The Scottish Government’s flagship free childcare pledge has been shelved due to the Covid-19 outbreak.
Councils were working to a deadline of August to double the provision of funded childcare hours to 1,140 a year for all three and four-year-olds, and eligible two-year-olds.
Now, the Scottish Government plans to suspend the legal duty on local authorities to deliver the expansion by August, with children and young people minister Maree Todd saying the coronavirus pandemic makes it “impossible”.
An Audit Scotland report at the start of the month found “steady progress” on achieving the pledge but warned its success or failure is “critically dependent on achieving much in a short time”, with extensive recruitment and building works urgently required.
In a joint statement with local authority umbrella body Cosla’s children and young people spokesman, councillor Stephen McCabe, Ms Todd said: “Before the extent of the Covid-19 pandemic became clear a couple of weeks ago, Audit Scotland confirmed we were on track to deliver 1,140 hours of early learning and childcare from August 2020.
“Indeed, councils had already built or refurbished hundreds of buildings and recruited thousands of additional staff, and in excess of 50,000 children were already receiving more than the current entitlement of 600 hours.”
The statement continues: “However, in these exceptional circumstances it is not realistic or reasonable to expect that local authorities can deliver their original expansion plans to secure high-quality experience for all children in time for August this year.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has made it impossible to continue with the planned recruitment and infrastructure projects required to support expansion.
“As we focus on saving lives and looking after people most vulnerable to the virus, the immediate priority is to ensure that we have the emergency childcare in place to support families during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“To support local government with this critical response work, the Scottish Government has now moved to suspend the statutory duty on local authorities to provide 1,140 hours of early learning and childcare from this August.”
The pair stressed their commitment to delivering the expansion “remains undimmed”, adding the statutory duty will be reinstated once a clearer picture of the pandemic emerges, but giving no proposed new date.
Ministers have laid an order in the Scottish Parliament to revoke the statutory duty on councils provide the 1,140 hours by August.
Scottish Conservative education spokesman Jamie Greene said: “This is extremely disappointing but not entirely unexpected news – prior to the Covid-19 outbreak Audit Scotland had warned that the Scottish Government would struggle to meet this deadline.”
He urged the Scottish Government to fulfil its pledge “as soon as practicable”, a position echoed by his Scottish Labour counterpart Iain Gray, who said: “Even before Covid-19 there were real concerns that this policy would not be delivered on time.”
Speaking at her daily coronavirus briefing in Edinburgh on Tuesday, Nicola Sturgeon said: “We are no longer imposing a statutory duty on local authorities from August but I want to make absolutely clear today that we remain committed to ensuring that this expansion happens as soon as possible.
“It is one of the most important policies and priorities of this Government and one that we will be working towards as soon as we possibly can.”