STIRLING Council is leading the way in the expansion of free early learning and childcare, with 75% of places now available for eligible children in the area – more than any other Scottish local authority.

The Scottish Government programme will almost double the amount of free childcare hours from 600 to 1,140 by 2020 for pre-school children (those aged three and four) and some two-year-olds.

The Council is ensuring it will be ready to deliver this important benefit to all families next year by working closely with partners in the private, voluntary and independent sector using a phased rollout of the increased entitlement.

Phase one started in August 2018, in the Bannockburn and McLaren learning communities, with phase two starting last month across Wallace, Stirling and the rest of McLaren.

More than 1,500 children’s places are now available for the programme in local authority nurseries and with private nurseries, childminders and voluntary sector nurseries.

Free meals will also be part of the Scottish Government initiative, and trials are underway for free lunches in Park Drive Nursery and Fallin Nursery, where there has been a significant uptake.

Convener of Stirling Council’s Children and Young People Committee, Cllr Susan McGill said: “The extension of free early learning and childcare is designed to support working parents and raise attainment in this crucial period of a child’s development.

“It’s fantastic that Stirling Council is leading the way in introducing this programme, enabling 75 per cent of eligible families in the area to benefit from it one year early, and ensuring we are on track to provide this service to all entitled children in 2020.”

Parents and carers with children at Lecropt Nursery, a private provider nursery based in Bridge of Allan, have hailed the positives of the programme in Stirling.

Iain Arthur, Dad to Caelan (4), said: "The increase in funded hours has benefited us not only financially, but importantly the saving has allowed my partner to remain in part-time job-share employment rather than going back full-time.

“This has provided a great balance of maintaining the educational private nursery space, which our son enjoys, coupled with quality family time. Having the private sector nurseries included in the phase in has meant we can keep our son at Lecropt Nursery where he is very settled and happy."

Yan Gao, Mum to Amy (4), said: “The increase in funded hours has helped us financially. It has also allowed Amy to take part in additional classes and activities at the nursery that she is really interested in, including Spanish, tennis and other sports activities.”

Alison Kidd, Mum to Darcy (4), said: “As my child has always attended Lecropt full-time, the real benefit of the increase in funding has been the cost saving - which in turn has helped to fund additional activities outside nursery.

“This has widened my child’s social circle and enabled her to try different sports and other activities.”

Lorna Jack, Director at Lecropt Nursery, said: “Being part of phase two for 1140 hrs in Stirling has allowed many of our parents to take additional hours for their children with us, allowing parents to study or increase their working hours.

“For those children who already attend the maximum hours with us, the financial benefit of 1140 hrs has freed up some income for parents, which is enabling their children to access clubs at the weekends.”

The final phase of the roll out will get underway in 12 months as Dunblane and Balfron learning communities join the programme.

Vice Convener of the Children and Young People Cllr Margaret Brisley, said: “This encouraging feedback from parents, carers and staff at a nursery that has recently doubled its number of free childcare hours highlights the positives of the programmes and the effectiveness of our delivery plan.

“It is the Council’s first priority to look after all of our citizens, from early years through to adulthood, by providing quality education care services throughout their lives.

“We will continue to engage closely with all providers and support them through this time of significant change so we can deliver a flexible model of provision for families and communities across Stirling.”

More information on the expansion of early learning and childcare in Stirling can be found on the Stirling Council website.