We know many parents and carers have to juggle work with family commitments. That is one of the reasons why the Scottish Government has expanded free annual early learning and childcare to 600 hours a year for all three and four year olds and some two year olds. In addition to the educational benefits this provides for children, we hope this will help parents and carers return to work or training by providing almost 16 hours a week of free provision. We are keen to go even further and have committed to almost doubling the current provision to 1,140 free hours a year by the end of the next parliament.
However, free early learning and childcare is not the only solution to creating a better work/life balance. Employers must also play their part in supporting their employees to achieve this. Unfortunately, it is still all too common that people find it difficult to talk to their employer about flexible working.
The Modern Families Index published in August 2015, showed over a third of respondents were not working flexibly and 41 per cent said that their role did not accommodate flexible working. We want to change this and to encourage more organisations to adopt flexible working practices. That is why we are investing in the Family Friendly Working Scotland partnership to promote the benefits of flexible, family friendly working.
Through the partnership, we have introduced the Scottish Top Employers for Working Families Awards to recognise the good work employers are doing across Scotland and to inspire other organisations to follow their lead. The finalists for next year's awards were announced last week and I was pleased to see a range of entrants from across both the public and private sectors. They also demonstrate that it's not just large companies that can afford to offer flexible working arrangements to employees.
Flexible working doesn't just benefit staff. Organisations benefit directly from having happy, motivated employees. In addition to a happier workforce, the reputational benefits of being known for family friendly and flexible working practices are increasingly important in being an 'employer of choice'. I've seen this first hand when I visited some of last year's winners of the Awards where both the employers and employees talked positively about the benefits to them from flexible working arrangements.
Earlier this year the Scottish Government was among the first to adopt the 'happy to talk flexible working' strapline The strapline can be used in adverts for positions where flexible working is possible and will hopefully help employers to attract the right breadth of talent, and for employees to find the right balance between their working and home lives right from the outset.
We've also been encouraging those who are already benefitting from flexible working arrangements to become 'champions' to share their experiences and highlight the benefits to other employers. As a working mum returning from maternity leave this year, I've also become a flexible working champion and I hope to see more people join me in 2016.
As we enter a new year, I would encourage organisations and individuals across the country to make a resolution to learn more about the improved morale and productivity flexible working brings, and consider how they can incorporate this into their workplaces.