The Scottish Government is committed to providing high quality, flexible early learning and childcare that is accessible and affordable for all families. ‘A Blueprint for 2020: The Expansion of Early Learning and Childcare in Scotland’ consultation document was launched in October 2016. It set out our vision for an expansion that will almost double entitlement to funded early learning and childcare to 1140 hours a year by 2020 for all three and four-year olds and eligible two-year olds.
It is widely acknowledged, including by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development ( OECD), that the provision of universally accessible and high quality early learning and childcare helps to provide children with skills and confidence to carry into school education, and is a cornerstone for closing the poverty-related attainment gap between children from the most and least deprived communities. Evidence from both UK and international evaluations and studies of early learning and childcare programmes support the fact that all children, and especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, can benefit in terms of social, emotional and educational outcomes from attending early learning and childcare. However a key finding from research is that, if children are to benefit, early learning and childcare must be of high quality, with poor quality provision shown to have detrimental effects on children.
In March 2017, following a period of public consultation on the vision for expansion, we published the first in a series of action plans – ‘A Blueprint for 2020: The Expansion of Early Learning and Childcare in Scotland: 2017-18 Action Plan’. That action plan made it clear that quality would be the ‘driving force’ of the expansion. We also reaffirmed our commitment to produce a plan focused on actions to embed and further strengthen quality. This is that Quality Action Plan, which sets out the steps we will take over the next three years to ensure that the expansion delivers a high quality experience for all our children.
This Quality Action Plan has been developed in close consultation with our Quality Reference Group, made up of stakeholders who best understand, not only what drives quality, but also how we can further strengthen provision of high quality early learning and childcare in Scotland. We are grateful to all members of the Group for the passion, energy and ideas which they have brought to bear on the development of this plan. More information on the Quality Reference Group can be found at Annex A.
The development of the action plan was an opportunity to think systematically about the drivers of quality in early learning and childcare and how they link to child outcomes, to ensure that there is a comprehensive policy framework for continuously improving quality. It is therefore informed by the EU’s Key Principles of a Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and Care and the research evidence around the benefits of early learning and childcare for the development of children. A primary source was NHS Health Scotland’s Rapid Evidence Review which is published to coincide with this action plan (Scobie and Scott 2017). The plan was also heavily informed by ‘Building the Ambition: National Practice Guidance on Early Learning and Childcare’ (Scottish Government 2014). It reflects key Scottish Government policies for ensuring children get the best possible start in life. Getting it Right for Every Child (GIRFEC) sits at the heart of all that we do in this regard. The GIRFEC wellbeing indicators of safe, healthy, achieving, nurtured, active, respected, responsible and included are reflected in this plan.
The essential characteristics of quality have been defined by our stakeholder group as:
- A high quality workforce
- Strong pedagogical leadership
- Warm and supportive interactions with children
- A holistic curriculum
- A focus on play-based learning
- Good access to outdoor play
- Supporting parents to engage in their children’s learning
- Transitions that are well managed
- Professional collaboration
- Provision that is accessible to all
- High quality physical environments
- Clear quality standards and robust self-evaluation and quality assurance regimes
The rest of this action plan is structured around these characteristics. Many of these drivers are already well embedded but, where they need to be strengthened, there are new actions that build on existing foundations and work already underway. The main purpose of structuring the plan in this way is to define the characteristics of high quality early learning and childcare that we want to see reflected in every child’s experience and create a shared understanding of where all of those responsible for policy, delivery and practice in early learning and childcare should be focusing their efforts.
While the responsibility for co-ordinating the delivery of this action plan rests with the Scottish Government, there is a shared responsibility for ensuring that the actions are realised and that they achieve their aims. Through their involvement in shaping this plan, we already know that our national stakeholder organisations are supportive and keen to collaborate to help to deliver the actions. Through their delivery plans, local authorities have a responsibility to take active steps to protect and enhance quality as they expand provision. This action plan sets out not only what extra national support will be made available, but also enables local authorities to identify where they can add value at a local level. Managers of early learning and childcare settings will already be clear about what is expected of them through the self-evaluation tools that they use to support quality improvement and through the Care Inspectorate and Education Scotland’s inspection framework. However, this action plan makes clear how we expect them to support the professional development of their staff and what resources will be available to facilitate this. Finally, this plan will demonstrate to individual early learning and childcare staff the value that we invest in them and the type of adult/child interactions that will deliver the best outcomes for our children.
The 2017-18 Action Plan explained that the service model for delivering early learning and childcare from August 2020 will prioritise quality and be underpinned by a more open, proportionate and consistent approach to becoming a funded provider. Quality will feature strongly in the national standard for delivering the funded entitlement. Setting a clear standard should be a driver, as well as a guarantee of high quality provision. The standard will be robust enough to keep standards high as well as achievable to ensure that we offer parents as much choice of provision as possible. It will apply to all providers of early learning and childcare, including local authority settings.
Through the work of the Quality Reference Group and production of this plan, we are now well placed to develop that quality standard in collaboration with representatives of local authorities and the early learning and childcare sector. The standard for funded provider status, including the quality standard, will be published by the end of March 2018.