Falkirk Council coped admirably when the government rolled out plans to increase early learning and childcare provision from 475 to 600 hours per year back in 2014, with 78 per cent of service users who took part in a recent survey saying they were satisfied with the current service provided for two to four-year-olds.
However, further expansion plans have just been published by the government in its consultative document A Blueprint for 2020: The Expansion of Early Learning and Childcare in Scotland, seeking to increase the early learning hours available to 1140 per annum over the next few years.
Members of the council’s education committee discussed the matter at a meeting on Tuesday.
Councillor David Alexander said: “This is a major piece of legislation and a major change in our society. It will help the ability of parents to get into employment. The biggest obstacle to parents getting into the jobs market is childcare and this will help.
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“This should benefit the children as much as it benefits their parents.”
Members heard there were already parents locally who had asked for their children to be placed in nursery for two full days and a half day.
This would mean issues like sleeping areas – for the younger ones to have naps – and lunch provision would now have to be considered due to the children spending the whole day at nursery.
Councillor Alan Nimmo, education committee convener, said: “I welcome the impact this is going to have on young people and the long term benefits for them that will come from the increase in these hours.”
Members expressed some concerns that 1140 hours per year were actually too much for young children and it would just end up becoming a form of childminding instead of education.
Officers said perhaps only 75 per cent of parents would utilise the full 1140 hours available to them. The council just had to ensure it made the maximum hours available to parents – there was nothing forcing parents to use them.
Councillor Tom Coleman said: “What is proposed here brings sufficient flexibility to the system so that people who want to use it can do so. The prime objective is to give children the best possible start in life.
“We are told the Scottish Executive will fund this and I’m pretty sure they will step up to the plate and do what is required of them. I think the way we are going here is the correct way and the way it is being handled by our officers is correct.
“There should also be a small boost for a number of sectors in the local economy.”
More details of the Scottish Government’s expansion plans, including the funding it will make available to local authorities to facilitate it, will be revealed next month.
Education officers will report back to members at the next meeting of the committee.
Staff must be consulted
Children are obviously the main focus of the Scottish Government’s plans to expand early learning hours.
However, the nursery teachers and staff who are responsible for delivering these extra hours of learning are just as important, according to Councillor Dennis Goldie.
Speaking at Tuesday’s education committee meeting, he said: “We need to talk to the staff and consider what they will actually be doing in this expansion. This won’t work without the staff.
“The children are the recipients of this service, but let’s make sure our staff are consulted. We are changing their job and it will be night and day from what it has been in the past.”
The majority of Falkirk Council nurseries are currently running at 90 per cent capacity and these expansion plans will bring significant financial and infrastructure challenges.
These include increasing nursery capacity within the majority of schools through internal alterations, external extensions or alterations or new build and considering wider or increased use of private nursery providers and childminders.
Due to longer hours, provision for lunch and sleep areas will have to be made across all early years establishments and a significant number of suitably qualified early years staff will also be required.
Councillor Robert Spears said the council should look at its existing portfolio when it comes to finding premises to facilitate the expansion.
He said: “Skinflats has Bothkennar Community Hall and that could be used for nursery provision. We have an area her struggling mainly because of the lack of a bus service and we have families looking to move out.
“You could improve this situation by looking at existing facilities like Bothkennar.”