand so fast that quality is put at risk. We recognise the limited amounts of new public money likely to be available over the next few years. But we believe a great deal of improvement can be achieved.
We think it is helpful to consider three categories of provision. The first is provision that is free at the point of use: for example the 600 hours of free early learning that is available now to eligible three and four year olds. The second, which does not yet exist across Scotland, is an entitlement to a number of additional hours of provision for which the family pays an affordable fee. The third type is provision beyond that entitlement for which the parent pays a fee agreed with the provider. All three categories would be regulated to ensure quality, as at present.
Even if the amount of ‘free at the point of use’ provision is expanded, it will not meet all the childcare needs of working parents. Large numbers of working parents will therefore need to use at least the second type of provision, and perhaps the third, in term time and in school holidays. We will therefore make recommendations about how to establish the second type of provision, thereby creating an entitlement to an amount of affordable childcare.
We expect we will make recommendations in at least the following six areas:
• ensuring suitable provision exists locally that meets the needs of working parents and those who only want to access early learning
• ensuring the quality of the child’s overall experience, including through effective inspection and through good use of national and local evidence
• ensuring there are simple and fair systems to ensure childcare is affordable for families, especially those on low incomes
• ensuring that there is an effective mechanism to route public funding to those who are providing services
• ensuring a quality workforce
• engaging with employers, and with the providers of further and higher education, on how best to meet the needs of workers and students with children.
This is a snapshot of our thinking so far. As we develop these ideas it will be important to hear from you. Have we missed something vital? Do you strongly disagree? Do you have suggestions for practical recommendations?