UNISON welcomes the Scottish government’s commitment to expand early learning and childcare. It is an important step in tackling both poverty and the attainment gap. Universal high quality childcare has been a long-term aim of the labour movement. The lessons of the expansion of the adult care sector need to be heeded: leaving delivery to the market managed via procurement contracts has led to a fragmented service, which is costly and hard for users to navigate, with varying quality of service and a race to the bottom for staff terms and conditions.
The private childcare sector is already struggling. The recent NESTA report Innovation in Childcare (Jill Ritter July 2016) states that “profit margins are tight for many providers”. So tight are they that the “innovation” NESTA offers as a route forward is to use unpaid volunteers including parents presumably to maintain profit margins.
The Scottish government is now considering voucher type schemes or extra funding for the private sector. Not only does this have a high risk of creating a service based on low-paid and unqualified staff it risks creating a two tier system where those who can afford to pay more will have access to better nurseries than those on low incomes. This will do the opposite of closing the attainment gap.
The JRF programme paper: Creating an Anti-poverty Childcare System states that a shift to supply side funding for pre-school childcare services is the most effective route forward:
“International evidence and the best examples of high quality provision in the UK suggest that the most effective approach to funding pre-school childcare is supply side funding, where investment is made directly in service. This approach provides the means to offer universal access to services and effectively shape the quality, affordability and flexibility” (Executive Summary page 3)
“the case for supply funded childcare is simple: it is the most effective means of delivering reliable access to affordable, flexible and high quality childcare regardless of ability to pay” (Executive Summary page 3)
Two of the many advantages of public sector provision are the ability to better co-ordinate childcare with other services, for example where an extended day nursery in co-located with a primary school on the same campus or links to child psychologist/social workers and ensuring that there is a fully qualified properly paid workforce. The government’s own research shows that “cheaper” nurseries only cost less because they pay the staff less. High quality provision requires fully qualified paid staff. If high standards for staff qualifications and pay are not set then we will end up with the same issues that are now causing problems in the care sector.
A comprehensive childcare service will directly benefit families and lead to long-term savings on a range of budgets. Setting up a childcare service will be expensive but if we are serious about building a fairer Scotland it is essential investment.
UNISON submission to the Scottish Government Consultation is available here