Early learning and childcare at age five: comparing two cohorts

A report on early learning and childcare use and provision in Scotland, comparing Growing Up in Scotland data from 2008-09 and 2014.

Executive Summary


Growing Up in Scotland ( GUS) is a large-scale longitudinal research project aimed at tracking the lives of several cohorts of children living in Scotland from the early years, through childhood and beyond.

This report draws on data from Birth Cohort 1 ( BC1) and Birth Cohort 2 ( BC2) combined with administrative data from the Care Inspectorate to provide an understanding of characteristics of early learning and childcare ( ELC) use and provision in Scotland. In particular, it assesses how this changed between 2008/09 and 2014 - including whether the increased entitlement to funded ELC (from 475 to 600 hours per year) which came into force in August 2014 appeared to have any immediate effects on ELC use among eligible 3-4 year olds. It also looks at how ELC use and provision differed for children living in different types of areas and with different social background characteristics.

Furthermore, using hitherto unreported data collected in 2015 when children in BC2 were aged 5, the report explores whether there had been any changes in outcomes among 5 year olds since 2009/10 when children in BC1 were the same age.

Finally, the report explores associations between, on the one hand, the average weekly number of hours children spent at their main ELC provider and characteristics of the ELC setting, and, on the other hand, children's cognitive and social development at age 5, as well as their adjustment to primary school.

Key Terms:

ELC /Early Learning and Childcare: refers to what was previously known as 'pre-school education'. Includes any wrap-around care the child receives from their main ELC/pre-school provider, but not any care received by other providers.

ELC provider: the provider from which the child receives their funded ELC (pre-school) entitlement. If the child receives their funded entitlement from more than one provider, it refers to their main provider.

Childcare: any care the child receives from providers other than their main ELC/pre-school provider.

Comparisons of ELC use: focus is on children who take up their entitlement to funded ELC. The report does not compare children who attend ELC/pre-school with those who do not.

Changes in ELC use

  • On average, 4 year olds in 2014 spent just over two hours per week longer at their main ELC provider than 4 year olds in 2008/09. [1] An increase was observed for all the different groups of children considered in the analysis, however, it was particularly notable among those living in more affluent households, in less deprived areas, and whose parents had higher levels of education.
  • Looking specifically at ELC use among 4 year olds in the six months before and six months after the increase in funded ELC entitlement introduced in August 2014, the analysis showed an increase (of just over one and a half hours per week) in average parent-reported ELC use in the six months immediately following the increase in entitlement. [2]
  • Encouragingly, the overall proportion of children attending an ELC setting with a high staffing quality grade (as assessed by the Care Inspectorate) increased between 2008/09 and 2014 - from 45% to 55%. However, although an increase was evident across all deprivation groups, it was larger among those living in the least deprived areas and, on average, children living in more deprived areas were less likely to attend an ELC provider with a high staffing quality grade than their peers in less deprived areas.
  • Nonetheless, when all aspects of quality were considered, in 2014 (just like in 2008/09) children living in disadvantaged circumstances were just as likely as their more advantaged peers to attend an all-round high quality ELC provider. [3]
  • In both 2008/09 and 2014 the most common type of ELC provider attended by 4 year old children was a local authority-run nursery class attached to a primary school. In both cohorts, children in higher income households were more likely than those in lower income households to attend a private or voluntary ELC provider. This difference was more pronounced in 2014.

Changes in children's outcomes upon entry to primary school

  • The vast majority of children were reported by their parent or carer to have adjusted well to primary school. Compared with children the same age in 2009/10, 5 year olds in 2015 were a little more likely to complain about school and to be reluctant to go to school, and a little less likely to look forward to going to school. Nonetheless, overall levels of adjustment to primary school were very similar.
  • Parent-reported levels of hyperactivity and pro-social behaviour among 5 year olds improved between 2009/10 and 2015. For example, the proportion of 5 year old children exhibiting higher than average levels of hyperactivity fell from 21% to 18% over this period. Meanwhile, the proportion displaying below average levels of pro-social behaviour fell from 17% to 14%.
  • At an overall level there was no change in average problem solving ability among 5 year olds between 2009/10 and 2015. In contrast, the analysis showed a slight decrease in average vocabulary ability for children this age.
  • Looking at children according to socio-economic and area characteristics, in both cohorts, those living in less advantaged circumstances were more likely than their more advantaged peers to have below average levels of adjustment to primary school (as reported by their parent or carer). They were also more likely to have poorer social and behavioural development and to score lower on measures of cognitive ability.
  • Between 2009/10 and 2015, on the measure of pro-social behaviour, there were signs of a slight widening of the gap between children whose parents had no formal qualifications and children whose parents had a degree. This was driven primarily by an increase in average pro-social behaviour scores among children whose parents were educated to degree level.
  • In contrast, on the measure of vocabulary ability there were signs of a slight narrowing of the gap between children in the poorest and the wealthiest families. This was a result of a slight increase in average scores among children in the poorest households alongside a slight decrease in average scores among those in the most affluent households.

Is there a relationship between how long children spend in ELC and outcomes at age 5?

  • Among children who took up their entitlement to funded ELC, attending for a relatively small number of additional hours per week (up to an average of 16 hours per week, rather than 12.5 hours per week or less) did not appear to be associated with outcomes at age 5 - either positively or negatively.
  • However, among children in lower and middle income families (outside the most affluent 40% of households), those who attended their main ELC provider for more than 30 hours per week were at a slightly higher risk than those who attended ELC for 12.5 hours or less of exhibiting above average levels of hyperactivity at age 5. This association was also evident after controlling for the level of hyperactivity reported when the child was aged 3, and for other social background characteristics such as the parents' level of education and the level of area deprivation.

Is there a relationship between the quality of the ELC setting and child outcomes at age 5?

  • The analysis found some associations between quality of ELC provision (as measured by the Care Inspectorate) and children's social and behavioural outcomes, although the differences in average outcomes were small. These associations remained statistically significant when taking into account differences in children's social background and earlier outcomes measured at age 3.
  • Specifically, among children attending ELC, on average, attending a provider with high staffing grades appeared to be associated with a very small decrease in the likelihood of exhibiting above average levels of peer problems at age 5.
  • Furthermore, children who attended an ELC setting that achieved at least 'very good' grades across all four of the Care Inspectorate's quality themes were less likely to have raised levels of peer problems at age 5, and were less likely to display below average levels of pro-social behaviour, than children who attended a setting that did not achieve these grades.
  • Earlier analysis using GUS data collected from children born in 2004/05 found a statistically significant but weak association between attending an ELC provider with a high level of care and support and better vocabulary at age 5. However, the analysis carried out for this report showed no statistically significant associations between the quality of the ELC setting and any aspects of children's cognitive development.

Implications for policy

  • Very few changes were observed in child outcomes on entry to primary school between 2009/10 and 2015. Whilst it is encouraging that the gap in vocabulary ability between children in the poorest and most affluent families appears to have narrowed, this seems to have occurred partly as a result of a decrease in average vocabulary ability among children in the wealthiest families. This highlights the need for policy makers to carefully consider any unintended consequences of current and future strategies for 'closing the gap' between more and less advantaged children, if they want to ensure that no groups of children are doing worse as a result.
  • The Scottish Government have committed to increasing the entitlement to funded ELC to an average of 30 hours per week. This report found no evidence to suggest that this is likely to have any notable detrimental effects on children's outcomes by the time they enter school. However, neither did it find any evidence to suggest that an increase in ELC duration would be beneficial to children.
  • Notably, these findings are based on the current status of ELC provision, where most children experience relatively high levels of quality in the ELC they receive. As demands on providers to offer a higher number of hours increase, there is a risk that the quality of provision may fall.
  • Given the association between quality of provision and elements of children's social and behavioural outcomes, a drop in the quality of provision alongside an increase in the number of hours children spend in ELC may well have more detrimental effects than those shown in this report. This stresses the importance of ensuring that the level of quality of ELC provision does not suffer as demands on providers increase.
  • Furthermore, it seems crucial that equality of access to high quality ELC provision is maintained - and, in the case of staffing quality, improved - as the increase in entitlement is rolled out.


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