The Access to Childcare Fund (referred to as ACF or the Fund) was established by the Scottish Government in July 2020 to test and run new models of School Age Childcare (SACC). The Fund formed part of the Scottish Government’s ambition to build a system of SACC by the end of this Parliament, to provide year round SACC that is free to those who need it most.
The aim of the Fund was to make SACC more accessible, affordable and flexible for parents/carers (from hereon in referred to as ‘parents’ for brevity) from low-income families or those at risk of experiencing child poverty. The particular target groups were: lone parent families; families with a disabled adult or child; larger families (three or more children); minority ethnic families; families with a child under one; and families where the mother is under 25.
The first phase of the Fund (2020-2022) enabled 15 organisations to run SACC projects. Eight of these continued in the second phase: Clyde Gateway; Hame Fae Hame; Indigo; Support, Help and Integration in Perthshire; St Mirin’s OSC; Stepping Stones for Families; SupERkids; and The Wee Childcare Company. They were joined by two pilot projects managed by the Scottish Government: Ayr United Football Academy and The Scottish Childminding Association.
The Scottish Government commissioned Ipsos to evaluate phase two of the Access to Childcare Fund (April 2022 to February 2023), including the pilot projects. There were two main aims of the evaluation:
- to assess the extent to which the projects contributed to expected outcomes on parents’ employment, health and wellbeing; family costs and income; and children’s health, wellbeing and relationships
- to synthesise learning and produce recommendations to inform the design of a system of school age childcare for Scotland
The evaluation included one-to-one or paired depth interviews with project lead(s); stakeholders; and parents and children/young people (from hereon in referred to as ‘children’ for brevity) who attended, within each project. The evaluation team also reviewed data from monitoring reports from each project.
Overview of Access to Childcare Fund projects
Project leads and stakeholders described various barriers families faced to accessing SACC that they were trying to address using ACF funding. These included a lack of accessible timings or locations; cost; stigma around targeted provision; and, in some cases, wider family wellbeing issues.
Projects offered a range of activities and support, depending on their focus and families’ needs. Provision for children included activities (indoor and outdoor) and trips, as well as food provision and wellbeing support. Some projects also provided support to parents around employability, wellbeing and financial inclusion.
In some cases, partners (typically schools, or third sector organisations) were involved in running provision or in providing access to facilities, further support or referring families to projects.
Participation and reach
Projects were primarily targeted at families in the priority groups. However, there were projects that included families from outwith these groups, either through a place-based approach or on a case-by-case basis.
Attendance levels varied, from projects operating waiting lists to those where attendance was more changeable and not at capacity. The most highly represented groups included lone parent families and those with a disabled adult or child (partly due to the fact that two services catered exclusively for children with additional support needs (ASN)). Project leads mentioned that there was lower representation among non-working families, working families who require support, fathers, ethnic minority families and young mothers.
Projects were primarily promoted to families via schools, other stakeholders and wider advertising. Projects aimed to minimise stigma by widening access to provision and ensuring confidentiality for those using funded places.
Achieving accessible childcare
Overall, the projects appear to have been broadly successful in delivering SACC that is accessible to target families.
Features of projects that made them accessible included straightforward sign-up and referral processes; making provision easy to get to (for example by financing transport); and catering for the needs of children with ASN. This was underpinned by having dedicated and suitably trained staff and good relationships with schools.
However, some challenges remained in relation to provision of transport, support for children with ASN and staffing challenges more generally.
Achieving flexible childcare
While there were some projects that clearly achieved a very flexible service for families, for others this was less of a focus.
Features that allowed parents to use SACC flexibly included not requiring families to commit to a long-term contract and instead allowing for bookings (or cancellations) at short notice. Increasing the choice of sessions and flexibility around pick up/drop off times were also seen as important.
These processes were underpinned by having sufficient resources and skilled staff with strong relationships with families and a sound understanding of their needs. In line with this, the main challenges to providing flexibility were around funding and staffing SACC sufficiently.
Achieving affordable childcare
All projects had put in place measures that made their services more affordable for families and feedback on this was broadly positive. The main way this was achieved was via fully funded or subsidised places, which enabled parents and their children to access school age childcare services that otherwise they would have found difficult to afford. This was seen as especially important for families of children with ASN, where services would normally be very expensive for them. Adapting payment plans or booking options could also increase affordability (such as spreading out payments or only charging for the hours used).
When projects were able to minimise travel costs, this removed a further financial barrier, particularly in rural areas. This was done by providing transport directly or financially supporting families with paying for transport (although projects faced their own financial barriers in doing so).
Remaining barriers to providing affordable services included limits on subsidies of SACC fees (meaning some were still difficult for families to afford) and concerns around the long-term sustainability of funding.
Outcomes for parents
Overall, projects had made progress across all the intended outcomes for parents. Family support was an important factor in achieving this. There was evidence that every project had contributed to parents being able to start, maintain or progress their career, or engage in training. Key factors were having flexible timings and affordable services that made working a financially viable option.
Improvements in parental health and wellbeing were reported by projects and parents themselves. This resulted from having respite time, relieving stress and receiving direct support facilitated by projects (e.g., peer support groups).
While there were positive outcomes relating to families’ financial circumstances, this was partially dependent on whether parents using subsidised places would have otherwise used paid-for childcare. However, it was noted that supporting parents with employment could help boost household income in the longer-term, in line with aims in the Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan around helping parents to enter, sustain and progress in work as a sustainable route out of poverty.
Outcomes for children and young people
Providing enjoyment and fun helped to boost children’s mental health, fostered by a child-led approach to activities, and strong relationships with SACC staff. Projects had also identified wellbeing issues and addressed these through signposting or providing additional support themselves. Projects also increased physical wellbeing for children through facilitating active play and physical activity; providing access to food; and creating a safe place for children outside of school hours.
SACC was also seen to strengthen children’s relationships (with both adults and peers) and develop their social skills. This was seen as particularly impactful among children with ASN who may face more challenges interacting with peers outside of a structured environment. This was supported by having a mix of ages and continuity of staff.
Key lessons and conclusions
Overall, the evidence collected as part of this evaluation indicates that Phase 2 projects met the aims of the Fund – to provide SACC that is accessible, flexible and affordable for low-income families.
While projects trialled a variety of different approaches and models of SACC, there were some cross-cutting themes that impacted on their ability to successfully achieve the intended aims and outcomes:
- Staffing the offer. There were some difficulties reported around recruiting SACC staff which, for some projects, were ongoing. This was particularly relevant for recruiting staff to care for children with complex ASN, and for projects based in rural areas.
- Fostering strong relationships. Strong relationships between families and staff were viewed as a vital part of delivering SACC. Therefore, investing in the SACC workforce is an important consideration for wider roll-out. Factors to consider include: pay, conditions, training, job security, making staff feel valued and supporting staff wellbeing.
- Partnership working. Partners played a key role in maximising the reach and accessibility of projects via referrals. They also helped projects to achieve outcomes for families by providing additional sources of support to which project staff could signpost. Wider external issues, however, such as staffing challenges and high workloads within partner organisations, could negatively impact on projects’ relationships with their partners.
- Family support. In order to benefit fully from SACC provision, parents needed support with a range of wider wellbeing issues. Providing this depended on building strong relationships with families as well as good partnership working. When projects employed a dedicated family support worker, they felt this had significantly enhanced their family support offer.
- Inclusion of children with ASN. Additional considerations around delivering SACC for children with ASN included: providing extra staffing/resource; recruiting staff with additional training (or providing this); tailoring activities or the physical space to meet different children’s needs; and including additional accessibility support (e.g., transport).
- Monitoring and evaluation. Lessons around conducting good monitoring and evaluation in the future included: providing support to projects around evaluation methods; establishing a peer network for SACC services to share learnings; and clearly communicating the requirements and expectations from Scottish Government.
- Sustainability. There was a general concern expressed by project leads about sustainability of features (particularly funded places) that they had developed as part of the ACF without continued funding.
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