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Thurso nurseries hit by delay to free childcare roll-out

By Scott Maclennan

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Working families could lose out on up to £4000.
Working families could lose out on up to £4000.

Hard-up families in Thurso are among hundreds across the north who will miss out on extra free childcare for almost a year.

Huge swathes of the region will not be able to access the Scottish government's 1140 hours of free childcare until August.

And today a leading councillor accused Highland Council of using the coronavirus pandemic to hide its own incompetence.

Four schools and a nursery in Thurso are among those who have been told they will have to wait – costing parents hundreds of pounds a month.

It's the latest twist in the saga of the delivery of the government's flagship scheme in the region which has already been blasted by children's minister Maree Todd.

The programme is designed to free parents to get back to work – something that has become a vital issue for many due to the lockdown.

But the council had been dragging its feet as it said it might need the cash for other educational needs – a claim which was dismissed by Mrs Todd.

The latest revelations only came to light after Councillor Andrew Sinclair demanded an urgent review into when and where the free hours could be delivered.

The council issued a report which showed five nurseries or primaries in Thurso and one in Golspie were among 29 in the Highlands which would be unable to deliver the full level of free childcare.

The council says the delay is because the necessary investment in buildings and facilities has not taken place and will not now be available until August 2021.

The news will come as a blow to hard hit parents with some estimates putting the cost of childcare on working families as high as £4000 per child per year, making a significant dent in the household budget.

The affected facilities in the north include – Miller Academy Nursery, Mount Pleasant Primary Nursery (EM and GM), Pennyland Primary Nursery and Reay Under 5s.

The leader of Tory group on the council, Cllr Andrew Jarvie said: "This report paints the picture of a lagging council which has yet again used the smokescreen of Covid to hide its own incompetence.

“It is completely inexcusable that a third of nurseries will not be ready to offer full time hours for nearly a year. You cannot blame a six-month pandemic for a 12-month delay, when so many other councils rolled out this in full on time.

“I’m just exasperated that so many still need physical alterations and works to get them ready. The council knew this was coming in August, even before Covid. Had the virus not hit, is the council seriously suggesting that it was going to complete significant alterations to a third of nurseries in just five months, which now will take a year minimum?

"Unfortunately, despite previous rosy updates. It is only now clear that even without Covid the council was miles away from being ready to deliver full time hours in August - despite taking the cash from the government to do it.

“I said two months ago, even if a nursery cannot deliver the full hours, how many can they deliver? Just because somewhere can’t do 1140 hours, that’s no reason to stay at 600. Why not 800 or 900 hours if it can? Never has this been needed more, for many hard pressed parents this is the difference between working and not working. The council owes it to parents to deliver something it has already been paid to deliver and I will continue to relentlessly pursue this."

Service manager for early years Kirsty Henry said: “As reported in previous committee reports, there were several factors impacting on the Highland Council’s final phase of Early Learning and Childcare (ELC) expansion.

“These have been compounded further by the impact of Covid-19. These include delays in recruitment plans to increase the workforce needed and delay in capital investment delivery.

“Members will be aware, from recent reports to committee and to council, of the general impact on capital programme delivery due to Covid-19 and lockdown."

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