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.

1 Introduction

1.1. Background and report overview

For a number of years, early learning and childcare ( ELC) (or 'pre-school education' as it is also referred to) has been high on the agenda for policy makers in Scotland and, indeed, across the UK. Recent political commitments to increase the entitlement to free ELC (Scottish Government, 2016a) have further fueled debates about how provision ought to be organised as well as which children (if any) might particularly benefit from attending ELC.

A recent review of the literature (Scobie and Scott, 2017) reveals the range of associations found between various aspects of ELC use and child outcomes in previous research. For example, the Effective Provision of Pre-school Education ( EPPE) study, which was specifically designed to explore effects of ELC provision on children's development, found that attending a high quality ELC provider had beneficial effects on children's cognitive and social development (e.g. Sylva et al., 2004). In a Scottish context, analysis of data from the Growing Up in Scotland study ( GUS) has also suggested a link between attending a high quality ELC provider and cognitive outcomes (Bradshaw et al., 2014).

This report uses data from GUS combined with administrative data provided by the Care Inspectorate to provide an understanding of the characteristics of 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 had any immediate effects on ELC use among eligible 3-4 year olds. It also looks at how ELC use and provision differ for children who live in different types of areas and who have different social background characteristics. Furthermore, using hitherto unreported data collected in 2014 and 2015, the report explores whether there was any improvement (or deterioration) in outcomes among 5 year old children in Scotland between 2009/10 and 2015 (before and shortly after the expansion in ELC entitlement). Finally, the report explores associations between, on the one hand, duration of ELC attendance 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. [4]

1.2. About GUS

GUS is a large-scale longitudinal research project aimed at tracking the lives of several cohorts of Scottish children from the early years, through childhood and beyond. The main aim of the study is to provide information to support policy-making in Scotland, but it is also intended to be a broader resource that can be drawn on by academics, voluntary sector organisations, practitioners, parents and other interested parties.

To date, GUS has collected information about three nationally representative cohorts of children: a child cohort and two birth cohorts. Altogether, information has been collected on around 14,000 children. This report draws on data collected from the two birth cohorts. The first birth cohort (Birth Cohort 1 or ' BC1') comprise 5,217 children born between June 2004 and May 2005 and living in Scotland when aged 10 months. For this cohort, starting in 2005/06, data were collected annually from when the children were aged 10 months until they were just under 6 years old, and then biennially at age 8 and when the children were in Primary 6 (age 10). At the time of writing (2017), the ninth sweep of data collection with this cohort is underway, while the children are aged around 12 and in their first year of secondary school. The second birth cohort (Birth Cohort 2 or ' BC2') comprise 6,127 children who were born between March 2010 and February 2011 and living in Scotland when aged 10 months. For this cohort, starting in 2011, data were collected when the children were aged 10 months, just under 3 years, just under 4 years, and just under 5 years.

The report draws on data collected when the cohort children were aged just under 4 and just under 5 years of age. For BC1, this means drawing on data collected between 2008 and 2010. For BC2, this means drawing on data collected in 2014 and 2015. More detailed information about the data is provided in section 2.1.

1.3. ELC in Scotland: the policy context

The annual entitlement to pre-school education for 3 and 4 year olds in Scotland is set out in the Standards in Scotland's Schools Etc Act 2000. This Act placed a duty on local authorities to secure a pre-school education place for all 3 and 4 year-olds whose parents want a place from the term following their child's third birthday. The statutory entitlement was introduced in April 2002, initially as 412.5 hours per year. This was then increased to 475 hours in 2007.

In 2014, under The Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 (hereafter CYP Act 2014), the entitlement to pre-school education was expanded to cover both early learning and childcare. ELC is defined in the Act as a "service, consisting of education and care, of a kind which is suitable in the ordinary case for children who are under school age, regard being had to the importance of interactions and other experiences which support learning and development in a caring and nurturing setting" (Section 46). This new term was introduced in order to overcome the traditional divide between (part time) education and (full time) childcare, the latter of which was seen as less important to learning. The term seeks to reflect EU and OECD recommended models of integrated education and care (Scottish Government, 2016a).

Under the CYP Act 2014 the entitlement to free ELC was increased to 600 hours per year from August 2014, amounting to approximately 16 hours per week during term time. The hours can be delivered in blocks of between two and a half and eight hours a day spread across the week (Scottish Government, 2016b). The free provision is delivered by a range of providers, including local authority nurseries and family centres, nursery classes attached to local authority primary schools, partnerships offered by private or non-profit nurseries and some childminders. However, a recent financial review of ELC provision in Scotland found that three-quarters of children registered for the entitlement receive the provision in a local authority setting (Scottish Government, 2016c).

Depending on their date of birth, children receive varying amounts of funded ELC before starting school. At the time of writing, children who turn 3 between March and the end of August receive two full years (six terms) of funded ELC; children who turn 3 between September and the end of December receive just under two years (five terms), but parents can request an additional year (three terms) of ELC if the child's school entry is deferred; and children who turn 3 in January or February receive just over a year (four terms), but are entitled to an additional year (three terms) if the child's school entry is deferred. [5]

In 2014 the entitlement to ELC was also extended to 2 year olds who are looked after under a kinship care order or with a parent appointed guardian, as well as 2 year olds with a parent in receipt of qualifying benefits. This reflects the importance placed on ELC as a means to closing the attainment gap between the most and least advantaged children. Qualifying benefits include Income Support, Jobseekers Allowance, Employment and Support Allowance, Incapacity or Severe Disablement Allowance and State Pension Credit. In 2015, the range of qualifying benefits was extended to include Child Tax Credits (with some limitations [6] ), Universal Credit, and financial support provided under Part VI of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999.

As well as offering an increased number of hours of ELC and extending the entitlement to some 2 year olds, the CYP Act 2014 contained a provision to increase the flexibility of the funded entitlement. This involved introducing a requirement for local authorities to consult with representative populations of parents every two-three years on which patterns of ELC would best meet their needs, and to reconfigure their services over time towards meeting those needs. This means that local authorities are now required to ensure that ELC is offered in a way that gives parents choice and flexibility in order to help those with work, training or study commitments. Local authorities must demonstrate how they are offering places and improving flexibility based on their consultations with local communities. The Scottish Government committed £969.2 million over 6 years (from 2014/15) to local authorities to support implementation of the ELC elements of the CYP Act 2014 (Scottish Government, 2016a). Since then, the Scottish Government has pledged to increase the provision of funded ELC further to 1140 hours per year by 2020 for children who are 3 or 4 years old, as well for 2 year olds whose parents are on qualifying benefits and eligible for the 600 hours free entitlement through the CYP Act 2014 (Scottish Government, 2016a). In 2016, around 9% of the population of 2 year olds and close to 100% of 3 and 4 year olds were registered for funded ELC (Scottish Government, 2016d).

1.3.1. ELC within the wider Scottish policy context

A central aim of the CYP Act 2014 was to increase the amount and flexibility of ELC available to Scottish parents. The Scottish Government sees this as a significant step towards wider ambitions for Scotland to be the best place for children to grow up. In A Blueprint for 2020: The Expansion of Early Learning and Childcare in Scotland, the Scottish Government acknowledges that ELC and schools do not exist in isolation, and that children's outcomes are strongly influenced by factors outside the sphere of education - such as household income, parenting approaches, peer contact and health and development (Bradshaw and Tipping, 2010). Nonetheless, the provision of universally accessible and high quality ELC is highlighted as a means of giving children the best start in life, and of closing attainment and inequality gaps (Scottish Government, 2016a).

Furthermore, the increase in the amount and flexibility of ELC is a feature of the Scottish Government's emphasis on, and aim to shift the balance of public services towards, early intervention and prevention (Scottish Government, 2007a; Scottish Government, 2008). Rather than being seen as a separate stage, the pre-school years are viewed as part of a wider learning process. In policy terms, this view has been exemplified in the development of the 3-5 curriculum in the late 1990s as well as in the inclusion of the pre-school years within Curriculum for Excellence Early Level (Kidner, 2011). As an example of this, the 'early level' of the Curriculum for Excellence spans both ELC and Primary 1 and is designed to make the transition to primary school as seamless as possible. Teachers (as well as ELC practitioners) are encouraged to meet the needs of children through active, hands-on and play-based learning. This means that children are able to benefit from less formal, alternative learning environments - for example, outdoor settings and/or other forms of activity -which may bear more similarities to ELC settings or play-based learning (e.g. Scottish Government, 2007b).

1.3.2. Maintaining and improving standards in ELC provision

In order to maintain and improve standards in ELC provision, providers are inspected by the Care Inspectorate, a single regulatory body which inspects care services for both children and adults in Scotland. As well as carrying out routine inspections, the Care Inspectorate has a duty to investigate complaints and can, where appropriate, take enforcement action.

ELC providers are inspected according to the National Care Standards (Scottish Government, 2005). The standards reflect the rights of children and young people as set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. They recognise the rights of ELC users (i.e. children) to dignity, privacy, choice, and safety, to be treated equally and to be given opportunity to realise their potential in an environment that recognises the benefits of diversity. In inspecting ELC services against these standards, the Care Inspectorate seeks to ensure that providers are "doing everything they should to protect children and keep them safe" (Care Inspectorate, 2014). The National Care Standards also require the Care Inspectorate to take into account local and national guidance, including the Curriculum for Excellence and guidance contained in Pre-birth to Three: Positive Outcomes for Scotland's Children and Families (Learning and Teaching Scotland, 2010).

Inspections by the Care Inspectorate are unannounced and cover all services which provide day care of children, including - but not restricted to - those which offer pre-school education. ELC services receive a minimum frequency of inspections based on previous performance and risk assessments. When inspected they are graded against four quality themes: care and support; environment; staffing; and management and leadership. Further detail on these themes is provided in section 2.3.

ELC providers are also inspected by Education Scotland - sometimes in tandem with inspections by the Care Inspectorate. These inspections take a different focus and are more concerned with elements of the educational provision in the ELC setting, including the development of skills and understanding in literacy, numeracy, health and well-being. A key difference between Education Scotland and Care Inspectorate inspections is that the latter inspects all services which provide daycare of children to assess care and welfare issues (as outlined above). In contrast, Education Scotland inspections are focused on early years centres and nursery classes which are delivering the funded early learning and childcare, as part of a wider programme to evaluate "the quality of learning and teaching in Scottish schools and education services" (Education Scotland, 2014). In addition, inspections by the Care Inspectorate alone are more frequent and unannounced, whereas those undertaken by Education Scotland, or Education Scotland and the Care Inspectorate together are less frequent and announced two to three weeks in advance.

1.4. Research questions

This report seeks to answer a number of research questions.

First, chapter 3 addresses three questions concerned with ELC use and characteristics:

  • How did ELC use and characteristics of ELC provision in 2014/15 compare with 2008/09?
  • Did the increase in entitlement to funded ELC introduced in August 2014 lead to any immediate changes in the average number of hours children attended ELC?
  • How do ELC use and characteristics vary by the socio-economic characteristics and locations of families?

Second, two questions about children's outcomes upon entry to primary school are considered in chapter 4:

  • What was the level of children's adjustment to primary school and their social and cognitive development at the start of primary school in 2015?
  • Has there been any improvement in these outcomes for children at the start of primary school between 2009/10 and 2015?

Third, chapter 5 seeks to answer two specific questions about associations between ELC use and child outcomes:

  • Is there a relationship between the average number of hours children attend ELC and outcomes at age 5?
  • Is there a relationship between the quality of the ELC setting and child outcomes at age 5?

Finally, with a focus on changes observed between the two cohorts, chapter 6 discusses some of the key findings reported in the previous chapters and also addresses the following question:

  • Is there any evidence that the increase in funded ELC entitlement from 475 to 600 hours improved outcomes for children at the start of primary school?


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