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Early learning and childcare at risk as Highland Council moves to freeze funding despite concerns from providers that they are already under-funded by 24 per cent but £145 payment to 17,400 households was welcomed

By Scott Maclennan

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Early learning and childcare is now claimed to be at risk due cost pressures.
Early learning and childcare is now claimed to be at risk due cost pressures.

Early Learning and Childcare (ELC) is being put at risk by Highland Council plans to deal with its own “financial crisis” and the wider cost of living crisis, according to opposition members.

The local authority just passed a series of proposals designed to tackle its spending headache and help the worst off households but ELC providers say they will be the ones paying the price, claiming the service will be under-funded by 34 per cent.

There were numerous challenges to some of the provisions of the paper titled “Financial Crisis – Our Council and Our Communities” which sought to address anticipated multi-million overspends this year (£9.6 million) and next (£40.9 million).

The provisions that were accepted will see £3.2 million from the council’s reserves fund a non-recurring cost of living payment of £145 for around 17,400 households, extend free school meals to weekends during and provide grants to community-led initiatives.

But there was significant concern about essentially freezing the rates for ELC at £5.43 an hour for the 51 funded partner providers plus 28 commissioned childminders costing £7.5 million annually.

Council bosses maintain the situation is under review and there is no prospect given the current pressure to up the rate at the moment.

Not able to pay the minimum wage

Ahead of the meeting, members were emailed the concerns of 10 ELC providers from Tain, Dingwall, Beauly, Tore, Culloden, Inverness, Tain who slammed the local authority for choosing to unilaterally “dictate our funding rate.”

The chief executive of Stramash – which offers fully outdoor ELC at Tornagrain – Kenny Forsyth put it more explicitly saying they would not be able to pay the Scottish living wage as the sector faces being underfunded by 34 per cent.

He said: “The Ipsos Mori survey was conducted in February/March 2022. The outcome of the survey is that the rate to enable Private, Voluntary and Independent (PVI) providers in Highland region to pay their staff Scottish Living Wage is £6.72 from August 2021 and £7.25 from August 2022.

“This means that all PVI nurseries in Highland region have been underfunded by 24 per cent through 2021/22 and, if this proposal is accepted, by 34 per cent from August 2022 as the living wage rises nationally on an annual basis.”

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