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Government report identifies ‘serious’ gaps in rural childcare

Carers, parents and providers are struggling to meet basic childcare needs in Scotland's rural and island areas.
Carers, parents and providers are struggling to meet basic childcare needs in Scotland's rural and island areas.

A Scottish Government report has found that rural and island families are struggling to find accessible and affordable childcare.

The Scottish Government’s report on accessing childcare in rural and island settings highlights pitfalls for parents in Scotland’s most remote areas in Argyll and Bute, Aberdeenshire, Dumfries and Galloway, Highlands, Shetland and the Western Isles.

According to the report, rural parents are having problems affording childcare, accessing it when they need it and finding resources for children under the age of three.

Meanwhile, childcare providers are facing their own set of challenges.

Inconsistent demand, varying age ranges of children and funding shortages are making it harder for providers to meet the needs of parents.

‘No choice’ but to ask friends for help

One parent responding to the survey said that returning to work has left them scrambling for childcare.

“Currently we struggle to find any childcare for between the ages of 1-2. My daughter has just turned one and I have just started back at work, following my maternity leave.”

The only option is for the child to stay with family or friends, they added.

Many respondents from Shetland and the Western Isles said that they work seasonally, or they do shift work with inconsistent schedules.

This caused problems trying to register their children at nurseries and other formal services, where they are often expected to register in advance or guarantee a consistent booking that they might not be able to use.

A group of parents in the Highlands has been struggling with many of these factors directly. Last year in Ullapool, half of the village’s private childminders retired. This came after many private and council-funded nursery facilities closed during the pandemic.

It left parents in what they called an ‘unprecedented childcare crisis’. Parents who work seasonal jobs in the popular tourism industry have a hard time getting help when they need it.

And even some of the remaining providers said that they simply didn’t have the funding necessary to offer services to a smaller population on an inconsistent basis.

Business problems facing a ‘community service’

Earlier this year, the Scottish Childminding Association (SCMA) launched a childminder recruitment campaign. Their goal was to target shortages in many of the rural and island areas surveyed by the Government report.

Childminding is a business at its core, even in rural communities where it’s crucial for many families. That means that providers have to make tough decisions according to the economic factors in play.

The Government report called childcare an ‘essential community service’ in rural and island areas. Its findings suggested local authority subsidies that could support providers when demand is low.

The report also highlighted the importance of flexibility. In addition to wraparound care after school, the report suggested pop-up or travelling service providers to give parents more options for time and location.

Council agrees with report findings

A spokesperson for Highland Council said that the report highlighted many issues that the council is already working to address.

She added that, in addition to shortfalls in rural areas, there are also challenges in finding qualified carers for Gaelic speakers and children in Gaelic Medium Education.

The council pointed to its efforts to bring in community support for childminders in rural areas, a solution promoted in the report.

Ullapool is one of the many Highland villages struggling to support its childcare needs. Picture by Jason Hedges.

“We bring together businesses, providers, communities and their representatives to explore ways to collaborate to meet the variety of needs parents and families have.

“We promote and facilitate wider community collaboration, linking providers with existing sites, services and facilities such as leisure providers, local authority sites and services and wellbeing services.”

More needs to be done for ‘absolutely vital resource’

In response to the Government’s report, Rachael Hamilton, the Scottish Conservative Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands, called on the Government to make rural childcare a priority.

“Continuity and reliability of childcare are absolutely vital for developing and sustaining thriving rural and island communities.

“Creating such networks is a cornerstone of the Scottish Government’s recent proposals for a new Agriculture Bill. However, this report shows that they are failing at the very first hurdle.

“Integrated, fully-functioning infrastructure is at the heart of every country and Scotland’s rural and island groups are being sadly let down.”

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