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Rona Mackay speech: ‘Bridging attainment gap for all children is Scots government’s defining mission

Debate: The Expansion of Early Learning and Childcare Provision: That the Parliament notes the publication of the Financial Review of Early Learning and Childcare in Scotland: the Current Landscape, which provides a comprehensive picture of how the funding provided by the Scottish Government to deliver early learning and childcare in Scotland is being used; welcomes the Scottish Government’s commitment to transform provision by almost doubling free entitlement from 600 to 1140 hours for every 3- and 4-year-old and eligible 2-year-olds; agrees that this transformational expansion must deliver a high-quality experience for children, involving a highly-skilled and qualified workforce, which is geographically accessible and meets the needs of children who require additional support, while also delivering the flexibility, affordability and choice, which parents need to support them in work, training or study, and agrees that the Scottish Government should consult on a policy blueprint for early learning and childcare in order to achieve this and ensure that this entitlement helps to ensure that more of Scotland’s children get the best possible start in life and contributes to the Scottish Government’s ambitions to close the attainment gap, tackle inequalities and boost inclusive economic growth.

Rona Mackay’s speech:

The Scottish Government has said that bridging the attainment gap for all children is its defining mission—and rightly so.

I believe that bridging that gap should start as early as possible in a child’s life and that is why I am delighted that our Government is investing in expanding early years education.

As we have heard in the chamber, our Government is doubling free early learning and childcare entitlement by 2020. The extension in provision will help around 120,000 children per year and will save families up to £707 per child per year.

It is an ambitious goal but one that we believe it is crucial to implement, as investing in our children is surely the best investment that any Government could make.

As the minister has said, as well as doubling the provision, we are determined to deliver provision of the highest possible standard. Quantity without quality is not what we are striving for.

Our childcare staff are not glorified babysitters; they are highly skilled professionals who are entrusted with the care and education of our children—the future generation of Scotland.

Scotland is one of the few countries in Europe that employs multidisciplinary professional teams to support individuals or small groups. I am proud that, during 2017-18, the Scottish Government will pilot approaches to providing support for the up-front costs of childcare to parents in low-income households.

We will ensure that every child in early education in the most deprived communities has access to an additional teacher or childcare graduate by 2018. That, in my view, is bridging the attainment gap and I welcome those initiatives.

Of course, our third sector agencies play a huge part in helping us to achieve our aims. Barnardo’s Scotland works with expectant and new mothers in the home on attachment-based approaches, as does the excellent Home-Start organisation. They believe that adopting a nurturing approach across early learning and childcare should make a significant difference to children’s attainment levels later in life.

They agree that it is crucial that investment in the expansion of early learning and childcare includes disadvantaged children and families as a central part of the system and that support should be continued for better attainment as children grow older.

A nurturing approach to early learning and childcare helps children to learn, thrive and ultimately achieve better educational outcomes.

Childminders, too, will be central to providing more flexibility and choice for parents, as my colleague James Dornan has already said. We will create a new quality standard and induction programme for childminders in order to deliver best practice in the profession.

Our aim is to develop a high-quality and—crucially—flexible early learning and childcare system, which is accessible and affordable for all. In short, we want Scotland to be the best place in the world to grow up.

A shining example of excellence in early years learning is the Lullaby Lane nursery, based in my Bearsden constituency. Despite being open for just three years, it has just won Nursery Management Today’s 2016 training and development award at the Scottish nursery awards. I am very much looking forward to visiting the nursery with the cabinet secretary next month. Lullaby Lane, along with other first-class nurseries in my constituency such as the Tower Nursery in Lenzie, which is currently undergoing accreditation, represents exactly the model that we aspire to create throughout Scotland.

I believe that parents are the best judge of how good a nursery is, and I know that many of my constituents believe that the money should follow the child when it comes to nursery choice. While we balance the need to ensure that all nurseries in Scotland are of the excellent high standard that we expect for our children, hence the need for nursery partnership with local authorities, there is a little confusion over how much autonomy local authorities have to fund placements. I am pleased to hear that the minister will look at all options for funding during the consultation.

We need nurseries that parents and children are happy with and that provide the best possible start for all our children, regardless of family background or circumstances.

Our transformational increase in childcare is a remarkable achievement, and once again we are leading the way against all odds. Despite an ever-decreasing budget handout from Westminster, the fact that Scotland punches way above its weight on this issue in comparison with the rest of the UK and many other countries shows just how important investing in our children is to us in Scotland. I am proud that we are leading the way in this area, and I whole-heartedly support the motion.

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