Here are the main points from the report which have cheered the Unionist parties so much:
‘There are significant risks that councils will not be able to expand funded ELC to 1,140 hours by 2020. In particular it will be difficult to increase the infrastructure and workforce to the levels required, in the limited time available. The Scottish Government should have started detailed planning with councils earlier, given the scale of the changes required. The Scottish Government expects the cost of delivering 1,140 hours of funded ELC will be about £840 million per year. Councils were required to prepare their initial plans for the expansion without some important information about how the system will operate from 2020. While councils’ plans will change over time, initial estimates of the cost of funded ELC following the expansion to 1,140 hours are about £1 billion per year, significantly higher than the Scottish Government’s figure.’ (p.5)
Completely ignoring any possibility of any fault in the councils, the Tory and Labour responses faithfully communicated by BBC Scotland, of course, are:
‘Conservative education spokeswoman Liz Smith said the report was “damning in terms of exposing the failures of SNP policy on child care”. For Labour, education spokesman Iain Gray added: “This independent report blows a £160m black hole in a flagship SNP government policy. Raising the amount of free childcare families are entitled too has been a cornerstone of the SNP’s offer to families – but this report reveals that, not only does the Scottish government not expect to fully fund it, but that it is also miles behind the levels of staff recruitment needed.”’
Notice how Iain Gray is allowed a complete fib about government intentions but also seems confused as to who will recruit the staff?
However, back to my main concern, the methodology upon which Audit Scotland have based their report. It’s only been two years since I last supervised PhD projects and I’m going to assume that a funded national body with several researchers should be able to at least match that level. Here’s all the detail we get on it, on page 9:
‘Our findings are based on evidence from sources that include the following:
- a survey of all 32 councils
- interviews with senior staff in the Scottish Government, Care Inspectorate, Education Scotland, COSLA (COSLA chairman is Stephen McCabe, Labour, Inverclyde) and other national bodies
- interviews with a range of staff in five fieldwork councils – City of Edinburgh, Glasgow City, Perth and Kinross, Renfrewshire and Scottish Borders
- focus groups with partner-provider nurseries from the private sector
- interviews with parents and carers, an online survey of parents and carers and a review of reports on the experiences of parents and carers
- published information on ELC registrations and costs
- a review of published evidence on the impact of ELC on child and parental outcomes
- a review of councils’ expansion plans for 1,140 hours of funded ELC
- a review of key documents including legislation and associated guidance, minutes of groups involved in planning for the expansions to both 600 hours and 1,140 hours of funded ELC, and council documentation about how ELC is delivered locally.
At first sight it looks impressive in terms of the access they’ve had but then you notice a lack of attempts to gather empirical, quantitative data with which you could triangulate the subjective, qualitative information they’ve gathered from a series of interviews (only 28 parents?), focus groups (only 5) and literature reviews. The key concerns they have about funding and time are not evidenced in any transparent statistical calculations or of the basis upon which the resulting estimates were produced by the councils, which the Audit Scotland researchers could then have analysed with a view to evaluating their actual worth. If all we have are the estimates unvalidated by any external evaluation, then the opinions of those interviewed, no matter how many nor how senior, are likely to be unreliable and, potentially, based on an agenda hostile to the government’s strategy. Is it at all likely that local government officers, often serving Labour and Tory administrations, would accept SNP central government costs and just get on with it? Is it possible that the Scottish Government’s accountants know what they’re doing and, also, know fine well that their local authority cousins expect to bid high first time? As for the time required to expand the existing system, a full two years remain after a least one since the councils became aware of their task. This is not a revolution, merely an expansion of a pre-existing and well-established pre-school sector. Did Audit Scotland explore the possibility of some councils and the Labour-led COSLA being more concerned to obstruct than to implement? Indeed, why is it the Scottish Government’s role to ‘start detailed planning’? Shouldn’t that be a local task?
Surely, Audit Scotland have some sociologists familiar with such all-too-human behaviour.