Independence White Paper places childcare centre stage


  By Lesley Riddoch
Has the White Paper’s childcare proposals finally sealed the deal with Scotswomen swithering over the merits independence?  It’s not at all clear.
Certainly the prominence given to childcare at Thursday’s White Paper launch was unmistakable – if mildly discomfiting for the heavyweight political journalists up from London for the day.

  By Lesley Riddoch
Has the White Paper’s childcare proposals finally sealed the deal with Scotswomen swithering over the merits independence?  It’s not at all clear.
Certainly the prominence given to childcare at Thursday’s White Paper launch was unmistakable – if mildly discomfiting for the heavyweight political journalists up from London for the day.

The plan is to spend £100 million in the first budget after independence bringing 600 hours of childcare to half of Scotland’s two-year-olds.  Once the benefits of mothers returning to the workplace brings more tax receipts into the Scottish Treasury, childcare would be extended to 1,140 hours for all three-and four-year-olds and vulnerable twos at an estimated cost of £600 million.

The final part of the strategy would take longer – with all children over one receiving 1,140 hours of free childcare by the end of 2024 at a yet to be disclosed cost.  Despite the boldness of this move – a better deal than Norwegian childcare where parents contribute up to a ceiling of £200 per month – there’s hardly been a tidal wave of parental excitement or commentator plaudits.

The Scotsman’s Bill Jamieson said; “The headline-grabbing proposal to extend more generous provision for childcare, enabling mothers to return to work earlier has nothing to do with independence, but in seeking to conflate independence with specific financial benefits for a targeted group of voters it has reduced a profound constitutional issue to the level of retail politics.”

Tavish Scott wrote; “Parents across Scotland will simply wonder why the SNP, having been their government holding full powers over childcare, are offering something they could have started six years ago. That looks a real clanger.”

Though of course his own coalition government didn’t even consider such an ambitious scheme.

The Daily Mail quoted deputy head-teacher Barry Mitchell who lives in Aberdeen with his wife and Deidre and one year-old son.  The family pay £120 a month for one day’s childcare a week. “Children born under an SNP government could be 10 before there is any sign of this change in policy. They already have the powers for free childcare. It is irresponsible (to wait) and shows their priorities aren’t for children. I think it’s a wrong-headed argument that we have to wait for constitutional change to improve Scottish people’s lives.”

Alex Salmond rebutted the “why not now” critics during this week’s White Paper Holyrood debate;
“Is the Conservative Party going to tell us where we are going to save £100 million and which budget that is going to come from?  Of course, the budget for what I have just described is not £100 million but £700 million.  The Conservative Party has already committed itself—I think—to a reduction in income tax that would blow another vast hole in the Scottish budget.  I will say where we will get the £700 million under independence, and I will then be delighted to hear from the unionist parties where they would get it under the current settlement.”

The SNP leader didn’t duck the financial argument and took the argument boldly to his critics;
“Independence gives us the opportunity to make choices—to spend less on weapons of mass destruction and more on educating our children, for example. There are other ways to get £700 million.  In the theme of the “something for nothing” explanation of society, £700 million could be gained by, if the Labour Party so wishes, cutting free personal care for the elderly, scrapping prescription charges and scrapping entirely the concessionary travel fare system, which is perhaps a matter that Johann Lamont’s cuts commission is studying.”

And yet, there have been few “well dones” or press plaudits for the childcare policy.  Is that just down to the chronic under-representation of women in media debate or is something else afoot?  The SNP must be wondering why grasping the childcare nettle hasn’t won them far more bouquets than brickbats.

At least three caveats are circulating on social media and in my head.

1. Why not have a modest means-tested contributory element with a payment cap as the Norwegians do?  Many Nordic nations also have a small flat rate fee to see the doctor.  Low earners are exempted from all such payments, but even relatively small payments can help fund high quality care.  Is the debate about universalism in Scotland now so toxic it dare not be re-opened even when the blessed Nordics have made use of parent contributions to keep childcare high quality affordable?

2. Why not do free childcare now?  I understand the point made by Nicola Sturgeon about the Scottish Government spending its cash on childcare only to see the benefits of higher taxes flow to the London Treasury.  But the same argument could be used to counter any Scottish investment in better social care – free personal care for example allows carers – usually 50-something daughters – to remain at work paying taxes.  That too could be seen as a “leakage” but since the system is already in place we appear to thole it. Reality but hardly very fair.

3. Will this be quality care or care on the cheap?  There are currently too few health visitors to deliver the Scottish Government’s plans for a named person for every child and there’s a campaign to reverse cuts by the last government on regular health checks for toddlers because early language problems correlate highly with anxiety, attention deficit disorder and behavioural problems in later childhood.  Neither campaign seems to be getting very far, and professionals privately feel this problem with grassroots care for the most vulnerable children is more important and urgent than almost anything else.

Maybe it’s worth spending a bit more time eyeing the prize.  In Norway every child has a statutory right to a kindergarten place from 1-6 for an eye-watering maximum of £200 per month. 

Children spend the bulk of the day outdoors – often in snow and temperatures of minus 5 degrees – fully equipped by the school in snazzy, thermal, waterproof, gear.  The kindergartens are often situated near farms so the kids can feed and play with animals, collecting eggs and washing them for sale, growing tomatoes, making hay and even watching slaughtered cows being dissected to learn more about animal biology.

The Norwegian belief is that children divorced from the whole of nature – the cycles of life and death – become couch potatoes, estranged from the outdoors and less independent, confident, co-operative and happy as young adults.

An activity centre in Arctic Bodo is part of every local pupil’s week – especially children with autism, learning difficulties, hyperactivity and truanting tendencies.  They drive on quad bikes, abseil on cliffs, climb trees, drive go-karts and eat and learn outside around sheltered camp fires.

As educational pioneer Henny Aune puts it, “Children have more physical energy than adults and children with attention issues have more energy still.  They just need to run it off.  Then they can focus.”

This approach is not only humane and sensible it gets results.  The sort business actually wants. 

Scottish employers placed the following skills top in a 2004 Future Skills survey – planning and organisation, customer handling, problem solving, team working and oral communication. Literacy and numeracy were right at the bottom of the priority list.

  • At what age are these missing “soft” skills learned? 0-3.
  • At what age does Scotland spend least education money? 0-3.
  • At what age did Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman discover the maximum “bang for educational bucks”? Age 3.
  • How are soft skills most easily acquired at the age of 3 – through engaged play in extended families or in kindergartens.

And what are we doing?

Keeping lone offspring in splendid and solitary isolation at home or sending a few to under-funded nurseries until the school gates finally swing open and stressed out mums finally get free, full-time, day care for their children while they work.  It’s called school.

In turning our back on excellent universal kindergarten provision we have created a remedial society – storing up difficulty, wasting money and judging harshly those who “fail.”

In Norway women and the Norwegian economy are also big winners from childcare.  Nearly three-quarters of females aged 15-64 are in work, the highest proportion in Europe behind Iceland and only just lower than that for men.  That helps equality – in the public sector, 50 per cent of managers are women.  Much of that is also due to Norway’s generous parental leave, which encourages mothers to return to work quickly and reserves 10 weeks solely for fathers.

Sigbjorn Johnsen, finance minister in the former centre-left government, says that more than four-fifths of mothers with young children work and recently made the astonishing claim that if Norway were to reduce female participation in the workforce to the western OECD average, national wealth would drop by a sum equivalent to the income generated by the entire oil sector and Oil Fund combined.

Heady stuff.

That’s how much of an economic game-changer women’s involvement in the workplace can be and that’s why the childcare proposal is ultimately such a canny choice of flagship policy by the SNP.  It not only helps children but helps the economy and creates mostly women’s childcare jobs thanks to the polarised nature of job segregation and apprenticeships in Scotland – and after the SNP’s emphasis on “shovel ready” projects with male jobs aplenty who can complain about women workers getting their share?

Oh yes.  And of course it’s hoped putting women and children first will tackle the gender gap in support for independence (15-22% depending on which poll you believe). 

Will that project succeed?  Well women are probably waiting to see if this deal seems real, if men are taking it seriously, if it sounds like a flash in the pan and if they will face ridicule or hostility for engaging with the wider independence debate through this relatively safe conduit.

In short, women in Scotland are very wary of politicians who come bearing gifts – especially with strings attached.  Even though Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have forcibly made the case that affordability needs independence, it doesn’t escape the fact that personal care (though initiated by the last government) is still being afforded by this one.  And that free tuition fees and prescriptions and bridge tolls came higher and earlier in the SNP’s pecking order than childcare.  Last come, last served, you might say.

Perhaps the SNP shouldn’t expect too many bouquets for finally recognising where the public’s been for years.  Scotland’s childcare problem is acute and yet the need for transformational amounts of cash been ignored by every political party despite the Scottish Government’s well-meaning “Getting it Right for Every Child”.

The SNP may be feeling a bit like the Labour Party right now after delivering the Scottish Parliament and getting dumped by an ungrateful electorate within eight years.  Decent childcare is so vital to democracy, mental health, child well-being, equality and higher productivity – it should be delivered yesterday.

And there’s always a danger of dangling electoral carrots too blatantly.  Just as the Tories promise of Govan shipbuilding contracts looked like a naked threat – “Vote No or Govan gets it” – this conjunction of childcare and a Yes vote could look the same.  “Vote Yes or the Weans don’t get it.”

But after all those caveats – here we are talking about childcare.  That’s quite a game-changer in itself.  The real considered response from female voters to the promised childcare revolution isn’t likely to be delivered through male-dominated media channels.  So I’d imagine the answer – as ever – lies in ordinary conversations across Scotland.