Annex A: Evidence summary: how childcare helps to make a difference for children, parents and carers, and families
To deliver the best possible outcomes for children and families, and value for money for the public purse, it is critical that the Scottish Government draws on the latest evidence to inform policy development and decision-making. This section provides an overview of some of the latest evidence and acknowledges where further work is needed to inform or evaluate our policies.
Benefits for children
There is strong evidence that the early years of a child's life are crucial for their social and emotional development, as well as their language and numeracy skills. International research shows that Early Learning and Childcare (ELC) provision is associated with sustained improvements in children's later education, employment and health. There is good evidence that children from disadvantaged backgrounds benefit most from ELC programmes. Research also shows that ELC can help mitigate the impacts of developmental risks, acting as a form of early intervention for children who are at high risk of developing Additional Support Needs.
Consistent across the international research evidence – including evidence from our own Growing Up in Scotland Study – is the finding that for children to benefit, their ELC experience must be of high quality. Quality of provision is influenced by a wide range of factors, including: staffing levels and aspects of their working conditions; staff qualifications and development; the relationships and interactions between staff and children; the physical environment; and the curriculum.
There is less evidence at population level about the impacts of ELC provision on children aged two and under, and what evidence there is tends to be more mixed. Some UK studies have pointed to benefits for these younger children, while others highlight less positive effects on their development. However, consistent with findings for older children, there is agreement across the literature that the quality of the care and learning provided is vital in making a difference for younger children.
There is also some evidence that the overall length of time that children spend in ELC is associated with positive longer-term benefits, although other studies have found no impact. The OECD suggests that at least two years of ELC before starting school is associated with children performing better at age 15 in its Programme for International Student Achievement (PISA).
The literature is also inconclusive in relation to the optimal number of hours for children to spend in ELC per day or week. Some older studies have suggested there are limited additional benefits for children in attending full day as opposed to half day sessions. However, recent UK research indicates that, particularly for the most disadvantaged children, an average of over 20 hours per week of formal ELC is beneficial. The research also suggested that, in terms of positive impacts on children's outcomes, beyond 20 hours of ELC the quality of childcare is more important than the length of time children spend in a setting.
In summary, there is strong evidence that attending high quality ELC has important benefits for children aged from three to five. This has underpinned the expansion of 1140 and is why quality remains firmly at the heart of our approach. The evidence about the particular benefits of high quality ELC for children from disadvantaged circumstances was also central to our decision to target early access to those two year olds who need it most. For children aged under three, evidence suggests that how much they benefit from ELC is determined by crucial factors such as their family background, what age they start in ELC, the quality of services, and the balance of hours they spend between care at home and in ELC settings.
Providing high-quality ELC services also plays an important role in mitigating some of the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic for children. A complete picture of the impact of the pandemic on young children, including how long any impacts may last, is not yet clear. However, emerging evidence shows early signs of how young children have been negatively affected, with a disproportionate impact on children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Children's speech, language and communication has been an area that has been particularly affected, and we have set out under Priority 1, work in train to address this.
It is also important to recognise that the literature we have considered here relates to ELC provision where parents or carers leave their children in the care of qualified staff rather than the wider forms of family support that are available in children's centres or play groups, for example. We are committed to building an evidence base about what kinds of provision will benefit children most as we progress our ambition to expand funded early learning and childcare to one and two year olds, starting with those who need it most. We know, for example, that there is good evidence about the benefits of various types of family support for children, parents and carers.
There is currently less available evidence about how school age childcare makes a difference for children. This is partly because of a lack of research and partly because of difficulty in disentangling the effect of school age childcare from other policies and child experiences at these ages, like attending primary school. However, the research available suggests that high quality school age childcare can promote positive social interactions and relationships, build social skills and confidence, and provide the opportunity for play in a safe environment. These benefits can be particularly important for younger children and those from the most socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds.
As part of our ambition to build a system of school age childcare, we are also committed to taking a user-centred service design approach that will help us to build an evidence base about which kinds of services best meet the needs of children and their families, particularly those on the lowest incomes.
Benefits for parents and carers
For parents and carers, international research suggests that affordable and flexible ELC can improve standards of living and address child poverty through reducing pressures on family income and enabling parents and carers, particularly women, to participate in work, education or training. It is important for equal opportunities in employment between women and men. This also has important benefits for a child's own wellbeing, which is negatively impacted by living in poverty. That is why expanding access to high quality, funded ELC remains a Scottish Government priority, particularly in the context of the current cost of living crisis.
The Scottish Government's National Strategy for Economic Transformation emphasises that childcare is a vital element of Scotland's economic infrastructure. The Strategy makes clear the importance of childcare offers in enabling parents and carers to return to work, or increase their working hours. The international evidence indicates that ELC provision can help to address gender inequality in pay, as well as supporting parents and carers to combine caring for their children with seeking or returning to work, or taking part in education or training. The literature has focused on the links between maternal employment and children taking part in ELC, suggesting that the existence of ELC provision helps to support mothers to work.
However, it is important to note that ELC provision alone cannot support parents and carers to work. Other important enablers include parental leave and social security policies (powers that largely sit with the UK Government), individuals' existing skills and experience, supportive employers, what kind of work opportunities are available locally, and the wider economic context. The Scottish Government's recent plan to tackle child poverty recognises the interplay of these different enablers of parental employability.
The research literature also suggests that affordable and accessible school age childcare allows some parents or carers, especially single parents and those who are not currently in work, to find or remain in good jobs, increase their working hours or undertake further education or training. As we develop our ambition to build a system of school age childcare, we will also work to assemble more evidence about the ways in which it can support parents and carers with their aspirations to enter and sustain employment, training or studying and to ultimately increase their household income.
By providing children with access to a range of activities and positive life experiences, early learning and school age childcare can help to mitigate the negative effects of poverty, improving their long-term development and employment opportunities. The 1140 hours of high-quality funded ELC also make an important direct contribution to reducing household costs. If eligible families were to purchase the funded childcare provided by the Scottish Government themselves, it would cost them around £5,000 per eligible child per year.
Benefits for families
The role of regulated childcare in supporting family wellbeing is a relatively under-explored area in the research literature, although there is evidence that ELC can support mothers' emotional health and wellbeing. Our recent qualitative research with parents and carers also highlighted some of the ways in which ELC can support family wellbeing. These included providing support for:
- addressing developmental issues children may have, particularly in relation to the impact of the pandemic;
- supporting parents and carers to have some time to themselves;
- creating more time for other family members (e.g. older children);
- reducing the burden on grandparents; and
- reducing stress.
We are committed to developing this evidence to gain a clearer understanding of the specific contribution that funded ELC can make to family wellbeing, including when children are with their parents or carers and when they are in the care of trained professionals. We will also explore further what role ELC can contribute as part of wider services that support families into education, employment and training, or that are targeted at poverty reduction. This will form an important element of our evaluation strategy exploring the impact of the recent 1140 expansion.
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