Scottish ministers are being challenged over whether a promise to recruit more nursery teachers to work in the most deprived communities has been “binned”.
The Liberal Democrats say that more than five years after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon personally pledged hundreds more staff would be taken on, the target has still not been met.
In January 2017, Ms Sturgeon committed that an extra 435 graduates would be in place in nurseries by 2018, at the time insisting the move was “absolutely crucial to tackling the attainment gap”.
But the Lib Dems said figures from September 2021 show there were at that point 356 of the “equity and excellence leaders” in post – with 327 full-time equivalent (FTE) having been taken on.
The party’s education spokesman Willie Rennie hit out at the Scottish Government, saying: “More than 100 nurseries in the most deprived communities in Scotland don’t have the extra nursery teacher Nicola Sturgeon personally promised would arrive in 2018.”
As a result, he said “thousands of children have missed out and moved on”, adding that the “chance to give them a better start in life and close the attainment gap has been squandered”.
Mr Rennie continued: “Astonishingly, at the current rate of progress it’s going to take another 10 years for the SNP to meet what was a one-year target.”
Ms Sturgeon has previously insisted that closing the attainment gap is her top priority, but Mr Rennie claimed SNP ministers have “lost interest” in tackling the problem and “switched their focus back to independence instead”.
He said: “Nicola Sturgeon promising education would be her number one priority feels like an awfully long time ago for children and parents. They are being taken for a ride.
“They deserve to know if this nursery staffing target will ever be met, or if it has been binned too.”
Children’s minister Clare Haughey said: “Since 2017, the early learning and childcare workforce has expanded massively, with graduate ELC staff increasing by more than half.
“This expansion means that by August 2021, every local authority in Scotland confirmed they were able to offer 1,140 hours of funded ELC to all three and four-year-olds and two-year-olds who need it most.
“This is great for children and families. Being able to access high quality ELC, delivered by a range of staff with different skills and qualifications, is a corner-stone of narrowing the poverty-related attainment gap.
“As of January 2022, over 111,000 children were benefitting from funded ELC across Scotland, saving families on average £4,900 per child annually.”