Orkney Islands Council has agreed a number of measures to ensure families in Orkney have access to childcare, including the building of a new £1.5 million early learning and childcare facility at Orkney College.
At Tuesday’s Full Council meeting, members further agreed to provide a childcare service for 0-5 year olds and, if required, an out of school service until the facility is operational.
Elected members were initially presented with two options for recommendation – option one - to provide minimal council intervention to support market forces to find a solution, or option six - to move forward with a new build and tender for a commercial operator to run the service and interim measures. Option one failed to attract enough votes and was replaced by a further amendment - for the OIC to adopt minimal intervention, but with the addition of a Challenge Fund of £100,000 to be used to simulate the provision of early years and childcare in Orkney.
Councillors were split down the middle as the vote went to 9-9. The motion was carried with the casting vote of the Convener Councillor Harvey Johnston.
Chairwoman of the Education, Leisure and Housing Committee, Councillor Gwenda Shearer, who had been firmly behind a new build facility, proposed the winning motion, which was seconded by Councillor Sandy Cowie.
Councillor Shearer said: “I am absolutely delighted and relieved with the result. We, as a council, may not have a statutory duty to provide this full package of early learning and childcare for our children in Orkney, but I believe we have a moral duty to ensure the best outcomes for our youngsters right from the start.
“One of the drivers for addressing child poverty is affordable childcare. We must support the families already within Orkney and encourage young families to come to Orkney. We must support the economic recovery of Orkney by enabling our workforce and we must, as a Council, be accountable to those we represent. I believe the decision today means we can achieve this.
“I have worked tirelessly on this area as it is critical to the onward survival of not just our young families, but also to the very future of our islands.”
The closure of the privately-run Peedie Breeks nursery in Kirkwall, combined with the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, and a decline in active registered childminders in Orkney has exacerbated the childcare situation in the county.
The Local Authority has a statutory duty to provide early learning and childcare for 3 to 5-year-olds and eligible 2-year-olds meaning parents and carers who required care for younger children relied on other providers, such as Peedie Breeks and childminders.
The decision will mean moving forward with a new 51-place facility, while also tendering for a business partner to operate the new service.
OIC Director of Education, Leisure and Housing, James Wylie said: “Being in lockdown has had a significant impact on preparing for delivering additional hours in the largest nurseries in Orkney and, as this is not unique to Orkney, the Scottish Government has temporarily suspended the statutory requirement to implement 1,140 hours of early learning and childcare from August, 2020.
“There is an expectation that councils must proceed with expansion plans as soon as possible to allow the availability of these additional hours to parents but also an acknowledgement that this will be very challenging and take longer than anticipated as lockdown is eased.”
He added: “During the Council’s Covid-19 Restart and Renew programme, we have a responsibility to provide childcare to enable critical key workers to carry out their roles. As the workforce becomes active and the Orkney economy continues to rebuild, some families will continue to rely on a year-round childcare service for 0-5-year-olds, as well as for primary-aged children before and after school and during school holiday periods.”
The Council will also request financial support from partners within the Orkney Community Planning Partnership.