Disgruntled parents are protesting about the way extra childcare provision is being rolled out in Peebles, branding it a postcode lottery.
From August next year, every parent in the Borders will be entitled to 1,140 hours of free childcare for all youngsters aged three or four, as well as eligible two-year-olds, up from the current entitlement of 600 hours.
In a bid to ensure all goes smoothly, Scottish Borders Council has been phasing the new entitlement in early in parts of the region, leaving some parents having to pay more than others for the same nursery placements.
The council has prioritised areas for extra hours after based on a child poverty index.
However, some Peebles parents are unhappy that relatively privileged households in the north of the town are benefiting from the extra hours due to a small pocket of deprivation close by, but some less well off in the south of the town remain on the current 600-hour regime because there are no communities with significant deprivation there.
A near-300-name petition has now been handed in to the local authority, and it held a special audit and scrutiny committee meeting on today, March 11, to discuss its demands that the council rethink the rollout in Peebles.
Petition organiser Christine Irvine, of Glen Road, told the committee: “I started this petition because I’ve lived in Peebles all my life. It is a very close-knit community.
“We’ve always had this historic community, and when the notes for this increased nursery provision came out and said that the Kingsland Primary School catchment area, in the north of the town, would be entitled to almost double the hours that the children on the other side of town, in the Priorsford Primary catchment area, would be entitled to.
“I feel that this is discriminatory as at current hours that equates to an extra year of education, which at that age is paramount.
“The fact some of the children in Peebles won’t be able to access this means that they are at a disadvantage.”
In response to the concerns raised by Ms Irving and the signatories of the petition, Michelle Strong, the council’s chief education officer, said: “I’m saddened that this has been described as a slap in the face. That was never the intention.
“Currently, all three and four-year-olds, as well as eligible two-year-olds, are entitled to 600 hours free, and that is the provision that is available all across the Borders.
“The actual entitlement to 1,140 hours doesn’t change until 2020, and that equates to a full day during term time, but it is not an entitlement at this stage.
“In the Scottish Borders, we have created a priority list which is based on our child poverty index, and that sets out the order of the phasing for all catchment areas.
“This was approved by the executive committee in November 2017, but we do recognise that with any phasing there will be some who can access the extra hours before others.
“The child poverty index looks at the percentage of children coming from low-income families, the percentage of pupils in receipt of free school meals, the percentage of pupils in receipt of clothing vouchers and the percentage of pupils at 16-plus that are in receipt of the educational maintenance allowance.
“The difference between Priorsford and Kingsland is that one of those data sets is marked as red, meaning it is in the lowest quintile, and obviously that determined that they would be further up the list than Priorsford.”
East Berwickshire councillor Jim Fullarton said that his ward experienced the same problems but the phased rollout is necessary due to monetary constraints, saying: “In Berwickshire, we have the same problem with people being concerned with not being in the right catchment area.
“I think officers have got to come up with a fair index for the rollout. The issue we have here is that officers are looking at how to manage this with a financial straitjacket on.”
Jedburgh councillor Sandy Scott agreed, saying that the rollout is operating on national guidelines, adding: “We have to start to bring this in ahead of 2020, and the Scottish Government is happy with this approach. I don’t think this is discrimination.”
Councillors voted to ask officers to produce a report detailing the resources needed to roll out the free childcare hours to all eligible two-year olds and to bring it to the executive committee.
However, speaking after the debate, Ms Irvine said she felt councillors had dismissed the plight of Peebles parents too lightly, saying: “I’m pretty disappointed with that. The childcare hours have been compared to the rollout of broadband in the Borders, but I would say that that is down to choice.
“We don’t all need broadband. It’s nice to have, but when we’re talking about the future of the country, which is kids and education, there’s no comparison.
“I think they’ve quite clearly said that they’re not going to do anything about the petition that I’ve raised, so maybe when the iPads come out we can have a debate about how we could have used the money for something else.”