This report sets out the main findings of research conducted with rural childcare providers, focusing on issues including facilities, transport and staffing. It examines how financial and practical challenges impact the sustainability of rural childcare services; the childcare needs of agricultural families; and the opportunities provided by innovative models. A total of nine interviews were conducted with providers who work in a range of settings, in both accessible rural and remote areas, including in the local authorities of Argyll and Bute, Highland, Moray and the Scottish Borders.
The research findings show that there are a number of wider challenges in rural childcare provision, including: fewer services, resulting in pressure on existing providers; sustaining provision in more remote settings with lower numbers of staff and children; a shortage of transport provision, including drop-off services and public transport; a shortage of suitable venues, with many shared with other groups; and difficulties recruiting staff, particularly for senior roles.
This report discusses the key findings by topic: Childcare in rural areas; Opening times and out-of-hours provision; Rural childcare, parents and work; The childcare needs of agricultural families; Facilities and practical challenges; Transport and accessibility; Staffing and training; Innovative models; Financial sustainability and funding; Support for rural childcare providers; and the Impact of COVID-19.
Childcare in rural areas
The key issue that providers highlighted was a lack of choice in rural areas. They also stated that there is a shortage of early years provision (ages 0 to 3) and childminders. Whilst many struggle due to low numbers, others have long waiting lists due to a shortage of other provision. Many successful services are run collaboratively for example with parents, third-sector providers or the council.
Opening times and out-of-hours provision
Flexible providers can offer parents extra sessions and extend their hours if required. In smaller, remote settings this was often not an option due to limited capacity. Providers stated that longer days to fit around working hours would benefit rural parents. Transport and funding was seen as essential to the success of additional provision.
Rural childcare, parents and work
Childcare requirements are affected by parents' working patterns throughout the week and year. This varies in different areas, from shift work in retail or the care sector to tourism and agricultural jobs, or parents studying at college. Several providers stated that it is women who transport children, and are limited to part-time and low-paid work as a result. They also raised issues around the affordability of childcare, particularly in smaller settings.
The childcare needs of agricultural families
Many providers observed that agricultural families have busier and quieter times of the year. These families benefit from being able to book further sessions when needed, longer opening hours and after-school clubs. Drop-off services also benefit farming families – particularly at the busier times of year, for example lambing.
Facilities and practical challenges
Many of the more remote providers, for example in small villages in the Highlands, are based in community halls they share with other groups, and noted the high cost of renting the buildings, inability to make changes, and tension with local residents. This also creates additional work for staff in setting up and cleaning after sessions. Other providers face practical challenges, for example outdoor nurseries with no kitchen on-site to prepare hot meals, and closures due to bad weather.
Transport and accessibility
Most children are driven to rural childcare services, with journeys varying from 15 minutes to an hour. In many cases, public transport was not seen as adequate, although a small number of children and staff were lift-sharing, or travelling to settings by bus, bike and ferry. For those in more remote sites, this causes issues in the winter. It also effects accessibility, for example outdoor providers felt that more families would be able to attend if transport provision was available, whilst standard providers spoke about the value of drop-off and pick-up services.
Staffing and training
The majority of providers had experienced problems with staffing, particularly for more senior roles. Those following innovative models had experienced fewer problems with recruitment. Access to training is an issue for many, due to the costs of travel and accommodation and reduced availability in rural areas.The transition to online training has been mostly beneficial.
Innovative models also lead to further opportunities, with multi-partnership models such as intergenerational projects and shared management across settings making use of the available resources in rural areas. Outdoor nurseries tend to attract children from a wider area, and in several cases, children were travelling further for example for over an hour by car to attend them due to parental choice.
Financial sustainability and funding
Providers raised concerns around financial sustainability, for example the number of staff required to meet guidance, the cost of renting shared buildings. The financial viability of services was affected by lower numbers of children and changes in demand. There was a perception that many of the smaller services in rural areas have closed due to these issues. Several providers had received additional funding or grants, for example from the Inclusion Fund, or benefit from fundraising and volunteer support.
Support for rural childcare providers
Providers discussed ways of supporting rural childcare services, including start-up grants, top-up fees for settings with a small number of children, additional funding for staff wages and transport. If setting up a new rural service providers stated the main things required would be: qualified staff, a suitable and affordable building, and transport options for parents, for example car parking, a drop-off service.
Impact of COVID-19
The research also indicated the wider impact of COVID-19 on rural childcare providers, from the closure of local settings to increased demand on resources and finances caused by additional cleaning, temporary closures and limits on numbers. In several cases, this has led to reduced flexibility for parents.
This research indicates the range of challenges faced by rural childcare providers, many of which are connected to longstanding issues in rural areas, from employment to transport and broadband. Providers spoke about struggling to make settings financially sustainable due to lower numbers of children, but also indicated how important it is that rural families have access to a range of childcare services to meet their requirements.
Whilst many providers stated that additional funding would have a positive impact, this report highlights wider challenges around the sustainability of rural childcare services. Policies around population, including rural depopulation, should therefore take childcare provision into account, as it is clear that a shortage of suitable childcare remains a barrier to employment opportunities in rural Scotland, particularly for women.
This report highlights the need for both standard and innovative models of childcare provision in rural areas in order to improve sustainability and better meet the needs of families with a range of working patterns and childcare requirements. The innovative models discussed in this report offer parents greater choice, and have been shown to have a range of benefits for children, from outdoor play-based learning to interactions with older adults in their community.
The 2020-21 Programme for Government (PfG) sets out a range of commitments in this area, from the delivery of 1140 hours of free early learning and childcare, to increasing service provision and supporting repopulation in rural and remote communities. The PfG also sets out a commitment to look at wraparound care options that will give families more choice, greater opportunities to work, and greater financial freedom. This has the potential to benefit many rural parents, including those working in agriculture.
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