There are fears councils are threating the viability of private nurseries and undermining parent choice as ministers move to get Scotland’s landmark free childcare policy back on track.
Concerns have also been raised about building delays and recruitment challenges as the sector battles to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
It comes as Children’s Minister Maree Todd prepares to decide on a fresh recommendation that August 2021 becomes the new deadline by which councils are legally obliged to offer 1140 hours of funded early learning and childcare (ELC) to families.
The original date of August 2020 was postponed earlier this year due the impact of Covid-19.
SNP MSP Alex Neil praised the Scottish Government’s overall strategy and principles but told the committee: “If you spoke to a number of parents… and certainly people in the private, voluntary and independent (PVI) sector in North Lanarkshire, they would say the funding is not following the child just now, with a number of cases of where a child and the parent are being denied a place in the PVI sector, although that’s by far their preference, because the council has put a cap on their expenditure for the PVI sector.
“And the view is, and I have to say I have some sympathy with this view, that the council is running the policy to suit… its own provision needs rather than its regulatory needs.
“There comes a time when the government has to say to recalcitrant local authorities, who are not fulfilling the spirit and the letter of the policy, that enough is enough. They have to give the PVI sector a fair crack of the whip.”
Fellow SNP MSP Kenneth Gibson echoed Mr Neil’s concerns, saying: “I’ve been contacted about the continuing frustration among providers that local authority places are continuing to be offered first, which doesn’t really reflect parental need or choice – and I think this is a threat to the viability of some of the private nurseries.”
Ms Todd stressed that North Lanarkshire council was one of those which had already successfully delivered 1140 hours of funded childcare to families, adding: “I don’t think it’s intentional that they haven’t delivered full flexibility at the point of delivery of 1140 hours.
“I think it’s as a result of some of the buildings not being built… There’s been a particular situation in North Lanarkshire – one of the things that has happened is that a very small number of parents applied late to have a nursery place in a PVI setting and they were unable to get their first choice setting.
“It is not, I think, a deliberate attempt to thwart what the government wants this policy to deliver.”
Ms Todd suggested situations such as the one in North Lanarkshire would be ironed out once the 1140 hours policy has legal underpinnings, adding: “I think the challenge relates to their procurement model, which is perhaps not as flexible [as that of] some of other local authorities.”
On the wider roll-out of free childcare, Ms Todd said: “Fourteen councils are already delivering the expanded 1140 hours offer in full, with all other councils offering more than the statutory entitlement of 600 hours to some or all families.
“Our latest data collection in August found that more than 80% of children in funded ELC were receiving more than 600 hours and 61% of these children – more than 56,000 children – were receiving 1140 hours… Local authority colleagues and other delivery partners have shown tremendous commitment to deliver the expanded entitlement to so many more families since March.”
She added: “The ELC joint delivery board met last Friday on the 4th of December to consider the evidence that has been gathered on readiness to deliver the expansion, including the advice of an independent review.
“Having carefully considered that evidence, the board has recommended a new delivery date for 1140 hours of August 2021. This recommendation is now being carefully considered by Scottish ministers and by Cosla leaders. Once a final decision has been taken, which I expect will be in the coming days, I’ll confirm a new planned implementation date to Parliament.
A spokesman for North Lanarkshire Council said: “Our Early Years’ team makes every effort to offer a suitable place to help meet individual needs of families. Everyone who applied was offered a place for 1140 hours of childcare by the end of September, however, this may not always be with their first choice of facility, particularly if it is a late application.
“This year, 86% of applicants were offered a place with their first choice provider. The application process was widely publicised and people who applied on time were told of their allocated place at the end of June. Late applications were still processed but that could mean that applicants were not be offered their first or second preferences.
“The funding for private providers has been fully allocated at this time however, this is a fluid situation and funded placements can become available for a range of reasons. If an applicant’s first choice is with a funded provider, and we are unable to allocate them a place, they will then be offered a place at one of our council settings, which provide a high-quality learning environment.
“Applicants can remain on a waiting list as places can become available, which has happened recently.”