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15 February 2018, 10:13
A public spending watchdog has warned of "significant risks" to the Scottish Government's plan to almost double free early learning and childcare by 2020.
The government has pledged to increase paid-for nursery places from the current 600 hours to 1,140 for three and four-year-olds, and eligible two-year-olds, by August 2020, equivalent to about 30 hours a week in term time.
An Accounts Commission report found: "There are significant risks that councils will not be able to expand funded early learning and childcare (ELC) to 1,140 hours by 2020.
"In particular it will be difficult to increase the infrastructure and workforce to the levels required, in the limited time available.
"The Scottish Government should have started detailed planning with councils earlier, given the scale of the changes required."
The report found council and government estimates of funding and workforce differ significantly with councils expecting day to day spending on the scheme to hit £1 billion by 2021/22, compared to the indicative government figure of £840 million.
Local authorities estimate they will need 12,000 whole-time equivalent (WTE) staff by the same time while the government believes between 6,000 and 8,000 WTE staff will be needed by 2020.
Councils expect to spend around £690 million for changes to infrastructure by 2021/22, higher than the £400 million indicative figure from the Scottish Government.
The report also examined the 2014 expansion of funded places to 600 hours and found the government has invested almost £650 million but did not plan how to evaluate this meaning "it is not yet clear whether the investment is delivering value for money".
Auditors also criticised agreeing the expansion without examining other options or having evidence it would achieve the desired outcomes for children and parents.
They found councils and government have worked well together to expand provision and parents are positive about the benefits for their children but some indicated the free hours have a limited impact on improving their ability to work.
Accounts Commission chairman Graham Sharp said: "The scale of change needed over the next two years is considerable and there are significant risks that councils will be unable to deliver that change in the time available.
"There is now an urgent need for plans addressing increases in the childcare workforce and changes to premises to be finalised and put in place."
Caroline Gardner, Auditor General for Scotland, said: "Focusing on the early years has the potential to make a real difference to young people's lives but the Scottish Government was not clear enough about what the expansion of funded hours in 2014 was expected to achieve.
"We are encouraged that the Scottish Government is now planning better for how it will assess the impact of the expansion to 1,140 hours and has already published some baseline information."
Labour's education spokesman Iain Gray added: "This independent report blows a £160 million black hole in a flagship SNP Government policy.
"Raising the amount of free childcare families are entitled too has been a cornerstone of the SNP's offer to families - but this report reveals that, not only does the Scottish Government not expect to fully fund it, but that it is also miles behind the levels of staff recruitment needed."
Conservative education spokeswoman Liz Smith said the report "is damning in term of exposing the failures of SNP policy on child care".
Minister for Childcare and Early Years Maree Todd said the government remains "on track to deliver 1,140 hours by 2020".
She said: "It is not unusual, at this point in the life of a major project, for people to have different ideas as to the final cost. What is not in doubt is that the Scottish Government has pledged to fully fund this policy.
"That's why we are working with councils to help them develop their expansion plans and have recently reached agreement with Cosla on the process of arriving at the multi-year funding needed.
"While this work is underway, we have already increased capacity in early years courses in colleges and universities and are investing in the significant expansion of the workforce needed to deliver the expansion."