Robin McAlpine: Scotland's children are worth it – don't sell them short

CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal director Robin McAlpine on why the possibility of a second independence referendum means we can’t stay quiet when it comes to issues of policy

SO now Scotland – and the independence movement – is on alert for a second independence referendum.

The constantly changing messages about when it’s likely to be or what is likely to trigger it mean it's hard to know how long we're all going to stay on alert. But the signs now suggest that one way or another we're going to plunge in before the end of 2019.

While in this limbo, time passes, government whirrs and people's lives are changed. As independence supporters, what do we do? Many have suggested that we should take a 'lie back and think of Scotland' approach, clamping our mouths shut, never mind how substantial our concerns about individual pieces of policy.

If there is bad policy which will make their lives worse (or misses making them better), telling them they are collateral damage is hardly a principled position.

I have some sympathy with this, in as far as until we finally get a confirmed date for a referendum independence supporters need the Scottish Government to remain as popular as possible.

But others would argue that we have a responsibility to treat domestic policy honestly and seriously at all times. In the end, this argument goes, these decisions change people's lives for the better or for the worse. If there is bad policy which will make their lives worse (or misses making them better), telling them they are collateral damage is hardly a principled position.

I've been wrestling this question all week. I've written a couple of articles recently which have been critical of the SNP and the Scottish Government. I swore to myself that I'd pick a topic this week on which I could be unreservedly positive.

Every time I think about writing something smiley and happy, my mind keeps turning back to Nicola Sturgeon's announcement that there is to be a revolution in early years education in Scotland,

It's just that every time I think about writing something smiley and happy, my mind keeps turning back to Nicola Sturgeon's announcement that there is to be a revolution in early years education in Scotland, and its shaping up to be exactly the wrong kind of revolution.

The proposal is for something like 'childcare accounts' in which 'the money will follow the child' and local authorities will be required to pay for whatever eligible childcare the individual chooses, private sector or otherwise.

So let's call that what it is – it's a voucher system, a pet Tory scheme for marketising public provision. And in this context, let's be clear what marketisation means – it means effective privatisation of early years education. Yes, local authorities will still provide a proportion of nursery provision, but they will have to fight for 'customers' in an open market with private providers.

“Yup, it's privatisation” was the response, “and there is a lot of internal opposition to this”.

When New Labour did this in the NHS, the SNP described it as 'creeping privatisation'. So what's different here – except this is not 'creeping' but a single 'big bang'?

And if you think I'm being over the top here, I immediately spoke to a senior SNP figure who was round the table when these discussions were going on. “Yup, it's privatisation” was the response, “and there is a lot of internal opposition to this”.

So what's my problem with this? Is this just the usual complaints of a never-satisfied leftie? I'd argue that there is very substantial reason to be concerned for anyone who isn't an ideological free-market obsessive.

First, let's look at what we at Common Weal think a successful system would look like – we published a well-received policy paper on this earlier in the year.

I'd argue that there is very substantial reason to be concerned for anyone who isn't an ideological free-market obsessive.

It was based heavily on those who do this best – unsurprisingly the Nordic countries. They have universal 'wrap-around' provision delivered by highly qualified staff in first rate infrastructure. There is a proper national strategy for how pre-school should be used not just to 'take kids off their parent's hands' but as a crucial stage of development.

In a Nordic country you have free or very low cost access to first rate publicly-provided pre-school support wherever you are for whenever you need it (in the working week). It is efficient, effective and popular.

To achieve this we designed and priced a model where everyone in child development would be a professional with a higher education qualification or would gradually be working towards one.

In a Nordic country you have free or very low cost access to first rate publicly-provided pre-school support wherever you are for whenever you need it (in the working week).

The profession would be treated as just that – a complex field requiring complex skills – by paying a professional salary, in line with other parts of the teaching profession. University and college provision would be expanded to produce a rapidly-expanding workforce.

Everyone would have access to a publicly-run local nursery open from 8AM to 6PM and be able to 'top up' their free entitlement to provide a wrap-around service.

And the very substantial investment in new infrastructure would be made through collective borrowing and efficient collective procurement. This would enable the building or development of first-rate nurseries everywhere – with a buy-out option for existing private nurseries.

This would enable the building or development of first-rate nurseries everywhere – with a buy-out option for existing private nurseries.

We recognised (as does the Scottish Government) that local authorities have diverted money away from early years to shore up core budgets, while recognising that local authorities really are facing dire financial circumstances (the Scottish Government isn't so quick to recognise this).

So we'd keep the responsibility for planning and managing provision with the local authorities, but create a new National Early Years Service that would employ the staff and build the infrastructure, enabling a coordinated national approach.

What are we getting instead? The usual free-market lexicon of 'diversity, flexibility and valued partners'. It looks to me like the Scottish Government has looked at the task and said 'to hell with that – we'll just throw the money up in the air and run away and hopefully Serco or someone else will come in and do it for us'.

What are we getting instead? The usual free-market lexicon of 'diversity, flexibility and valued partners'.

(At least I hope that's the reason. This policy is the Scottish Tories policy and is now one of a string of decisions made by the Scottish Government which ape those Tory policies and leave them much closer to the Tory side of the Scottish Parliament than anyone else. I'm genuinely scared that this is becoming a pattern.)

But here's the thing no-one can explain to me – since everyone accepts that the private provision is consistently of lower quality than the public provision, why are we so determined to not only build it in to the new system but to let it take over?

Because it certainly looks like this is banking on almost all of the very substantial expansion to come from the private sector. Few private nurseries pay the living wage and they have little incentive to invest in staff skills.

Few private nurseries pay the living wage and they have little incentive to invest in staff skills.

(And incidentally, I'd like it if the Scottish Government stopped setting 'living wage' as a gold standard for pay. Even if they achieve it through the 'cross our fingers' approach outlined in the consultation, it would mean that the predominantly female workforce would still struggle to make much more than £15k a year, much less than the roughly £24k we were proposing.)

Because this is not a coordinated public sector initiative there will have to be a complex system of occasional 'standards inspections' to ensure a basic level of quality is achieved. And we know exactly how that has gone in other privatised industries.

The consultation asks things like 'how do we get nurseries to pay the living wage' and 'how do we encourage more outdoor play' and 'how can we ensure that a high-quality experience for the child is the primary goal'?

The answer is that you can't and you won't if you privatise the system, force local authorities to hand over the early years budgets, set up some kind of inspection regime – and then walk away.

The answer is that you can't and you won't if you privatise the system, force local authorities to hand over the early years budgets, set up some kind of inspection regime – and then walk away.

This is yet another crazy front in the Scottish Government's war with local authorities. It will lead to a decline in standards in nursery provision in Scotland. It removes the opportunity to take coordinated national approaches to early years development. There is a not-zero risk that by dumping responsibility on a low-cost, low-skill private sector model there will be tragedies.

At best it will result in fragmentation. Almost certainly it will sharply reduce the efficiency of provision as private enterprises push up prices in 'the market' and efficient collective provision is disincentivised.

There is a not-zero risk that by dumping responsibility on a low-cost, low-skill private sector model there will be tragedies.

I know that all these concerns have been raised internally by senior SNP insiders. I know that the voucher model was opposed by civil servants when this was in its early development. Everyone knows that, like mandatory testing of primary school children, the only people in the country asking for this were the Scottish Tories.

So back to my original question – should we not talk about this? Should independence supporters just stand by quietly while all this happens? Should children lobbed into substandard provision just be considered that collateral damage necessary to protect the Scottish independence movement?

I fully expect that we'll be back in five or ten years fixing everything that went wrong. This isn't Abellio/Scotrail – it's much worse.

I've been thinking about this all week and I keep coming back to the one answer – no. If this goes ahead I fully expect the usual free-market mess. I fully expect that we'll be back in five or ten years fixing everything that went wrong. This isn't Abellio/Scotrail – it's much worse.

So I'm going to argue against this. If there is a campaign against it, I'll ask the board of CommonWeal if we can join that campaign. And I'm going to throw the question back to SNP members: if you don't want discord in the run-up to an independence referendum, why is your party initiating the first major privatisation of the devolution era?

Why does it seem so determined to get into a war with local government? And why oh why does it seem so bent on implementing the Scottish Tories' 2016 Holyrood manifesto for them?

Picture courtesy of Pedro Ribeiro Simões

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