Keeping nurseries open for key workers’ children during the pandemic is costing Highland Council the financial equivalent of a full-time member of staff every week – and counting.
With no extra money coming from the Scottish Government, the bill will have to be met from cash already ring-fenced for other education services.
The council has been funding 44 child care hubs, private nurseries and childminders for children up to five to the tune of £38,000 per week, with the bill by the end of the summer expected to total £800,000.
It amounts to 1,400 places a week, supporting 250 families, the large majority (67%) in Inverness.
The bill is particularly heavy for the council because the geography of the region means it has always relied on a large number of partners, resulting in insufficient council-run capacity for 3-5-year-olds and none for 0-2-year-olds.
The sums involved in keeping childcare covered are likely to spiral as lockdown easing continues, according to the council’s executive chief officer for performance and governance, Kate Lackie.
She said: “Social distancing meaning centres can only operate at up to 30% capacity and childminders only allowed to support up to two households.
“Increasingly in some areas we are now running out of partner providers, but there are insufficient council staff volunteers to open hubs for 3-5-year-olds in our own settings.”
The council must also continue to fund places for children who would have been eligible for funded childcare, even if the centres are closed, an approach agreed nationally.
Council bosses say providing childcare for key workers is not a statutory obligation but a moral one and agreeing to spend this money “may have wider benefits to society”.
They have had Skype meetings with Maree Todd, minister for children and young people and government officials, arguing councils should not be expected to cover the costs of non-statutory provision or subsidise the private childcare sector.
However, the Scottish Government says critical childcare should be paid for from early years funding, a statutory duty due to start this August which it has now suspended.
Education chairman John Finlayson said: “ Clearly we are committed to supporting the provision of ELC at this difficult time but the costs are very high and we had hoped for financial support from the Scottish Government to mitigate it.
“There are real concerns about the additional costs in an already hugely challenging financial environment for Highland and we will continue to lobby the Scottish Government for the funding required or other adjustments to help reduce even more financial pressure on the council.”
In Aberdeenshire, the council has agreed to pay up to £1.1m to local partners for emergency childcare from March to August.
It has 17 council-run learning and childcare hubs delivering emergency care for vulnerable and key worker children.
It is also supporting eight private nurseries and 35 childminders.
Moray Council established a network of early learning childcare hubs across the region and says additional costs will amount to around £100k up to the beginning of August.
The council is using ring-fenced money for this, but says it does not anticipate its future plans will be significantly affected by this.
In the Western Isles, the council is working to cover gaps in its childcare funding, while facing loss of income from any extra hours it is providing at its own nurseries.