…it’s been a long day. I hope by now you’ve got your feet up, slippers on and a Hob-Nob or two within reach. But while you’re having a well-deserved seat, could I draw something to your attention? I’ll be as quick as I can.
It’s about this childcare business. It’s come up already, in your very first First Minister’s Questions, and you repeated your recent pledge to double the hours of free childcare available for 3 and 4 year olds.
It sounds great. But it assumes that eligible children are already receiving the 600 hours to which they are currently entitled. First Minister, they are not. Here are the facts, with as little fury as I can manage.
My daughter will shortly turn two. As a conscientious mum, I made sure we sent her to a Partnership nursery, which means that Glasgow City Council has a deal to provide some of its free funded places through it. And as a woman who – like you, I understand – believes in being prepared, I recently started checking how I go about accessing Eilidh’s free hours.
Simply put, I can’t. There are thirty-six children aged 3-4 at Eilidh’s nursery. But the Council has only awarded it eighteen Partnership places. The nursery solves the problem by allocating the funding to the 18 oldest children. If EIlidh stays at this nursery, she will receive no free childcare till she turns four.
I have asked the nursery, the council and the Scottish Government why in holy heck the Council has knowingly awarded half the number of places required, and I have never yet had a clear answer.
So obviously, I need to get Eilidh into a Council nursery. But my partner and I both work, so it needs to be an extended services nursery – that is, one which is open from 8-6 and doesn’t close during school holidays. Getting your child into one of these is a near-impossible task, not only because demand massively outstrips supply but because they allocate places to those who meet their priority criteria first. So if you’re not a single parent, vulnerable in some other way, or have a child whose school start date has been deferred, you haven’t a hope.
Please don’t misunderstand. I have absolutely no problem with the idea that those with the greatest need should be helped first. But Eilidh has a legal entitlement to receive 300 hours of childcare, and I am scunnered to find that this “legal entitlement” is simply meaningless rhetoric.
There’s one last piece of this ill-fitting jigsaw, and then I promise I’ll let you go to bed. Let’s just say that I did move Eilidh from her current nursery, where she is safe, happy and settled. Let’s say I somehow managed to get her into a council nursery that was open when I needed it. Problem solved, right?
Alas, no. I would only be offered three hours per day, in the morning or the afternoon. Thus I would need to pay someone else to pick EIlidh up from nursery and either look after her for the rest of the day or take her to a different nursery. In what way would this disruptive and precarious arrangement be better for her wellbeing, education or security? It would not. It would benefit no-one but the Council, around whose needs the entire system is designed.
I asked Glasgow City Council why on earth they didn’t just let the funding follow the child rather than forcing the child to be dragged around in search of a funded place. The answer, if you can believe it, was that it was too “administratively difficult”.
So screw the parents, who are left having to juggle ludicrously complex arrangements. Screw the children, who must be uprooted from nurseries where they have grown to feel safe, to be ferried around the city throughout the day. As long as Glasgow City Council isn’t having to deal with any administrative difficulties, we can all sleep easy in our beds.
First Minister, I apologise. I have descended into sarcasm, and I have gone on far longer than I intended. I am delighted that my daughter is growing up in a country led by a confident, competent woman. You are an excellent role model. But it infuriates me when I hear you and other politicians trumpeting the “childcare revolution” that is apparently about to take place, when I know that in reality, the whole system is an unfathomable shambles.
I’d love 1200 hours of free childcare. But I’d settle for 600. In fact, right now I’d settle for 6: anything would be an improvement.
Please, First Minister. Sort this out. Deploy some of your legendary tact, determination and Glasgow gumption, and get this nonsense stopped. Eilidh and I are counting on you.