The Scottish Government’s plans to increase free childcare provision have been put on hold for at least a year because of coronavirus.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the delay in implementing the provision of 1140 hours of free early years care for three and four-year-olds, as well as eligible two-year-olds, was both “inevitable” and “regrettable”.
She was speaking after ministers confirmed the policy will not be introduced in the 2020/21 school year.
The Scottish Government had already delayed the planned implementation date of August 2020 due to the pandemic.
In a letter to councils, children’s minister Maree Todd said it would “not be feasible to reinstate a universal 1140 duty in the academic year 20/21, or while the coronavirus public health measures, which significantly impact on ELC (early learning and childcare) capacity, remain in place”.
Sturgeon had originally announced plans to virtually double the amount of free early years learning youngsters receive, from the current provision of 600 hours, back in 2017.
Speaking at her daily coronavirus briefing on Wednesday, she said: “The expansion of childcare is one of the commitments of my government in this term of parliament that mattered most to me because it is so transformational in terms of the opportunities and the attainment of young people later in education.
“It also is a massive financial benefit to parents, so I deeply regret that it has to be slightly delayed because it was on track to be delivered – a massive policy, so that was no mean feat in itself.
“But I hope people will understand it is just inevitable.”
She vowed ministers will “as quickly as possible get it back on track and deliver it as quickly as possible”, and added: “I remain just as committed today as I was pre-Covid-19 to fulfilling this commitment in full so that children and parents get the fullest benefit from it as quickly as possible.”
In letter sent to local authority education directors, Ms Todd said a revised date for implementing the policy will be jointly agreed by the government and councils.
The letter, from Ms Todd and children and young people’s spokesman at Cosla Stephen McCabe, said an “initial assessment of readiness” is to be carried out in December 2020.
This will consider the “progress in recovery” from the pandemic, as well as the operational and financial implications of making the change.
Ms Todd and Mr McCabe both stress in the letter they “remain absolutely committed to the benefits of the expansion, and the return to 1140 as soon as it is reasonable to do so”.