Falkirk nurseries: Major £64m expansion close to completion

What a year it’s been for Falkirk’s nurseries as a major expansion of the service came within touching distance of the finishing line.

By Kirsty Paterson, Local Democracy Reporting Service
Monday, 27th December 2021, 6:00 am
Updated Tuesday, 28th December 2021, 7:48 am

The £64 million project has involved new-builds, extensions and major renovations right across the district, transforming nurseries into state-of-the-art early learning centres.

But it’s not just about bricks and mortar – there’s also been massive recruitment in order to double the time spent in nursery for all three and four-year-olds and some two-year-olds.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime initiative where that amount of money is invested in our sector and I feel really privileged to have been part of that,” said Karen Thomson, who has led the project locally.

Children will benefit from targeted care and learning

1140 – as the project has come to be known, due to the number of nursery hours children are now entitled to every year – started in 2014 when the Scottish Government told local authorities what they wanted to happen.

They then asked how councils could make it work – and gave them the cash to deliver their plans.

In Falkirk, they were keen to continue to offer both 9am – 3pm to fit around the school day and 8am – 6 pm for parents who work full-time.

But the key word is flexibility – and if that means using a childminder or paying for extra hours, that’s possible too.

Children learn through play

This is crucial because 1140 is not just about giving children a high-quality education – it also allows parents to get back to work or into education.

It has been a massive undertaking for the team – especially with delays and complications caused by Covid.

Despite the challenges, the August deadline for delivering 1140 was met easily – and while some buildings are not yet complete, all children are now getting the additional hours.

The school-based nurseries are now known as Early Learning Centres (ELC) while the former day nurseries are officially Early Learning and Childcare Centres (ELCC).

Children will benefit from the additional hours

Ms Thomson said: “That’s important because the difference between education and childcare should be seamless.

“Before, there was a perception that a child would go to a day nursery until they were three and then they’d need to go to the school nursery to learn.

“But the learning takes place everywhere and you’ll get the same level of quality in any centre.”

For Councillor Adanna McCue, the SNP’s Education spokesperson, being involved in the project has been a huge privilege.

As a former nursery nurse, she is passionate about the importance of early years education and is thrilled to see her profession getting the recognition she strongly believes it deserves.

She’s delighted at the opportunities staff now have to develop their skills – from nursery assistants who help over lunchtimes to graduates specialising in child development.

“There’s a whole professional pathway now – and some of our parents who were volunteers are actually employed now, which in itself is brilliant,” said Cllr McCue.

Most of all though, she’s thrilled to see how much the children enjoy the new facilities, including new outdoor play areas where getting wet and muddy is just part of the fun.

“The new centres are just amazing,” she said. “From my background, working in nurseries that were built during wartime, to these state-of-the-art-centres – it’s fantastic!”

At a time when most council departments are firmly focused on saving money, the early years project is a rare good news story.

Cllr McCue added: “The Scottish Government recognised that early years was something we had to focus on, to raise aspirations within our country – we need to get it right from the earliest age.

“It’s been an amazing journey for everyone to be on!”

But in many ways, the journey is just beginning.

The opening of Woodlands ELCC – once a private nursery in Callendar Park but now refurbished – will provide a base for outdoor adventures.

That’s not just for the children who attend there – from January, it will also be open to groups from other ELC’s.

A room dubbed The Wilderness Hub will be stocked with things such as waterproof suits, stoves, fire-building equipment and anything else that might be needed.

There are also two eight-seater electric vehicles staff can use to transport groups of children.

“There have always been barriers to outdoor education such as transport, appropriate clothing, training and so on – and having the resources meant we could remove them all,” said Ms Thomson.

Staff can already see how children are learning through play and becoming more independent and resilient – and they’re sure that will flow through as they move through the education system.

Cllr McCue said: “I visited about four or five nurseries recently and I was amazed at the contentment of the children.

“To see a setting that’s been purpose-built where children are calm and focused and relaxed – it was really beautiful!

“The staff are incredible – they’ve got a heart for the children – and I can’t say thank you enough to the team.”

Ms Thomson agrees: “Staff have been through so much in the last 18 months and for them to be able to create a relaxing, normal environment in the current climate is a testament to them and the bond they have with children and families.”

It’s now time for parents to start choosing an early years centre before the deadline of the end of February.

For the first time, the application form is online and can be found at MyFalkirk.

The team are happy to answer any questions by phone or email.

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