Best Start - strategic early learning and school age childcare plan 2022 to 2026

The plan sets out how we will embed the benefits of our transformational investment in 1140 hours of high quality funded early learning and childcare. It also explains our approach to expanding our childcare offer over the next four years.

Priority 1: Realising the benefits of the expansion to 1140 hours of funded Early Learning and Childcare for children and families

Uptake of funded ELC

97% of eligible three and four year olds were registered for funded ELC in September 2021

The majority of children aged 3 and 4 are benefitting from up to 1140 hours of high quality ELC.

[Source: Scottish Government 2021 ELC Census[6]]

Maximising uptake of Early Learning and Childcare among two year olds

From August 2021 all local authorities have made the expanded entitlement of 1140 hours of high quality funded ELC available to all three and four year olds, and eligible two year olds. As shown above, almost all three and four year olds take up their ELC entitlement[6].

We estimate that the targeted component of 1140 is available to around a quarter of families. Eligible two year olds include children in households that receive low or no income benefits, children with care experience, and children whose parents or carers have care experience themselves.

Uptake of 1140 hours

87% of children accessing funded ELC were reported to be accessing the full 1140 hours funded entitlement in April 2022

Uptake of the full 1140 hours entitlement has been very encouraging in its first year.

[Source: Improvement Service[7]]

Ensuring that families are aware of and able to take up an offer of ELC that meets their needs will contribute to supporting those that the Scottish Government's Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan, 'Best Start, Bright Futures'[8], identifies as being at greatest risk of poverty[9].

For a variety of reasons, some families will opt not to make use of the funded hours of ELC when their children turn two. However, we are committed to ensuring that all eligible families know the benefits of the offer and are able to access it if they wish to do so. To allow us to do this, we have been working with the UK Government to establish a data sharing agreement that will enable local authorities to target information about the ELC offer to households with an eligible two year old child, as has been the case in England for a number of years. Regulations were laid in the UK Parliament in July 2022, and we expect – subject to UK Parliamentary processes – that this data will be made available to Scottish local authorities before the end of the 2022-23 financial year.

For the first time, we will also be able to have an accurate picture of the number of children who are eligible for this offer and how many families are opting to take it up in each area. Once this information becomes available to local authorities we will work with them to maximise uptake of our existing two year old offer through an improvement programme that will be rolled out by summer 2023.

In developing this work, we recognise that the provision of traditional models of funded ELC may not be the most appropriate form of support for some children and families. Where there are other approaches that enable children and families to realise the high level benefits of the expansion, local authorities will continue to be able to use ELC funding to deliver these directly or through working with funded providers, continuing to build new partnerships and develop new approaches where that is required.

Embedding quality at the heart of Early Learning and Childcare services

Quality within services providing funded ELC

Bar chart showing a slight downward trend in the percentage of ELC services evaluated as good or better in all quality themes between 2014 and 2021

The percentage of funded ELC providers evaluated as good or better in all quality themes remains high (and is higher than in those services not offering funded hours) but declined between 2014 and 2021.

[Source: Care Inspectorate][10]

Quality is critical to early learning and school age childcare which makes a difference for children, particularly those experiencing disadvantage. That is why we have placed quality at the heart of the policy framework that has supported the delivery of funded ELC: 'Funding Follows the Child'. This framework, jointly agreed by Scottish Government and local government, takes a provider neutral approach. It is underpinned by a National Standard[11] that all services have to meet in order to deliver funded ELC. The National Standard criteria include the elements of quality that all children and their families should expect from their ELC experience.

In recognition of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have provided ELC services with some flexibility on meeting these criteria. As we move towards full implementation of the National Standard, planned for August 2023, we will ensure that the right support is in place for services to meet the quality criteria set out in the National Standard. This will include targeted support from the Care Inspectorate to give providers a fair chance to prepare and improve. We will gather further information from services on their progress and readiness before a final decision is taken on the timing of full implementation of the National Standard.

In 'Realising the Ambition: Being Me'[12], Scotland has world-leading early years practice guidance that supports quality through a strong focus on play pedagogy, which has been widely welcomed by the sector. It also provides guidance to support children to make a positive transition from their ELC setting to primary school.

'Realising the Ambition: Being Me' aligns with the Early Level of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE - Scotland's curriculum that spans from ages three to 18). The early level of CfE reaches to the end of primary 1. CfE provides a coherent framework to ensure that children and young people have opportunities to develop the knowledge, skills and attributes they need to adapt, think critically and flourish in today's world.

Education Scotland is working with partners to design and deliver intensive and targeted improvement support to the ELC sector, and across the early level of CfE at national, regional, and local level during the academic session 2022-23. This includes work explicitly intended to strengthen the implementation of 'Realising the Ambition: Being Me,' which is also embedded in all aspects of their improvement work with early years professionals and leaders in the ELC and primary sectors.

Whilst there is much good work happening across the Care Inspectorate, Education Scotland and local authorities, there is a need to go further to ensure that there is a clear and coherent approach to providing support for quality improvement across all funded ELC services that enables providers to meet the National Standard, deliver Curriculum for Excellence and implement 'Realising the Ambition: Being Me' effectively. The Scottish Government will work with all relevant agencies to ensure that there is greater alignment and strategic direction for improvement work to deliver the best possible outcomes for children. This will include working through the Equity and Excellence Leads network, supporting post-holders to share best practice and support improvement in the most deprived parts of Scotland.

The programme to develop the new national education agency that will replace Education Scotland will focus on improving the entire learner journey from early learning, through school and into tertiary and work-based learning. The Scottish Government will ensure the vital importance and value of ELC within our education system is fully recognised through these changes. The new agency will have a key role in providing leadership and support for curriculum, assessment, learning and teaching to professionals throughout the learner journey, including in ELC.

Outdoor play and learning is already an integral, everyday part of ELC in Scotland. It is our vision that children in ELC will spend as much time outdoors as they do indoors, and that time outdoors will happen every day, in every setting. Evidence and research tells us that playing, learning and having fun outdoors improves children's physical health and promotes mental, social, and emotional wellbeing[13], which is particularly important as we recover from the pandemic. We will work with our partners to build on the range of outdoor learning support for providers that we put in place during the pandemic, through initiatives like the Virtual Nature School.[14] Participants in the Out to Play Improve Programme found that by using Quality Improvement methods to make changes to their ways of working they could increase time spent outdoors.

We will also ensure that all children benefit from a healthy and nutritious meal as part of their funded entitlement. To support settings we will update 'Setting the Table', our guidance on nutrition within ELC services. This guidance will support ELC services to take advantage of our Scottish Milk and Healthy Snack Scheme (SMHSS). The Scheme provides funding to eligible settings to offer a serving of milk or a non-dairy alternative, and a healthy snack, to all children who attend for two hours or more per day. It supports improvement in children's health in the earliest years, which is crucial in tackling health inequalities and reducing obesity. We will continue to work with stakeholders through the SMHSS Implementation and Operations Group to ensure the Scheme continues to meet the needs of children and childcare settings.

We will take forward work on Additional Support for Learning in ELC, building on the ELC Inclusion Fund and reflecting the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on young children's development, particularly in the area of speech and language. Over the next three years we will invest in a new programme of work to support early intervention in speech and language for children and their families, helping to build confidence and capacity for staff working in ELC settings and joining up efforts across other key public services, such as health visiting.

We will also work to embed the best evidence-based practice on supporting the mental health of children and families within ELC settings, drawing on the recommendations of the Three to Five Year Olds Task and Finish Group of the Children and Young People's Mental Health and Wellbeing Joint Delivery Board[15].

Supporting parents and carers to make the right decision for their child about starting school

All parents and carers in Scotland can defer their child's entry to primary school if they are not yet five years old at the beginning of the school year. However, not all children can currently access funded ELC in their deferred year. From August 2023, we will implement new legislation which means that all families with eligible children who choose to defer their start date for primary one will automatically be entitled to access funded ELC for a further year. Building on the 10 existing pilots across Scotland, we will continue to work with local authorities and the sector to ensure that this is fully implemented, based on the Joint Implementation Plan agreed with COSLA and local authorities. This new legislation will support families to make decisions based on the best interests of their child, without the financial barrier of ELC costs.

Supporting family wellbeing

Since 2018, we have provided funding to local authorities to employ graduate-level Equity and Excellence leads in ELC settings in the most deprived areas of Scotland. Equity and Excellence leads work flexibly with children and families who need extra support and local authorities have freedom to shape the role depending on local needs and priorities.

Between 2019 and 2021 we funded Peeple to deliver the Family Learning Scotland Programme, offering training and support to 432 childcare professionals across all 32 local authorities. Childcare professionals were trained to deliver the Peep Learning Together Programme and the Peep Progression Pathway to help parents learn about early childhood development, how to support children's learning, and also to support parents' or carers' own capacity for learning to enable them to take up training and employment opportunities. Many of those trained were Equity and Excellence leads, embedding capacity across Scotland for skilled professionals to develop close relationships with children and families together.

Building on evaluation of these programmes, feedback from the sector and the wider evidence base from the work of The Promise and on holistic whole family wellbeing, we will develop a programme of work to support local areas and services to embed family wellbeing within ELC services.

Evaluating the expansion of funded Early Learning and Childcare

It is critical that we properly evaluate a major new policy like the expansion of funded ELC to understand what is working, whether the policy is making a difference and where any challenges remain. We have published an evaluation strategy[16] alongside this plan setting out our approach to assessing how the ELC expansion is making a difference for the sector and the quality of provision, and for children, their parents, carers and families. This sets out our overall approach to gathering the evidence we need through existing and new data sources, including reflecting the views of the sector in Scotland. We will continue to collect and publish the evidence set out in the strategy as it becomes available, with a final report currently planned for 2025. The evaluation will also strengthen the existing evidence base and plug some of the key gaps set out in Annex A, including assessing how funded ELC can help parents and carers to move closer to the labour market.



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