Professor Bronwen Cohen, Honorary Professor in Social Policy at the University of Edinburgh, suggests that transferring powers to the Scottish Parliament over tax and benefits could help bring Scotland’s Early Childhood Education and Care into the 21st century.
Would independence help Scotland deliver better Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) services? The Scottish Government certainly thinks so. In its consultation paper on the Children and Young People Bill, now wending its way through the Scottish Parliament, it announced its commitment to develop high quality flexible and integrated early learning and childcare “matching the best in Europe”, but added that Scotland does not at present have “all the levers” to achieve this goal. The consultation document pointed out that “the tax and benefits system plays a crucial role in shaping how services are funded, organised and delivered and the powers for this remain with the UK”.
Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) (as it is now known in many countries) forms only a small part of the current bill. There is little dispute that this is an area in need of radical improvement, despite some real achievements of successive administrations. But few would dispute the Scottish Government’s own critique of the absence of “a universal coherent system of early learning and childcare“ and a division between early learning and childcare which “does not give our children the best start in lives”.
It means parents having to juggle their arrangements between the pre-school entitlement and additional childcare they require, with some 60 per cent of families using two or more forms of childcare a week. Until the new legislation is enacted, Scotland’s children have access to fewer hours of pre-school education than their English counterparts. Their parents are paying amongst the highest costs for some services and there has been no legislative requirement on Scottish local authorities to secure adequate childcare for working parents.
However, little attention has been paid to the argument that ECEC is one of the areas where the current split in responsibilities between the Scottish and Westminster parliaments causes problems. So is the Scottish Government right to suggest this is an area of people’s lives where independence would make a real difference? And what light does the post-devolution period throw on this issue?
When the Scottish Parliament was established in 1999 there were high expectations for early years’ services. Scotland was well on the way to becoming the first UK nation to implement a new Labour Government commitment to free part-time early education for 3 and 4 year olds. But a decade and a half – and many policy reviews – later, it all looks rather different. In contrast to high profile policy changes in personal care for the elderly or funding for higher education students, bold initiatives that could bring Scottish ECEC into the 21st century have been largely absent.
So what went wrong? Looking back we can see that Scotland could have benefited from either different UK-wide policies – which took more account of divergent approaches to welfare policy in the devolved nations – and/or ensuring that Scotland had more of the financial and policy levers.
Whilst education remained a matter for separate legislation, childcare, supported through tax credits, became largely a Westminster responsibility. In Scotland, which had experience of pioneering holistic approaches to education and care, and where unlike England, schools are still the biggest providers of the pre-school entitlement, a greater focus on integrating education and care within schools as well as other settings, might have yielded swifter and better results.
Some largely lost opportunities to do this, including the location of ECEC within the New Community Schools initiative and school building programmes, were down to successive Scottish administrations. However, it was unhelpful that a number of key decisions were taken prior to the setting up of the Parliament and it was also the case, particularly in the early days, that devolution was not well understood by civil servants in Westminster.
And whilst the greater involvement of the Treasury in early years policy meant increased resources, it reinforced confusion over policy responsibility, tied Scotland into programmes such as Sure Start which were not necessarily of choice, and meant that the increased resources subsequently won for this and other UK programmes would in some measure continue to have an impact on Scottish policy.
the evidence suggests that the Scottish Government is right to point to the problems caused in part by the split in responsibilities between the two parliaments. Greater attention does need to be given to levels of decision making which can address the peculiarly asymmetric form of current UK devolution arrangements
So the evidence suggests that the Scottish Government is right to point to the problems caused in part by the split in responsibilities between the two parliaments. Greater attention does need to be given to levels of decision making which can address the peculiarly asymmetric form of current UK devolution arrangements.
Bronwen Cohen is Honorary Professor in Social Policy at the University of Edinburgh.
Her article “Developing ECEC Services in Regionalised Administrations: Scotland’s Post-devolution Experience is in the August 2013 issue of International Journal of Early Childhood: http://www.springerlink.com/openurl.asp?genre=article&id=doi:10.1007/s13158-013-0089-y
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