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.

5. Research findings: Insights from providers

Key points

Providers in rural and island areas face several key challenges - demand, funding, support, staffing and training, facilities, transport, and providing for children with additional support needs - in providing affordable and consistent school age childcare. Many of these challenges are linked to those faced by parents.

These challenges cause providers to limit or adapt their services, and create feelings of frustration and guilt at not meeting community needs.

To tackle these challenges, it is necessary to address providers' key needs of: reliable financial support, good communication and relationships, assistance with training, and recruitment issues.

5.1 Introduction

In this chapter we outline the key challenges and needs of providers operating in rural and island areas. As with the results of the parents' survey and interviews, many of these findings are unique to rural and island areas, although some do mirror challenges faced in urban areas. Also explored later in this chapter are the key links between the experiences of parents and providers, and how they maintain one another's challenges.

5.2 Challenges providing school age childcare

The following section details the main challenges faced by providers in rural and island areas. The exploration focuses on the main challenges of demand, funding, decline in support, staffing and training, limited facilities, limited transport, and accommodating additional support needs. Despite different lines of enquiry, no specific differences were identified from one area over another. However, some challenges differed between types of providers.

5.2.1 Inconsistent demand

Across the different types of providers we spoke to, the majority experienced inconsistent levels of demand on their services. This makes it difficult to plan services (including opening hours, staff numbers, and activities).

The main inconsistencies rural and island providers experience are variations in demand that exist:

  • throughout the week,
  • throughout the year,
  • by age,
  • since the expansion of Early Learning and Childcare, or
  • since the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Variation throughout the week and year

Several providers highlighted that demand is not consistent throughout the week or year, and many have to balance over/under-subscription at different times.

"The job is a famine or a feast for inquiries, and lately it has been a famine." Provider, PRO13

This is a particular challenge for providers who are the only local option in their area, as well as those who are attempting to provide more flexibility in their services.

This can also be a challenge for many during the school holidays, where families go away at different times. Additionally, during the summer holidays, other services (including leisure centres, schools, charities, churches, and the local authority) may run ad-hoc activities which clash with provision. This problem is exacerbated where community communication and collaboration is low.

Variation by age

Most providers we spoke to found that demand for older children is generally lower, and demand for children under 3 years old is increasing. This is a challenge for some providers who cater towards older children, as demand is not high enough to run an economically viable service.

Variation since expansion of Early Learning and Childcare

Some providers highlighted that the expansion of Early Learning and Childcare to 1,140 funded hours[32] has led to a decrease in demand for their services. Several put this down to growth in the numbers of children attending local authority-run childcare services, while one provider said confusion among parents around which providers offer funded places may be part of the reason.

"I think a lot of people have the view that they need to be at nursery to get the 1,140 hours." Provider, PRO12

There is a perception that this has had a particular impact on childminders, as some have stopped work altogether due to low demand.

"…we had a couple of childminders on the island, who were very good. Unfortunately when they [the council] opened the nursery, the baby room, they put all day care in the baby room and it put them out of business." Parent, PA02

Variation since Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Coronavirus (COVID-19) has had a mixed impact on the different providers we spoke to. For some, it has led to a drop in demand for services. According to providers, this is partly due to changes in working patterns (such as different hours, more parents working from home), which has reduced their need for childcare.

For others, Coronavirus (COVID-19) led to a rise in the number of parents sending their children to childcare for the social benefits of playing with other children again.

5.2.2 Availability of funding

Many providers, especially those with low or inconsistent demand, struggle to cover their running costs through fees alone. Many providers highlighted that they feel a responsibility to parents to keep fees low, even when this negatively impacts their own income. This makes them dependent on additional sources to keep services running.

"As we stay in a rural town our numbers aren't large, so trying to get enough children whilst paying costs is a factor as to why we lose money every financial year." Provider, survey

Sourcing funding is challenging and time consuming for a lot of providers, and may take time away from their responsibilities supporting other areas of the service. Part of the reason for this, as a few providers highlighted, is the fragmented nature of the funding available, which requires piecing together funds from many different sources (such as their local authority, National Lottery, Community Trust).

One provider in Argyll and Bute mentioned that they felt a lot of support from their local authority for accessing different pots of funding. However, even when providers can secure funding, many said that it can be unreliable, making it hard to plan long term. Some providers also noted that what is available often doesn't align with business needs. For example, many day care centres and outdoor learning providers say there is often a lot of funding for equipment but not for staff, which is where they need the most support.

There is also a perception among some providers that funders (including the local authority) support certain types of providers more than others.

Many of the childminders we spoke to expressed frustration at their lack of access to funding, and their limitations in deducting some of the costs of running the service, for taxable profit when self employed. Several said this places an additional financial burden on them in comparison to other types of providers who can access support.

In order to cope with these limitations, some providers fundraise in the community, though others are reluctant to do this. Fundraising activities mentioned were mainly bake sales. Others use informal arrangements with other community organisations to keep costs around rent and food down. Nevertheless the different types of providers shared concern on their ability to meet the rising costs on facilities, and healthy food products.

Disparity in funding is also mentioned by some providers that provide both early learning and school age childcare. They stated that they were only able to provide meals to funded children, for example.

"In line with 1140 delivery a hot lunch is provided to all funded ELC children attending for 4 or more hours per day. In line with SG guidance, milk and fruit is provided for all children daily." Provider Survey

In addition, providers that only cater to school age children stated that they are not eligible to apply for certain funds, such as the Milk and Healthy Snack Scheme.

5.2.3 Decline in support

Many providers we spoke to highlighted the importance of links with the wider community and support from their local authority as key elements to running a successful service. However, several noted that links with their local authority are disappearing. The decline in support from their local authority is seen as a big challenge for many providers interviewed.

For some, the decline of these connections with local authorities is part of a bigger shift - over the last ten years - in the amount of support on offer across Scotland.

"If you go back 10 years, the council was really quite forward thinking, and it was about play experiences. 10 years ago we had all these lovely bodies, play commission, Highland play forum, lots of lovely child-focused groups, all about removing the cotton wool, adventurous play." Provider, PRO10

Other providers suggested that their relationship with their local authority has become worse over recent years, and they often find themselves in conflict over funding, facilities, and resources. This is a big source of stress for them.

Another source of stress for some rural providers is the disconnect they feel from formal childcare bodies. Several find it harder to communicate with formal or regulatory bodies (such as the Care Inspectorate), largely due to the wide geographical distance between them. For some, this distance results in practical difficulties and delays completing key tasks (such as becoming registered).

Other interviewees are worried that this disconnect could result in local decisions being made by organisations that have no experience of living in the community. Some voiced that they are uncomfortable about this prospect.

5.2.4 Staffing and training

Lots of providers in rural and island areas experience high turnover rates, which makes recruiting and retaining staff a key challenge.

"The most critical problem we have is staffing." Provider, PRO10

Many providers we spoke to listed the industry's low pay, low and unsociable hours, and sometimes demanding nature of the work, as reasons many providers are losing staff and struggling to replace them. In Na h-Eileanan Siar (Western Isles), providers also highlighted the additional challenge of recruiting staff who are Gaelic speakers, and could provide Gaelic Medium Education.

For many providers, the expansion of early learning and childcare to 1,140 hours has exacerbated these existing staffing problems around recruitment, retention, and training. The increased demand for staff from local authority services, combined with the better pay, hours, and benefits offered by the local authority, contributes to many staff leaving.

"...[since] 1,140 hours came in, we've lost so many of our qualified staff to the schools, because of the increase in the hours, and of course we can't compete with wages or holidays they offer at the school, so we have had to recruit massively." Provider, PRO14

Several providers also described how new qualification requirements from the Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC) are having the same impact. Difficulties finding staff with the necessary qualifications means several providers choose to train staff on the job, however the time this takes means it can be challenging financially. Some providers highlighted how they had recently lost experienced staff who were unwilling to get or meet the new qualifications.

"The Scottish Government has said that's what they want [these qualifications], and that's fine, but they have to know it does make it more difficult to run this provision." Provider, PRO5

Several providers also noted that staff moving on after training is a common pattern, either to other providers (usually local authority-run) or to other industries (such as teaching).

Additionally, several providers - particularly childminders - noted the decline over the last decade in the types and frequency of training offered. Several expressed that the training available does not match their current needs, is run at inaccessible times, or involves high costs (such as travel).

5.2.5 Limited facilities

Challenges around facilities vary between different types of providers.

For the providers based in community facilities, many feel limited by their available space. This influences what kind of activities they can run, and how many children they have capacity for.

Many providers who rent or borrow facilities (either from private landlords or the local authority) feel limited by changes and improvements they want to make to their space. Several voiced that they would like to have their own facilities, although cost is a key barrier to achieving this.

Some providers who rent facilities from the local authority are also struggling financially due to recent introductions of, or increases in, rent. For several providers in the different areas we spoke to, this had followed years of low or no rent. The financial impact of this has been huge for some providers already experiencing low demand, and as a result they are limiting their offering in order to cut costs.

For several childminders we spoke to who use their own homes as facilities, the costs of heating, refurbishments, and transport are key challenges. This has become a greater challenge for a lot of them recently, due to the impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19) guidelines and the cost of living crisis. Some childminders said the burden of these costs, without financial support, is causing them to alter the services they provide (such as staying in the local area, and doing different activities).

5.2.6 Limited transport

Lack of available and reliable public transport is also a challenge to providing accessible childcare in rural and island areas.[33] This is further exacerbated by several other characteristics unique to rural and island areas. First is the high cost of private transport options, particularly for transport which is accessible to children with disabilities or additional support needs.[34] Second are the long distances that providers must cover to provide transport in rural and island areas. Even for providers who walk, the frequency of poor weather conditions and lack of pavements in some areas of their route makes taking children between sites difficult, even when distances are short.

"Transport links, we are isolated, there is very little transport for parents, we need to provide as much as we can to help parents." Provider, PRO14

Additional costs of providing transport means some providers have to make compromises on what elements of their service to prioritise. For example, one provider from Na h-Eileanan Siar (Western Isles) chose to offer transport instead of adding an additional staff member.

"...we used to run a transport service...and it worked well for a number of years until [the] council raised the mileage rate and we couldn't afford it anymore." Provider, PRO10

One provider indicated that they made efforts in the past to coordinate private transport. However, they were later told by the transport company that this would be in competition with the local public bus.

"I looked into getting a community transport provider to do it as a run, and they said they couldn't do it because it's in competition with a public bus route." Provider, PRO9

When it comes to transport, providers - particularly day care centres - are left without many options. As such, many providers suggested that being located a walking distance from school was the most practical solution, as this would reduce the need for transport between the school and provider sites.

5.2.7 Accommodating additional support needs

Many providers across the different areas we spoke to highlighted that they are seeing more children needing additional support since Coronavirus (COVID-19). Providers suggested this may be due to the negative impact the pandemic has had on a lot of young people's mental health.

Some providers said they are struggling to cope with this increase, and are in need of greater support. This was particularly with regard to training, which some said they struggle to access due to cost, timings, or lack of availability.

"...[the rise in numbers of children with additional support needs] puts a tremendous pressure not just on me, I know the school is struggling as well." Provider, PRO11

Providing for children with additional support needs can also create additional costs for some providers. Additional expenses include costs for more staff, specialist equipment, specialist training, and adaptations to facilities to ensure accessibility.[35] Many providers we interviewed felt that there was a lack of financial support available to cope with these costs, and some feel that they aren't able to sufficiently meet these children's needs as a result.

"...if you've not got one-to-one [support for a child with additional support needs], and you've got 8 other kids to look after you can't possibly be on her case all the time. It's a huge challenge." Provider, PRO14

5.3 The impact on providers

5.3.1 Limiting or adapting provision

Several providers we spoke to are choosing to limit or adapt their services in order to cope with these challenges.

Adapting services

Where providers faced inconsistent demand, some stated they are moving away from flexibility by introducing advanced booking. This is to ensure they can plan services more reliably.

For providers experiencing low demand from school age children, some have begun adapting their services to offer provision for children under 3 years old. They find that getting children into the provision young (such as through baby groups), means the children are more likely to stay long term.

Adapting to include under 3's is one example of how providers use 'loss leading models' to create greater financial stability. In other words, by taking on more under 3's, who require a higher staff-to-child ratio but who will stay in the service long term, providers balance losing money on these younger children with making more on older children (who cost less to care for, but have the same fees).

Limiting services

For providers who lack financial support, and who cannot make other adaptations, many are limiting their services in order to cope. This looks different for different providers, but could involve cutting school holiday care, reducing hours, reducing how many days the service runs, limiting staff, or changing activities offered. A 2021 report from the Scottish Out of School Care Network (SOSCN) suggests this is a widespread problem for providers as 'without additional financial support and current levels of income/costs, a third of services said they would have to make staff redundancies or close down completely.'[36]

Making these changes to their provision leaves some providers with a sense of guilt at 'letting parents down' (PRO15).

"A lot of these things it's not people not wanting to do it, it comes down to the financial implications of running it. We would be more than happy to open at 8:00am…but you might get 2 or 3 children through the door. Financially it's not viable." Provider, PRO2

5.3.2 Feeling undervalued and unsupported

Many providers we spoke to experience stress and worry around these key challenges. This is particularly common for providers experiencing inconsistent demand or struggling to access necessary funding and support.

"There have been times where it's been quiet, and it's been a bit of a worry. Thinking 'how am I going to live?'" Provider, PRO12

Several also feel that these conditions reflect an overall undervaluing of the childcare industry and their role in maintaining rural communities.

Childminders in particular mention how they feel 'overlooked' in the industry. Lack of access to funding and decline in their numbers after the expansion of early learning and childcare to 1,140 hours are key reasons childminders feel undervalued and supported, as well as their view on how they are treated versus other care services.

"...last couple of years we've all felt really down and really alone and unsupported, I think we're all feeling like that." Provider, PRO6

5.4 Providers' key needs

The following needs have been identified as a priority for providers of school age childcare in rural and island areas. These needs should be addressed to help providers overcome the challenges identified above. The needs centre on three key areas: access to reliable financial support, good communication and relationships with other community services (including the local authority), and assistance with training and recruitment.

Reliable financial support

  • "As a provider, I need reliable financial support so that I can offer flexible options."
  • "As a provider, I need reliable financial support so that I can maintain my current provision."
  • "As a provider, I need reliable financial support so that I can keep my fees low for parents."
  • "As a provider, I need reliable financial support so that I can develop and grow my service (e.g. through refurbishments, new equipment).

Good communication and relationships

  • "As a provider, I need good communication and relationships with other community services so that I can feel valued in the community."
  • "As a provider, I need good communication and relationships with other community services so that I can avoid clashing with other providers."
  • "As a provider, I need good communication and relationships with other community services so that I can ensure I'm meeting community needs."

Assistance with training and recruitment

  • "As a provider, I need assistance with training and recruitment so that I can provide a high quality of care for children with additional support needs."
  • "As a provider, I need assistance with training and recruitment so that I can keep my experienced staff while also fulfilling SSSC requirements."
  • "As a provider, I need assistance with training and recruitment so that I can find quality staff for my service."

5.5 Overlap with parent challenges

A key finding of this research is the existence of a central feedback loop in rural and island areas where lack of demand leads to a lack of provision, which creates a lack of demand.

Figure 1 shows a map of how parents' challenges connect to providers' challenges. As well as how both sets of problems are impacted by the level of rurality.

Figure 1. Overlap between parent and provider challenges
A flow diagram depicts the relationship between provider and parent challenges. Black arrows show the one or two-connections between the challenges and themes.

In this central feedback loop, inconsistency in demand impacts the services providers are able to offer. When this is negative (as is currently the case for many providers), this in turn limits the options parents have for wraparound school age childcare (which may include before and after school care, holiday provision, and provision for children with additional support needs).

This is known as an 'amplifying' feedback loop, which is associated with unsustainable cycles of behaviour.[37] This kind of feedback loop reinforces the problems parents and providers are experiencing, as well as the surrounding problems the map shows.

For parents, this reinforces barriers to work and employment, and feelings of stress and guilt associated with informal childcare arrangements.

For providers, this reinforces financial challenges running their services.

This negative feedback loop maintains a lot of the challenges discussed in this and the previous chapter. Although the challenges and needs of parents and providers have been explored separately above, the feedback loop demonstrates these issues must be addressed together in order to find holistic solutions to rural and island school age childcare.

5.6 Conclusions

The main challenges providers have in offering affordable and consistent school age childcare are around demand, funding, support, staffing and training, facilities, transport, and providing for children with additional support needs. These challenges negatively impact providers' offerings by causing them to limit or adapt their services, as well as creating feelings of guilt and frustration

To tackle these challenges, providers' key needs of reliable financial support, good communication and relationships, and assistance with training and recruitment should be addressed.

In order to do this holistically, the interdependencies between parents' and providers' needs should also be considered.



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