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Minister says 1140 childcare hours roll-out should not be paused in Highlands

By Scott Maclennan

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The minister in charge of the 1140 hours of free childcare has cast doubt on claims made by Highland Council that it is following Scottish Government advice by pausing the roll-out of the ambitious plan.

So far only nurseries and playgroups in Laggan, Kincraig, Carrbridge and Nethy Bridge are benefitting from the scheme with all other local facilities still receiving an allocation of just 600 hours.

Parents at Dehsar Primary School – where a brand new nursery opened earlier this week with half of the funds being raised in the community - have called on the council to end its postcode lottery for nursery hours.

Earlier in the Covid-19 crisis the government gave the go-ahead for local authorities to use the ring-fenced cash for other purposes like providing urgent childcare for key workers, a position that remains in force.

However, Highland Councillor Graham Mackenzie challenged the council on its slow progress on developing the service with more than £30 million at its disposal to move the scheme forward which he argued would benefit the local community and economy.

But executive chief officer for finance Liz Denovan told him the scheme would be paused due to financial pressures on the council with almost half the projected deficit of £28 million this year coming from education.

She said: “Those funds will still be used in the gap within education but at this moment in time we are pausing the rollout. We will be able to implement the rollout again when funds are available. At the moment, we are following government guidance in pausing the rollout.”

However, contradicting that children’s minister and Highland MSP Maree Todd said the government had not advised pausing the scheme and in fact encouraged its implementation where possible.

She said: “The Scottish Government, jointly with Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, has been clear that, where possible, councils should continue to bring forward their 1140 hours expansion.

"We have not advised councils to pause the roll out of 1140.

“We understand that, due to the pandemic, there will be cases where councils cannot deliver what they had planned to this August.

"That is why we took the difficult decision to remove the statutory duty for this month.

“We have continued to provide councils with the full funding allocation for 1140 hours to allow them to expand where they can. While we have offered some flexibility to use that funding to deliver critical provision for children and families.

"This funding is not provided to support other parts of councils’ budgets.

“We are committed to delivering the expansion of Early Learning and Childcare. Unnecessary delays in delivering the expansion will mean that families miss out on the benefits.”

Councillor Graham Mackenzie said: “The money is there from this budget for 1140 hours, there is more than £30 million and from last year’s underspend and despite the outlay on key workers childcare is more than £4million on top of that. This scheme can and should be progressed.”

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