THE leader of West Dunbartonshire Council says plans to almost double the amount of free early years education for the area’s pre-school children will be implemented “straight away” where possible.

Jonathan McColl makes the pledge in a column published in this issue of the Reporter.

The move comes after the Scottish Government confirmed its plans to provide 1,140 hours of free pre-school education for every four-year-old, every three-year-old and every eligible two-year-old child were being put on hold.

The expanded provision should have taken effect next month under a legal requirement placed on all councils – but that requirement was suspended by the government in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic after lockdown restrictions put preparations on hold.

West Dunbartonshire, in common with every other Scottish council, is now only legally obliged to provide the current statutory minimum of 600 hours.

But Cllr McColl said that would not stop WDC bringing in the expanded provision as soon as it’s able to do so.

He said: “While the Scottish Government have understandably delayed 1,140 hours legislation, we are working to deliver 1,140 hours to everyone as soon as possible.

“Where we had 1,140 in place or were ready to go live, we hope to deliver that straight away, subject to public health guidance.

“It’s inevitable that there will be delays in some establishments where renovation and other preparatory work had to cease due to lockdown restrictions, but we’re not waiting until legislation is enacted to do the right thing; we’re working as quickly as we can to get plans back on track.”

Local MSP Jackie Baillie said: “It is unacceptable that, once again, parents have been left in the lurch due to the Scottish Government’s inability to stick to a plan.

“Given everything that has happened with Covid-19, many parents will have accepted that 1,140 hours will not be delivered from August, but would reasonably assume it would happen at some point in 2020-21.

“This plan will mean an entire cohort of children will lose out on the increased learning they should have received through the expansion as originally timetabled.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “When the extent of the Covid-19 pandemic became clear, we took the difficult decision on March 30 to remove the statutory duty on local authorities to provide 1,140 hours of early learning and childcare (ELC) from this August.

“Earlier that month, Audit Scotland confirmed we were on track to deliver the 1,140 hours expansion, in partnership with local authorities, and we remain absolutely committed to returning to this duty as early as possible.

“Child and staff safety and wellbeing is at the heart of our approach.”

A spokesperson for the council said: “West Dunbartonshire’s phasing of 1,140 hours was well underway before lockdown and in March 2020 we were on target to provide the entitlement for all three and four year olds in West Dunbartonshire, as were our partner providers.

“In light of Covid, the Scottish Government revoked the requirement to provide 1,140 hours to eligible children and the council is following guidance and providing 600 hours of early learning and childcare for all eligible two-year-olds and all three- and four-year olds in August.

“We will continue to work in partnership with and take advice from the Scottish Government on a new timetable for delivering 1,140 hours for eligible children in the year ahead.”