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More councils sound alarm over free childcare funding cuts

Councils are concerned about ELC funding.
Councils are concerned about ELC funding.

The expansion of free childcare in the Highlands is facing a “huge challenge” due to government cuts.

The flagship policy was introduced last year and it offers 1,140 hours for all three and four-year-olds and eligible two-year-olds.

But concerns about that continuing have already been raised in Aberdeen with fears a £4.6 million reduction in Scottish Government funding could put the service “in jeopardy”.

A leading education boss in the Granite City even admitted to being surprised by the funding cut.

The Government say they have reduced the funding because there are less children than expected.

But Highland Council have raised the same issue as Aberdeen after it emerged the amount of ring-fenced cash for Early Learning and Childcare (ELC) is being reduced.

Officials in Moray are also worried by a reduction in ring-fenced cash meant for ELC and are busy carrying out an audit to determine their final financial position.

‘Very disappointing’ cuts

Highland Council’s settlement for last year was £25.5 million. It is expected to be £23.9 million for 2022/23.

The local authority’s leader Margaret Davidson said the cuts to the ELC budget is “very disappointing”.

She said: “A budget reduction of this scale for ELC is a huge challenge and very disappointing; especially given how much Highland has achieved in rolling out 1,140 across the Highlands.”

A local authority spokeswoman added that they were continuing to work out their budget.

She said: “Arising from the Scottish Budget for 2022/23, the council is faced with a reduction in Scottish Government grant funding for ELC funding in 2022/23.

“In total a £2.2m reduction is expected, half from a real terms cut in the budget and half as a result of the local government distribution formula

“The council is still considering its budget plans for 2022/23 and is actively engaging though Cosla about concerns relating to the impact on the council of the local government grant settlement.”

Council leader Margaret Davidson is “disappointed” by the ELC funding for 2022/23.  Picture by Jason Hedges.

Neighbouring council raises fears

Moray Council have also raised concerns as it prepares for a funding cut from ministers. More than £1 million is being slashed from last year’s total.

The local authority said the changes mean the current service on offer could not operate again.

A spokeswoman for the authority said they were working on a solution. They hope they can continue to operate free childcare “within budget”.

She added that “investigative work” was being carried by the council’s ELC service. They are looking for “greater clarity” on the finances for 2022/23.

The Moray Council spokeswoman said: “Investigative work is being undertaken by the ELC service, assisted by internal audit, to provide greater clarity on the final financial position for 2022/23 and progress representations through Cosla in relation to the grant allocation and the phasing of the new approach to funding ELC.”

She added that the budget pressures in ELC will be considered by the next full council as part of the budget setting process.”

The Scottish Government say the funding is based on the number of eligible children.

Another council faces ELC cuts

Aberdeenshire Council would not be drawn on their potential ELC funding cut of £900,000.

The Scottish Government’s own figures show the authority received £28.7 million for ELC in 2021/22 and for the next financial year it will be £27.8 million.

A spokesman for Aberdeenshire Council confirmed the additional free hours had been implemented.

He added: “We are looking forward to delivering the final few capital projects in our expansion programme.”

Scottish Government response

The Scottish Government said the cuts in funding were down to fewer kids being eligible for free childcare.

Officials in Edinburgh said they are “confident” there is “sufficient funding”.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “Individual allocations reflect the fact that nationally, as is the case in many local authority areas, there are fewer children eligible for the offer now than was planned for the ELC funding grant in 2018.

“Aberdeenshire has seen a reduction of 7.5% in its cohort, with Highland down 8.2% and Moray down 12.8%.”

She said ministers are “confident” that there is sufficient funding for the scheme.

“In 2022-23, we will be investing more than £1 billion through local government in funded ELC.

“We are extremely grateful to all those in local government and in the ELC sector who continue to work so hard to deliver the offer, despite the significant challenges of Covid-19.”

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