The provision of a free at the point of use public childcare service has been a demand of the trade union movement for over a hundred years. Investment in the provision of quality childcare is therefore very welcome. But the service model must be one that closes rather than widens the attainment gap. There is a very real risk that done the wrong way we could make inequality worse rather than better. There is growing evidence that this has been the case following the move to 30 “free” hours per week in England . UNISON’s full response to the consultation is available here.
To be fully effective the proposed expansion of “free hours” in ELC will also require investment in a range of public services not just nurseries. The services also need to work together. This is why it important that all education services including early years are embedded in local authorities where links to social work, libraries, youth work, leisure and cultural services as well as social work, welfare rights, educational psychologists and housing can be best coordinated.
The government consistently state that they are focused on the provision of a quality service. The quality of an ELC services is entirely based on the quality of the staff. Stating that the Living Wage is the minimum pay for the sector contradicts that ambition. It should be shocking that that around 80 per cent of practitioners and 50 per cent of supervisors in partner settings are paid less than the Living Wage . So while the commitment will bring a welcome pay rise for many it is much less than is being paid in the public sector.
UNISON believes that the government has substantial underestimated the number of extra staff needed to meet their ambition but even accepting their figures it will be very difficult to attract sufficient people at that rate of pay. Why would anyone undertake the training (in-work or at college) needed to become an early years practitioner with all the responsibilities, the demands of maintaining professional registration and required ongoing professional development to earn the same rate of pay you could cleaning or in a supermarket?
In the short term the better rates of pay and pensions in the local authorities mean that authorities will be able to fill their current vacancies by attracting qualified staff from other sectors and lower paying authorities. The average earnings for practitioners across the sectors are
• public £28,000
• private £15,000
• voluntary £16,000
A practitioner moving from the private to the public sector is looking at an average wage rise of £13,000 per year plus a final salary pension. A recent report from the National Day Nurseries Association (Scotland ) states that private nurseries currently lose 3 staff per year to the public sector. Lower payers are going to struggle to keep and recruit staff during such a massive expansion According to the Skills Development Scotland report the current vacancy rate is 19% and 35% report problems filling vacancies. This will only get worse without proper pay. Low pay puts the whole expansion at risk.
The evidence is clear that an anti-poverty early learning and childcare service (ELC) needs to follow a supply side model rather than the “funding follows the child” “provider neutral” model laid out by the Scottish government.
As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation state
“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 services. This approach provides the means to offer universal access to services and effectively shape quality, affordability and flexibility. .....demand side subsidies do not offer the same means to achieve integration and deliver improvements in services. 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 parents’ ability to pay”
We really want this expansion to work. This could be a life changing investment in public services. There's still time for the Scottish government listen and make the right choices.