Decisions influencing early learning and childcare use: understanding social policies and social contexts

Study commissioned by the Scottish Government to explore the factors that may influence and the lived experiences of parents’ and carers’ decisions on the use of funded early learning and childcare (ELC) use in Scotland.

Executive summary

Background to the research

Funded early learning and childcare (ELC) is available to all three- and four-year-olds and eligible two-year-olds in Scotland. In August 2021, the entitlement

increased from 600 to 1,140 hours a year (30 hours a week if taken in term time).

The Scottish Government commissioned Wellside Research to undertake qualitative research to explore the lived experience of parents as they decide whether, how and when to take up funded ELC, and whether and when to take up work, study or training, in the context of the ELC expansion. In total, 39 in-depth interviews were conducted by telephone between October 2021 and February 2022, with parents who had children that were eligible (or nearly eligible) for the funded ELC provision, whether or not they used it. Interviews sought to understand families’ choices around childcare and the use of expanded funded ELC provision, as well as to explore challenges and barriers.

Participant typologies were sought to reflect key “priority family types” identified by Scottish Government as being at higher risk of child poverty. This included families from ethnic minority backgrounds (n=15); lone/single parents (n=15); those who had, lived with, or cared for someone with, a health problem or long-term physical or mental health condition or disability (n=18); young parents (n=5); and large families (n=5)[1]. While the interviews focused on those with lower incomes, a small number of middle/higher income families were also included. Participants were recruited with assistance from a range of third sector organisations.

Profile of funded ELC use

In total, 27 participants were using funded ELC. This included local authority (n=13) and private nurseries (n=5), family/early years centres (n=6), and childminders (n=2). One participant used a blended model with funded hours split between a childminder and a nursery operated by the third sector. Some families also ‘topped-up’ with additional privately funded hours in a formal ELC setting and a few had additional support from family.

Of the 12 who did not use funded ELC provision at the time of the interview, this was largely due to their child not being eligible on age grounds and not meeting the criteria for eligible two-year-olds. Only two participants were eligible for funded ELC provision but were not using it. The first had an eligible two-year-old and the parents had chosen not to make use of the funded provision as they preferred to prioritise family bonding time and did not feel that the child needed additional support from ELC services. The other had a three-year-old, and although the parent was keen to make use of their funded provision they were having difficulty finding a provider with availability as they had moved to a new area after the main application process had closed and places had been assigned.

Those privately funding their use of formal ELC settings had similarly broad childcare patterns to those using the funded ELC provision.

Key findings

Awareness of funded ELC

General awareness of, what was regarded as, “free” ELC provision for three- and four-years-olds (largely at a local authority nursery) was high for those parents born in Scotland because attending nursery at those ages was seen as a social norm. Such awareness was lower for those who had recently moved to Scotland and/or where English was not their first language.

Awareness of the details and different options available via funded ELC was more mixed. Participants often had a good understanding of the particular arrangements they were using/planning to use, but were less aware of what other settings offered/arrangements may be available. Several had simply applied to their local provider and accepted what had been offered, so were unaware of alternative options. Others were better informed about the policy and available options, either because they had some link to the sector, e.g. via work, had recently or currently used ELC (funded or privately paid for) and so had received information from their provider, or because they had researched this themselves.

Awareness of funded ELC provision for two-year-olds, and the eligibility criteria, was lower or less well understood compared to the universal provision for three- and four-year-olds. In addition to families being on low incomes or having care experience, several also thought that single parent families and those with disabilities qualified for provision at age two (which they may have done as local authorities can extend eligibility to suit local needs). Those who were already in regular contact with support services (health visitors, social workers or third sector agencies) tended to be more aware of, and using, their entitlement in this respect, while others felt there was a lack of clarity in relation to this provision.

Use of the funded hours

Where funded ELC provision was being used, some families used term-time only while others opted for full-year provision. Use of full-year provision was often preferred by working parents. However, those using term-time only patterns included a mix of working parents and those not in work, education or training.

Most of those using funded hours were using the full allocation, although a few were not. Those not using the full allocation generally felt that either the long hours provided per day, or a five-day-a-week provision was too much for their child. Others noted that, although they had been allocated the full hours, they were not able to use these as the times did not fit with the family’s routine (e.g. school pick-ups) - this meant that some of the hours were considered to be ‘unusable’.

Only one family used a blended model. However, they noted that the application form for their local authority did not make this process easy. Another, who was keen to use a blended model, also suggested that the logistics of matching up providers was difficult - particularly where the division of time was required within a day rather than between days. Others were unclear how to achieve a blended model, while several were unaware of this option.

Reasons for use and benefits

The main reasons for using funded ELC (as well as privately funded ELC) were:

  • socialisation and development for their child; and
  • to allow parents to work or attend college/training courses.

These were also considered to be the main benefits of the funded ELC provision. Attending funded ELC was considered to support the child’s development, while supporting parents into work or relieving some of the financial burden of childcare costs for those already in work. Other benefits included:

  • respite for some parents - particularly important for lone parents and those with/who supported those with disabilities/health issues;
  • supporting family wellbeing;
  • peer support and developing community links - particularly important for first time parents and those new to an area;
  • providing support to the family both in relation to the child’s needs/ development, and for wider issues;
  • allowing parents to spend dedicated time with other children; and
  • relieving some of the childcare burden from grandparents.

Choosing a funded ELC provider

Issues that were important to parents when choosing a funded ELC provider included:

  • Location/Convenience of the provider – This was the case either in terms of its distance from home, parents’ work, and/or siblings’ schools, or suitability of the childcare hours to fit with work and/or school hours;
  • The size of the setting - This was particularly important when deciding between nursery and childminder settings;
  • Continuity and stability - This was a recurring issue, with parents using the same provider they had used for older children as this was familiar and trusted (both for the parents and the child); those using nurseries based in schools felt it was important to assist transition to school; and there was evidence that some parents who utilised privately funded childcare before they were eligible for funded ELC hours were opting for funded providers so that they did not need to move their child upon becoming eligible; and
  • Perceived quality of the setting and staff - This was based on either previous experience of the setting with older children, visiting the setting before applying, knowing others who had children attend the setting (either currently or previously), or from general perceptions/word of mouth.

Funded ELC and work, education and training

The main driver for parents wanting to work was financial. Other, secondary, factors included:

  • Perceived links between being in work/education/training and the parent’s self-esteem, self-identity or personal development; and
  • To provide a positive role model for their child(ren).

Those parents who were already in work noted significant financial benefits of the funded ELC provision. Several participants had also got a job or started a college course as a direct result of the funded ELC provision. Both the time that parents had available and not having to pay for childcare had driven their decisions to seek employment/education. A few did, however, suggest they were ‘lucky’ to have found a job/course which fitted around their child’s funded ELC hours.

Several participants felt that it was difficultto find work/study that matched the funded ELC hours offered/being used , and a few suggested it was not compatible with certain jobs, e.g. shift work. Different patterns were also noted in the timing of parents attempts to find work/study, some found work before securing funded ELC then sought funded ELC to fit their working hours, while others waited until funded ELC was in place then sought work to suit the funded ELC hours.

A few participants (typically those working full-time) suggested that an increase in the number of available funded ELC hours would be helpful, although not all thought this would be beneficial for their children. Indeed, several wanted work, education and training to be more flexible to support a better work/life balance for families rather than necessarily any changes to the funded ELC policy.

Working parents used their funded ELC provision almost exclusively to maximise their working hours. For those not in work, education or training, however, funded ELC use allowed them to:

  • Do household chores;
  • Have some respite/time for themselves; and
  • Support other caring responsibilities and volunteering activities.

Restrictions, barriers and challenges to using funded ELC

Challenges to using the funded ELC entitlement were identified, including:

  • A lack of flexibility and the use of fixed session times - This made it difficult for some families to access the hours they wanted, particularly for those using nurseries. These participants felt that the system was designed around the commercial needs of the provider rather than offering the intended flexibility for parents. They noted that where fixed sessions were offered and parents opted not to use the full allocation, any unused time was ‘lost’ (as parents could not use these hours with a different provider);
  • Difficulties (real or perceived) in changing established funded ELC arrangements - The research included one family struggling to find a placement for an eligible three-year-old after moving to a new area, one family struggling to find a provider to accommodate a blended model between a childminder and nursery for a period before their child started school, and several participants who felt ‘trapped’ in their current job as they thought they would not find anything else to fit in with their existing funded ELC childcare arrangements, suggesting they perceived that this was fixed;
  • A general lack of providers and a lack of different types of providers - Those in rural areas generally experienced an overall lack of ELC options (both funded and otherwise), while others identified a lack of different types of providers (again, both funded and otherwise), including childminders, outdoor/forest nurseries and settings with a particular ethos, e.g. Montessori;
  • Covid-19 - This was considered to have limited some parents’ ability to make informed choices as (at the time) they could not visit settings or speak in-person with staff. This was particularly concerning for those whose children had additional support needs or health issues and who wanted reassurance that settings would be appropriate;
  • Language barriers to accessing information - It was suggested that more information was needed in alternative languages, which should be circulated in a wider variety of ways, and that more direct support may be needed to help families complete the application process;
  • Information about funded ELC, the options available to families, and the eligibility criteria was not always seen as clear or easy to find; and
  • Not all professionals (across a range of fields) had provided accurate information to parents regarding eligibility.

Only one real gap in funded provision was identified - the exemption of ‘in-home’ care for children with severe/complex needs. However, a few participants also felt that the eligibility criteria for two-year-olds should be expanded to take account of families’ individual circumstances. For example, it was felt that those with large families and those with multiples (e.g. twins, triplets, etc.) should be considered for eligibility.


While several challenges to accessing and using the funded ELC provision were identified by the research, these were largely linked to how it is being implemented rather than there being significant issues with the policy itself.

Most participants felt the current number of hours being provided was fair and highly beneficial to families. Further, most had secured provision that suited their needs.



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