Comment: Flexible childcare provision is long overdue

Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: PA

Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: PA

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First Minister Nicola Sturgeon promised nothing short of a “childcare revolution” at her party’s conference in Glasgow last October.

Her pledge to hold a second independence referendum if Scotland is denied access to the single European market after Brexit grabbed the biggest headlines - and the biggest cheers on the day. But it is possible that the less heralded vow on childcare is the one that has the biggest impact on many of our day to day lives in the next few years.

The SNP has already committed to nearly doubling the amount of free childcare it offers to three and four-year-olds to 1,140 hours per year by 2020. But it is the idea of making childcare more flexible that is at least as important for huge numbers of parents.

Thousands do not even make use of much of the free care that is currently on offer because they cannot find anywhere that can offer them suitable hours. What use, for instance, is two or three hours of nursery care starting at 9am or later to a mum or dad who needs to be at work before then? Absolutely none, unless you have very understanding family or friends who can help out, or you can find so-called “wrap-around care” at a price you can afford for before or after the nursery session.

One of the consequence of this is that many parents who want to work are unable to do so. It also means many youngsters who might benefit greatly from high quality pre-school education do not get that opportunity.

The pilot schemes which have just been announced for Midlothian and elsewhere are as welcome as they are overdue. They will run in conjunction with several other trial initiatives around the country testing out various ways of making childcare more flexible.

The most important thing is that these trials lead to parents getting a meaningful choice in how childcare is provided. If the SNP can pull that off, it will have a profound impact on many lives.