Accessing school age childcare in rural and island areas: research

This report looks at the existing models of childcare in rural and island areas, the challenges parents face accessing childcare, and challenges providers face delivering childcare.

3. Overview of childcare models in rural and island areas

Key points

Eight models of childcare were identified within the six rural and island areas where research took place. In rural and island areas there is crossover between these types of services provided, as providers adapt to changing community needs. However, there are key differences around their capacities, available hours, and facilities.

Formal models include day care centres, after school care, breakfast clubs, school holiday care, childminders, and specialist additional support needs services. These are more likely to have longer opening hours, larger capacities, and be run on school sites. Informal models, clubs and activities, and arrangements with family and friends such as act may have shorter hours, or run on fewer days. Some families did not use childcare at all.

3.1 Introduction

This chapter is a brief overview of childcare in rural and island areas. We outline the different models of childcare and their characteristics based on findings from desk research, interviews and surveys.

3.2 Models of childcare within rural and island areas

School age childcare refers to care provided outside school hours, including before and after school during term time, and care provided during the school holidays. All school age childcare used by families in Scotland falls into two categories: formal and informal.

Formal school age childcare includes settings which are registered and regulated by the Care Inspectorate. Types of formal school age childcare include:

  • Childminders
  • After school care
  • Breakfast clubs
  • Holiday club/playscheme

While childminding services are privately run, school age childcare services and holiday playschemes are operated by a mixture of private, local authority, and voluntary/not for profit providers.[23]

Additionally, some childcare providers mainly aimed at younger children may also offer school age childcare in addition to their main area of care.[24] These can include:

  • Children and family centres
  • Crèches
  • Nurseries
  • Playgroups

Informal school age childcare refers to unregulated settings. These types are not registered with the Care Inspectorate, and include:

  • Childcare agreements with family, friends, and neighbours.
  • Extra-curricular groups and clubs whose main purpose is not childcare (examples include sports clubs, music lessons, or youth clubs)

Through this research, we identified eight models of childcare provision in rural and island areas of Scotland. Six fall under formal models of childcare (day care, after school care, breakfast clubs, school holiday care, childminders, and specialist services for children with additional support needs), and two are informal (club activities, and friends and family members).

3.2.1 Formal Childcare

Day care/ All-day care/ Childcare centres

Day care services run all day wraparound care based on local need and demand. Many services open before school starts (between 7:30 and 8:00am) and close after school finishes (between 5:00 and 6:00pm). Many offer flexible or 'ad hoc' booking, but also cater for families with regular patterns.

These services are registered for both early learning and childcare (ELC) and school age childcare (SAC), and cater for children from birth up to age 16. Demand is highest among those aged between 3 and 5, and drops off considerably at age 12. These services generally have higher capacities than other models.

Many rent facilities from their local authority, but some have arrangements to use facilities for free. Some also offer pick-up from local schools and nurseries (by bus, walking, or taxi). For example, providers in Argyll and Bute and Aberdeenshire were based near to, or share sites with, local primary schools.

Day care providers offer a range of activities which include arts and crafts, music, cooking, engagement with the wider community, use of community facilities (for example, local swimming pools), and outdoor activities.

After school care

After school care runs on weekdays during term time, and typically begins as school finishes (around 3:15 to 3:30pm), until around 5:00 to 6:00pm. Providers see a mixture of regular and 'ad hoc' users and, to make this feasible, some have introduced contracts with a minimum number of hours per week.

Services generally offer care to primary school aged children between 5 and 12 years old, however some cater for those aged 3 to 16 (though demand usually drops off around age 10).

After school care providers in rural and island areas may be based within school sites or community facilities (such as village halls, or community centres), and their location is often dependent on who they are run by. Services provided by the local authority are often based in schools, while those run by charities or the community are more generally based in community venues. Providers based off school premises offer pick-up from school (majority by walking).

Many services provide food and a snack. After school care has a big emphasis on child-led activities, offering free play, arts and crafts, outdoor play (including gardening and outdoor toys), and sensory play. Additionally, providers in Na h-Eileanan Siar (Western Isles) offer activities in Gaelic.

Capacity varies by area; for example, services in Argyll and Bute had 16 to 20 children per day, while in Na h-Eileanan Siar (Western Isles) one service we spoke to only had four children per day.

Additionally, in rural and island areas of Scotland, some after school care services offer totally outdoor provision. These providers are typically based in local woodland, usually with access to local facilities in case of bad weather. Alongside more usual services, like providing pick-up from school, they also offer outdoor-based activities such as litter picking, foraging, climbing, bush craft and fire pit activities. Many also have purpose built outdoor shelters and workshops.

Breakfast clubs

Breakfast clubs are often run by after school care providers, and usually provide food from 8:00am until school begins. Most are based on school sites.

The breakfast clubs we found tended not to operate on a daily basis (some running only one morning a week). Some parents mention that breakfast clubs would be beneficial if they operated daily and started earlier, to align with their working schedule and enable them to drop off their children before work.

School holiday care

Much holiday childcare in rural and island areas is run by after school care providers and varies greatly in the consistency of what is on offer. Many only offer services during the summer holidays (when there is more demand), although some also run during half term holidays (Easter and October). Some run full day provision, while others run much more limited hours (for example, three hours per day).

Holiday care providers offer many of the same options - such as arts & crafts and cooking - as other term time providers. However, they are also more likely to offer different activities such as trips to local facilities (for example, museums), sports days, and external organisations running activities.

Holiday clubs in Na h-Eileanan Siar (Western Isles) and other areas may also offer Gaelic provision, including Fèisean nan Gàidheal and Spòrs Gàidhlig which operate across Scotland.


Childminders in rural and island areas offer all day care to children from birth to age 16 (with less demand from age 12). Starting times tend to be between 7:30 and 8:00am, with finishing times more varied (between 4:00 and 6:00pm) depending on flexibility needs and individual childminders and areas.

Many childminders have space in their house or garden dedicated to providing childcare, and activities are very varied. Many offer pick-up from school and nursery, take children on trips to local outdoor spaces (including local woodland, parks, and beaches), do cooking and gardening, provide food, and offer arts & crafts as well as outdoor activities (e.g. climbing, paddling, and den building).

Some have also established good relationships with other local childminders to offer different experiences by grouping resources.

Specialist services for children with additional support needs

For children with additional support needs (ASN), some rural and island areas have specialist services run by the local authority or the third sector. These are held in school halls and playing fields, specialist ASN schools, and community facilities including community halls. Services offer a range of activities, including video games, sports, outdoor activities, and soft play.

Service provision varies according to the operator. You can find specialist school provision opening times normally offered from 9:30am to 2:30pm Monday to Friday. Childcare for school age children with ASN will be provided by third sector services that may only run sessions for a couple of hours once or twice a week. Local authorities cover the cost of after school care for those with ASN where identified in a couple of the areas.

Food provision in formal school age childcare

Providers (in particular childminders, daycare centers, after school care and breakfast clubs) provide snacks for children. Preparation of meals vary: some prepare food themselves whilst others purchase from local suppliers. A few after school care providers collect lunches from their local primary school.

3.2.2 Informal Childcare

Many parents in rural and island areas use other, informal, options to manage their childcare needs, such as clubs or family and friends.

Club activities for children

Clubs are a common informal childcare option that run throughout the year. These usually involve short activities of about an hour, but sometimes up to an hour and a half.

Activities are generally provided by local authority sports and leisure centres or local schools, with sports being the most common type of club offered by both providers. Football, athletics and dance are among the most common sports, but parents also mentioned gymnastics, swimming, climbing, and cheerleading. Schools may also offer more creative or academically focused activities, such as homework clubs or music activities.

Some communities also have youth clubs, including those with an outdoor focus where children do bug/scavenger hunts, den building, and other woodland activities. Government bodies, such as the Ranger Service, may also offer activities.

The availability of clubs varies greatly both by area and by the age groups served.

Family and friends

Many parents in rural and island areas use family and friends for childcare - either exclusively or in addition to other available options. This is most often a grandparent, but may be another family member such as an older sibling, or a parent who lives outside the household. Others rely on friends to help with childcare to different degrees. This might be full time or just with school pick-ups, for example.

No childcare

In many instances, parents living in rural and island areas do not use childcare at all. For some parents we interviewed, this is so they could spend more time with their children. However, for others, no options are available in their area or are of interest to their child. Some do not need childcare as they are able to work flexibly to accommodate their childcare needs, currently work in childcare themselves or do not work. A small number are happy to leave older children alone for short periods of time.

3.3 Crossover between models of childcare

As providers adapt to their community needs there can be a degree of crossover between different models of childcare provision. For example, after school care providers may extend to provide breakfast clubs or holiday care, or childminders experiencing high demand may evolve into a daycare centre to better meet the needs of their community. Care Inspectorate data from 2020 also shows this pattern, where all types of childcare providers offered some additional type of services to their main offering. This was especially common among school age childcare providers who offer the most additional services, with the majority of these being breakfast clubs and holiday playschemes.[25]

There are two main similarities across all models of childcare. The majority of providers interviewed focus on offering child-led activities and, particularly given the natural resources available in rural and island areas, many focus on being outdoors.

3.4 Differences between models of childcare

The key differences between the models is around their opening times, capacities and locations. For example, formal models are more likely to have longer opening hours, larger capacities, and be based on school sites. In comparison, while childminders may also have long opening hours, they have smaller capacities and are mostly based out of their own homes. Informal activity clubs may have much shorter hours, and run on fewer days of the week.

Another difference is how providers see themselves. Informal providers are less likely to view or describe themselves as childcare. This can influence what kind of services they provide (frequency of provision, how many hours, and what kind of activities they offer), and how they see their role in the community.



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