I’ve spent the last two and a half years campaigning for a change in legislation which will be made law in the next two months. I should be ecstatic but I’m not.
The Scottish Government’s Dec 7th2020 announcement will see all children who share the same legal right to defer their primary one start in Scotland – any child who hasn’t reached the age of five by the school commencement date in August – soon have the same automatic entitlement to a further year of funded early learning and childcare (ELC). This was the key aim of our Give Them Time campaign but it won’t be available to all before August 2023 and therein lies the rub.
Every day through the Deferral Support Scotland Facebook group we help concerned parents of mid-August to 31 Dec borns (the cohort currently at the mercy of their local authority for this continued funding) who find themselves disempowered from making a decision in the best interests of their child due to the process of applying for this funding in their local authority area.
For academic year 2020-2021, our research showed there were 1635 applications for this funding across all council areas in Scotland of which 84 were refused. Twenty out of thirty-two local authorities funded 100% of these requests with Stirling Council funding the fewest – only 42%.
Parents are worried about how to write a winning funding application (it feels like a competition for a quota of spaces and the criteria are so subjective and varied by council area that it’s hard to know how best to convince the hidden decision makers – usually they have never met the child). Parents are put in the position of listing their child’s deficits in order to argue their case for deferral ELC funding whilst also knowing that refused funding could lead to their child being turfed out of their current council nursery (12 councils don’t permit parents to self-fund in a council nursery if the council refuses to provide this – see table in point 5).
Parents in our recent survey described their experiences of applying to their local authority for this funding as, “horrendous”, “stressful”, “difficult”, “distressing”, “worrying”, “bureaucratic” and that they felt their views on their own child were often “dismissed”.
The five councils which will participate in an automatic funding pilot scheme from 2021-2022 are: Angus, Argyll & Bute, Falkirk, Scottish Borders and Shetland Islands. We are delighted that parents in these authorities can breathe a sigh of relief knowing with certainty that their child’s continued nursery place is guaranteed next year – particularly in light of the current closure of all ELC settings during this second national lockdown in less than a year. However, serious questions need to be asked about the selection of these areas. Firstly, Falkirk adopted a policy of automatically funding such requests of its own accord in 2018 so isn’t it disingenuous to consider it part of a pilot? Also, responses from all 32 councils to our Freedom of Information requests show that these five areas have each had a 100% rate of granting all requests in the last two years. Wouldn’t it have been better to learn from the challenges that arose in council areas where a lower percentage of requests are usually approved? And perhaps a city to show the obstacles faced there?
Don’t get me wrong, the 2023 law change and interim pilot are very, very welcome but sadly they won’t help the majority of families going through the process of deferring their mid-Aug to Dec born now, more than 50% of whom in recent years have had a December birthday and miss out on automatic funding by only days or a few weeks (including children who were born prematurely). And with the Covid-19 pandemic having closed nursery settings for five months last year and who knows for how long this time round, it’s an even harsher blow for those whose children will have had minimal time there if they have to go to school in August instead of deferring.
I sincerely hope the second year of the pilot in 2022-2023 sees more of these issues being addressed. The 2021-2022 scheme is good, but not good enough. Many questions remain but one in particular endures: have councils’ continued funding decisions ever been based solely on a child’s best interests or on nursery capacity and cost?
Co-founder, Give Them Time Campaign