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I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Challenge Poverty Week - Early Years

Important though actions to ameliorate poverty are in the short-term, it is through preventative spending and early interventions that we will begin to eradicate poverty in Scotland. One of the most important of these interventions is through early year’s provision.

This is Challenge Poverty Week in Scotland in which the Poverty Alliance and its member organisations seek to highlight the reality of life for over 900,000 people living in poverty. It is therefore a good time to look at the measures being taken to address poverty.

The Scottish government has chosen this week to publish its blueprint for the expansion of early years learning and childcare (ELC) in Scotland.  The centrepiece of this plan is to almost double entitlement to free ELC to 1140 hours per year by 2020 for all three and four year olds and eligible two year olds.

Five years ago, the Christie Commission used early year’s provision to illustrate the importance of early intervention. The blueprint confirms the Scottish government’s support for this concept when they say:

“It is widely acknowledged that the provision of universally accessible and high quality early learning and childcare enriches children with the skills and confidence to carry into and multiply throughout school, and is a cornerstone for closing attainment and inequality gaps”

With this statement you would assume that the plan would be to expand high quality early year’s provision that makes a real intervention in the lives of children at this crucial period in their lives.

The blueprint covers a number of key areas that might help achieve this. As ELC is delivered by people, the workforce is a key element. The blueprint states:

“It will be vital to ensure that, as part of the expansion, the skills and qualifications profile of the ELC workforce is raised, diversity is increased, and there is greater gender balance in the workforce.”

The blueprint also reminds us that we are a considerable way from achieving this in the private sector, with 80% of practitioners and 50% of supervisors in partner provider settings paid less than the Scottish Living Wage. Levels of qualifications are also poor in this sector.

To deliver the laudable aims in the blueprint we need a delivery mechanism to match. This is sadly where the plan starts to unravel. Three of the four options in the blueprint are demand led approaches, very similar to the Tory voucher scheme approach to public service delivery. The obvious risk in this approach is that it leads to a race to the bottom in quality provision and the wholesale privatisation of the sector.

This is not entirely unexpected. The SNP manifesto commitment to employ an additional 20,000 childcare workers and build 200 early years centres, always looked optimistic on a suspiciously round budget of £500m. Sadly, government budgets don’t stretch on the loaves and fishes principle!

We have some experience of a race to the bottom in the social care sector. Because of budgetary pressures, social care has suffered from a race to the bottom in poor quality care. The consequences are half a million patient days in hospitals lost to delayed discharges. Only now are we beginning the climb up from the bottom with the requirement to pay the Scottish Living Wage. Even so, most councils in Scotland are still a long way from a quality care standard as set out in UNISON’s Ethical Care Charter.

The workforce lesson is that this approach results in workers that feel so undervalued that they don’t want to work in the sector and turnover rates soar. When you add Brexit to the mix, recruiting 20,000 additional workers to the sector is going to be beyond challenging.

So, my plea would be to learn the lessons of social care and don’t replicate them in ELC. We need a fairly paid, well trained workforce that can make the early year’s interventions that can close attainment and inequality gaps. We know all too well that privatisation and inequality go hand in hand.

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