Exploring early learning and childcare: Have your say

Audit Scotland looks at public spending and policy across the whole of the public sector, meaning there’s a huge number of areas we can potentially explore.

Right now we’re considering an audit on Early Learning and Childcare (ELCC) in Scotland. These services have recently been changed and face further reform in the future, so this feels like the right time to take a closer look at how the system is working, and what outcomes are being delivered for the people who access this support.

We haven’t explored these services in detail before, and we want to make sure we’re on the right track when we start planning our audit work. So, we’re looking for parents and carers of children eligible for funded early learning and childcare services (usually three to four-year-olds, and some two-year-olds) to share their views and experiences with us, in a brief new survey.

We’re particularly interested in exploring how public money is spent on ELCC, and what the impact has been on children, and their parents and carers, from the recent changes to the system.

Icon_A_B_AS-04These changes include:

  • An increase in the number of funded hours available for three and four year olds from 475 to 600 hours a year;
  • Provision of funded places for some two year olds;
  • An increase in the flexibility of the services, such as offering places with different hours or in different settings, dependent on local need

These are the areas we’re primarily interested in, but we also want parents and carers to let us know if there are other aspects of ELCC they think we should look at when we begin our work.

By telling us about their experiences and what areas they think we should be focusing on, they can play an important role in helping to make sure public money is spent properly, and creates positive outcomes for the people who rely on vital services like ELCC.

So if you’re a parent or carer of an eligible child (or children!), please spare a few minutes to help us build a picture of what’s happening across the country, what’s important to you and your family, and the kinds of issues we should cover in our work.

We’ll run the survey until the end of August and post further updates here and on our website as our audit starts to take shape. Why not sign up to our newsletter when you complete the survey, so we can send updates straight to your inbox?

About the author

MM6A5569Rebecca Smallwood is an auditor and joined Audit Scotland in 2008. She has worked on a number of audits with a health and social care focus, including community health partnerships, emergency departments and reshaping care for older people.

Exploring the scale of the challenge facing Scotland’s councils

In our 2015 overview report on local government in Scotland, we said: ‘Councils tell us that they should manage budgetary pressures in 2015/16 but the years beyond pose a level of challenge not previously experienced.’

The Commission recognises the achievement of councils – both councillors and officers – in meeting these challenges to date.

What we say in this year’s overview is that the scale of the challenge in 2016/17 and beyond has significantly increased because of the local government funding settlement. This has substantial implications for services to the public, councillors and the local government workforce.

Next year councils and health boards, through health and social care partnerships, jointly have the responsibility to make a significant start in the shift from hospital care to care at home and care in the community. This is the most far-reaching public service reform since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament.

nr_160317_local_government_overview_cover And these challenges are compounded by: a one-year financial settlement, cost pressures and increasing demands on services from an ageing and growing population. The majority of our recent Best Value audits have highlighted a dependency on incremental changes to services, increasing charges and reducing employee numbers in order to make savings. But these are neither sufficient nor sustainable solutions set against the scale of the challenge facing councils. Cuts can only be part of the solution. What’s required is a more strategic approach, longer-term planning and a greater openness to alternative forms of service delivery.

It’s challenging for councillors and officers to fundamentally change the way a council has provided a service over a lengthy period of time. But there are significant consequences to not conducting comprehensive option appraisals: services may not be as efficient or effective as they could be and may not be achieving value for money, and resources may not be directed to priority areas such as preventative services. In considering all viable options, it’ll be essential that councillors are provided with comprehensive and objective information on the cost, benefits and risks of each option. Comparisons with other councils can be illuminating – for example in managing sickness absence. If all councils matched the best performers, there would be an equivalent gain of 200 teachers and 700 other council staff across the country.

Councils will need to ensure they have people with the necessary knowledge and skills to manage the changes that lie ahead, particularly in options appraisal, programme management, commissioning, finance and scrutiny.

And in a climate of reducing resources the importance of scrutiny has never been greater. Scrutiny arrangements must add demonstrable value in monitoring the planning, execution and follow-up of key decisions. The public needs to have confidence that their council’s arrangements are transparent, independent and effective. If they are not, the public interest is not being met.

The Commission hopes this report will be a helpful tool for councillors and officers, and as always, we welcome feedback

About the author

AuditScotland_P_001Douglas Sinclair is chair of the Accounts Commission for a term of office until 30 November 2017. He has held the position of Chief Executive in district, regional and unitary councils in Scotland, as well as being former Chief Executive of COSLA.

Playing our part in the changing landscape of Scotland’s public finances

There’s no doubt that this is a busy and exciting time for anyone with an interest in Scotland’s political and financial landscape. Generating a lot of discussion is the Scotland Bill 2015, set to grant further financial powers to the Scottish Parliament and establish a new fiscal framework which could substantially revise its budgetary and funding arrangements. All of this is taking place while new financial powers in the Scotland Act 2012 are being implemented.

A number of Scottish and UK parliamentary committees have taken an interest in the development of new financial powers. Audit Scotland also has key role to play in this fast changing area of public finances, and we’ve been one of many public bodies asked to give views to Parliament on this important area.

We set out initial views on the audit arrangements for any new financial powers in a submission to the Public Audit Committee in August 2015, and I gave evidence on behalf of Audit Scotland to the Finance Committee’s inquiry on the Scottish Fiscal Commission Bill. The Commission plays a vital scrutiny role by providing independent assessments of forecasts of tax revenues, and its remit is likely to grow with further financial devolution.

We’ve also looked closely at how implementation of the Scotland Act 2012 has been prepared for, and managed; we first reported on progress in December 2014, and we’ve recently published a follow-up to this work, available here.

Our latest update explained how Revenue Scotland – the body responsible for the administration of the newly devolved Land and Buildings Transaction Tax and the Scottish Landfill Tax – effectively managed risks to make sure they were delivered successfully from April last year. In short, a good news story, though there’s still a lot of work ahead.

We also reported that some arrangements to manage the powers in the Act (and potentially the Scotland Bill 2015) beyond this year are still being developed, which is reasonable. However, we’ve highlighted the need for the Scottish Government to be able to move quickly once key agreements are reached, so it can be in a position to manage the new powers well and deliver financial reporting that’s comprehensive, transparent, reliable and timely.

On Wednesday (27 January), I’ll join the Auditor General and colleagues to discuss our findings with MSPs on the Scottish Parliament’s Public Audit Committee. The session will be broadcast live on Parliament TV.

MSPs will also hear from the Auditor General on other interesting new work which has seen Audit Scotland provide assurance to Parliament on an audit of the Scottish Rate of Income Tax (SRIT). We reviewed the National Audit Office’s first annual audit of HMRC’s implementation of the SRIT, which comes into force in April 2016. The Auditor General will report annually to the audit committee on the NAO’s work in this area, and it’s provided a great opportunity for us to work with another UK audit body.

Public audit provides assurance that public money is well managed. This is important for the public and decision-makers, and will become even more relevant as Scotland takes on further financial powers. For Audit Scotland, it means that the scope of our work will likely become more wide-ranging and diverse.

About the author

MarkTaylor Mark Taylor is an Assistant Director in Audit Scotland. He oversees a wide portfolio of central government audits, including the Scottish Government audit.

Exploring higher education…

College_jotter_smScotland has 19 higher education institutions, ranging from ancient universities like St Andrews to those established in the last 25 years. Some have a very specific focus, such as the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. What they all have in common is providing a massive range of opportunities for learning and research.

I’m currently working with a small team on an audit of higher education in Scotland. Although we did an audit of estates management in higher education in 2007, taking a broader overview of the higher education is an interesting new area for Audit Scotland. Continue reading Exploring higher education…