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.

1 Introduction

1.1 Background

1.1.1 In 2014, the Scottish Government increased the entitlement of all three- and four-year-olds and eligible two-year-olds to funded early learning and childcare (hereinafter early learning and childcare will be referred to as ELC) from 475 hours to 600 hours per year. From August 2020, it was proposed to further increase the hours of funded ELC to 1,140 hours per year. However, Covid-19 delayed this increase until August 2021, when all local authorities offered 1,140 hours of funded ELC per year for each eligible child.

1.1.2 The rationale for the increase was three-fold:

1. to improve children’s development and to narrow the poverty-related attainment gap;

2. to allow more parents and carers[2] the opportunity to take up work, training or study as a result; and

3. to improve family wellbeing[3].

1.1.3 This policy change sits alongside a number of wider efforts by the Scottish Government to extend and improve the quality of ELC, including introducing a new National Standard for all funded ELC and investing in the early years workforce.

The ELC offering

1.1.4 ELC is a generic term used to cover the full range of early education and childcare available in Scotland. The term is intended to emphasise that the care and education of young children are not separate. ELC settings are all those that offer education and childcare to children up to school age. These include family centres, day nurseries, nursery schools, nursery classes attached to primary schools, and childminders. ELC settings can be operated by local authorities, private businesses, voluntary sector organisations, and in the case of childminders, self-employed individuals. ELC services are ‘registered childcare’ provided by individuals and organisations registered and inspected as a ‘daycare of children’ service or childminder by the Care Inspectorate[4].

1.1.5 Local authorities have a duty to provide access to up to 1,140 hours of funded ELC a year to all eligible children in their area. Eligible children are all children aged three or four (from the relevant start date) and some two-year-olds[5]. Local authorities also have discretion to allow access to funded ELC for other children as best fits local needs.

1.1.6 Funded ELC can be provided by a range of local authority, private, voluntary or third sector providers, including childminders. However, not all ELC providers offer funded ELC. In order to deliver funded ELC, non-local authority providers must apply to, and partner with, their local authority and adhere to Scottish Government guidelines and National Standards[6]. National policy has also set out a ‘Funding Follows the Child’ approach which aims to allow a degree of flexibility and choice for parents while ensuring high quality provision. Full implementation of this has been affected by the pandemic.

1.1.7 Parents can utilise a blended model to split funded hours between different providers and settings, for example combining nursery and childminding provision. Providers can offer term-time only (30 hours per week over 38 weeks) hours, or provision that covers the full year (around 22 hours per week, although this can vary depending upon the number of weeks per year the provider operates). Where available, parents may also purchase additional hours of ELC for children who have a funded entitlement, and for those who are not yet entitled to funded hours.

1.1.8 Throughout this report the terms ‘funded ELC’ and ‘ELC’ are used. For clarity, reference to ‘funded ELC’ refers to the funded provision for eligible children only, while references to ‘ELC’ are intended to refer to early learning and childcare more generally, with issues likely to be relevant to both funded ELC and ELC which parents pay for privately. Indeed, many of the issues relevant to the funded ELC provision are also relevant for privately funded or ELC more generally.

Previous research on ELC

1.1.9 In 2018, the Scottish Government undertook research to develop understanding of parents' use and experiences of funded ELC, and how these differed between parent groups[7]. While the research was based on the previous entitlement of lower funded hours it sought to inform the expansion of the ELC programme. The research involved a nationally representative survey and follow up discussions with parents of children under the age of six.

1.1.10 To evaluate the impact of the expansion of funded ELC hours to 1,140 on children, parents and families, the Scottish Government also commissioned primarily quantitative research to gather data between 2019 and 2024[8]. To date, this has involved surveys with parents, as well as data on children’s development collected by ELC keyworkers, and observations of funded ELC settings.

1.1.11 Prior to these studies, the Scottish Government commissioned qualitative research in 2017 which explored the drivers and barriers to the uptake of funded ELC among eligible two-year-olds[9]. It found that the main barriers were a lack of awareness of the entitlement or how to apply, difficulty accessing providers or finding suitably flexible providers, and that parents felt their children were too young for the provision.

Aims of the current research

1.1.12 To complement these largely quantitative studies, in 2021 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. This report outlines the findings of that research.

1.1.13 The objectives of the current qualitative research were to:

  • understand choices, constraints and priorities of parents in decisions about ELC;
  • identify barriers to take-up of ELC, from groups in disadvantaged communities or from minority ethnic backgrounds;
  • explore perceptions of parents of the possible impacts of ELC on their child and wider family’s wellbeing;
  • understand choices, constraints and priorities of parents in decisions about taking up or returning to work, training or study;
  • identify barriers to take-up of work, training or study;
  • identify specific structural factors constraining or enabling decisions; and
  • understand these issues for different types of families, in terms of poverty, ethnicity, and other indicators of marginalisation.

1.2 Research methodology

1.2.1 The research was conducted between October 2021 and February 2022, and involved a series of in-depth interviews with parents who had children that were eligible for the funded ELC provision, whether or not they used it. Interviews sought to understand parents’ choices around childcare and the use (or not) of the funded ELC provision, as well as to understand what challenges and barriers might exist. Those whose children were within six months of being eligible for a funded ELC place were also eligible to take part in the research as they could be in the process of making decisions around this.

1.2.2 In order to recruit participants, assistance was sought from a range of third sector agencies. These were organisations that typically supported families rather than those providing ELC. Indeed, the research resisted recruiting via ELC providers in order not to bias the results towards particular providers/ provider types, and to ensure that the experiences of non-users could be captured.

1.2.3 Key participant typologies were sought to be consistent with those identified within the Scottish Government’s first Child Poverty Delivery Plan[10]. Given the sample size for this research however, it was felt that recruiting against all six typologies would result in limited data per group, and so three key groups were identified, including:

  • families from ethnic minority backgrounds;
  • lone/single parents; and
  • those who had, or lived with or cared for someone with, a health problem or long-term physical or mental health condition or disability.

1.2.4 The research also sought to include young parents (i.e. where the mother or father was aged under 25), and large families (i.e. four or more children) to maintain consistency with the Child Poverty Delivery Plan[11], as well as a mix of participants from urban and rural areas and different local authorities. While the interviews focused on those with lower incomes, a small number of middle/higher income families were also included. A screener questionnaire was developed to support recruitment (included at Appendix A).

1.2.5 Interviews were conducted by telephone and video link (face-to-face interviews were not possible due to the Covid-19 security measures in place at the time[12]), and lasted between 30 minutes and an hour.

1.2.6 The interview topic guide was structured around the following topics:

  • a typical day;
  • awareness of funded ELC provision;
  • use of ELC (funded or otherwise) or other informal childcare, and how it fits with the family’s needs;
  • work, training or employment;
  • unpaid activities;
  • other considerations of using ELC (funded or otherwise); and
  • benefits and/or issues with using ELC (funded or otherwise).

1.2.7 Different sets of questions were asked depending upon whether participants were using funded ELC or not at the time of the interview. Those paying privately for ELC were also asked about their use of this in order to provide comparisons with the use of funded ELC. The full topic guide is included at Appendix B.

1.2.8 Participants were provided with a £30 Love2Shop voucher to thank them for their time.

1.3 Profile of participants

Demographic profile

1.3.1 Although the research set out to achieve 30 interviews, a total of 39 interviews were conducted (this extension was required partly due to levels of interest and in order to ensure inclusion of a range of different situations). One parent per family took part, and the final sample included:

  • 15 parents from ethnic minority backgrounds (including three asylum seekers/refugees);
  • 15 single/lone parents;
  • 18 parents who had, lived with, or had caring responsibilities for someone with a health problem or long-term physical or mental health condition or disability (this included the participant themselves, their child, or another family member);
  • 5 young parents (age 25 or younger); and
  • 5 large families (with four or more children).

1.3.2 It should be noted that the above demographic characteristics were not exclusive, with some participants identifying more than one characteristic as being relevant to them.

1.3.3 The sample also involved participants with a mix of other characteristics relevant to the research questions, including different working/education/ training status (shown below), income levels, geographic area and urban/ rural coverage.

Work, training and education status

Status Number of participants
Full-time in work, training or education 10
Part-time in work, training or education 17
Not in work, training or education 12
Total 39

1.3.4 The Scottish Child Payment was used as a proxy to determine if a family was living on a low income, with 19 participants indicating that they received this. Two others did not know (they confirmed they received social security payments but could not recall the names of them all). It should also be noted that other participants could have been eligible for the Scottish Child Payment but had either not known about it or not applied for it.

1.3.5 Participants lived across 15 different local authorities, and although most were based in more urban environments, eight participants lived in more rural locations (shown in the table below).

Urban/Rural location

Residential location: Number of participants
Live in a city 22
Live in a large town 9
Live in a small town or village 5
Live in a rural area 3
Total 39

1.3.6 The sample also included a mix in terms of the number and age profile (shown below) of children who the participants had caring responsibilities for:

  • 15 participants had one child;
  • 12 participants had two children;
  • 7 participants had three children; and
  • 5 participants had four or more children.

Age of participants’ children

Age group Number of children
Age 0-1 6
Age 2 14
Age 3 16
Age 4 13
Age 5 (in nursery) 3
Age 5+ (in school or older) 33*
Total 85

* Note: No participant had only school aged children and all participants had at least one child who was eligible (or nearly eligible) for the funded ELC provision.

1.3.7 It should also be noted that, whilst most participants were mothers, three participants were fathers. There were, however, no distinctly different views or experiences of ELC that were reported between the mothers and fathers.

Use of funded ELC

1.3.8 Overall, 27 participants were using funded ELC provision, with the types of providers outlined below:

  • 13 used a local authority nursery;
  • 6 used a family or early years centre (participants gave mixed descriptions of who operated these - local authorities, private providers and charities were all noted);
  • 5 used a private nursery;
  • 2 used a childminder; and
  • 1 used a blended model with funded hours split between a childminder and a nursery operated by the third sector.

1.3.9 It should also be noted that a number of participants who used funded ELC provision also ‘topped-up’ with other forms of childcare, including paying for additional hours at private nursery settings, paying for a childminder (either additional hours or in addition to using their funded ELC hours at a nursery), and support from family members (typically the child’s grandparents but also secondary aged or older siblings). One also paid for additional in-home care (childminder/nanny) for their child.

Childcare needs of those not using funded ELC

1.3.10 Of the 12 who did not use funded ELC provision, this was largely due to their child not being eligible at the time of the interview. Only two participants were eligible for funded ELC provision but were not currently using it (the reasons for this are discussed at paragraph 3.6.4 and Section 3.8 below).

1.3.11 Most of those not using any funded ELC provision were, nonetheless, utilising some form of childcare. This included a mix of formal and informal settings, with several outlining a combination of childcare sources across the week. Childcare solutions for those not using any funded ELC included:

  • 6 participants who had family or friends providing childcare (including 2 who had established an informal childcare sharing arrangement with friends);
  • 4 participants who paid for private nurseries;
  • 3 participants who indicated that they juggled childcare between the parents;
  • 3 participants were stay-at-home parents;
  • 1 participant paid for hours in a family/early years centre operated by a charity; and
  • 1 participant’s College paid for a childminder (plus 1 other had paid for a childminder previously).

Patterns of childcare

1.3.12 A wide mix of weekly routines and childcare patterns were outlined by participants, with these tailored to suit the needs of individual families. There were no consistent patterns between participants, regardless of whether they used funded ELC hours, paid for childcare, had support from family/friends, or used a combination of these. Daily/weekly routines were also impacted by whether parents worked and their pattern of employment, as well as having other children (older or younger) in the household.

1.3.13 For example, one lone parent (of one child) who worked part time, utilised their full funded ELC provision with a private nursery. They worked Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday each week, while the nursery hours were split over four days - the child attended full days on Monday and Tuesday, as well as a Wednesday and Thursday morning. The child’s grandparents picked the child up after nursery on a Wednesday, and the parent planned to have time to themselves or catch up on housework on the Thursday morning, but they noted that they typically ended up working for most of this instead. The parent and child spent time together on Fridays.

1.3.14 For one of the participants who combined childminder and private nursery provision, again they only had one child and the father worked full-time, while the mother worked Tuesday-Friday. The mother and child spent the day together on Mondays, while on Tuesday-Thursday the child used their funded ELC hours with a childminder, and attended a private nursery for a morning session on the Friday. The child’s grandparents did the Friday drop-off and pick-up from the nursery, and provided childcare on the Friday afternoon.

1.3.15 One participant, who had a large family (six children ranging from high school age through to a baby) and was caring for someone in the household with a health issue/disability, used a local authority nursery for their three-year-old. Monday to Friday the family routine was described as the same - getting the older children to school and then dropping the three-year-old at nursery between 10am and 11am. They picked the three-year-old up again between 2pm and 3pm. Although the allocated hours available to the family were said to be longer, they opted not to use them as the child was not settling well and they often had to accommodate the baby’s needs, meaning the nursery drop-offs were delayed. While the other children were out the mother cared for the baby, studied part-time, and helped her husband in his work.

1.3.16 The routines of those who were not utilising funded ELC (largely as they were not yet eligible for this due to the child’s age) varied in similar ways. Some combined paid for private ELC hours with either the child’s parents and/or grandparents providing additional care throughout the week. Some working parents adopted flexible patterns to allow them to split ELC/school drop-offs/pick-ups and childcare responsibilities between them, again, sometimes with/without the support of other family members or friends. Others were stay-at-home parents and so managed all their current childcare needs with no formal ELC input and only occasional informal support from family/friends.

1.4 Research caveats

1.4.1 As the research was qualitative in nature, the sample size and structure cannot be considered as representative, either of the population as a whole, or within the sampled groups. Rather, the research provides insight into the views and experiences of those who participated in the research.

1.4.2 Although several participants took part who did not use the funded ELC provision currently, this was largely due to their child not being old enough yet. Most of these participants intended to use the funded ELC provision in the near future. Only two participants had a child who was eligible for a funded ELC place but did not use this. Those who were eligible but had actively chosen not to use the funded ELC provision were very hard to identify and include in the research, and this was particularly the case for those with children aged three or four where there is almost universal uptake nationally. More bespoke and targeted research may be required to fully understand the experiences and choices of such families.

1.4.3 The need to use telephone and online only interviews may also have impacted on participation, and presented a barrier to participation for some. While those who took part in the research were happy to utilise such methods (with some expressing a preference for remote methods), and there appeared to be no impact on the quality of data obtained, those without easy access to the required technology, or those who would have preferred the support of the recruiting service to participate, may have been less likely to volunteer to take part.

1.4.4 While the research largely recruited participants via neutral third sector support organisations who work with families, this resulted in very low participation from those who used childminders. As a result, a short booster exercise was conducted, which sought the support of childminders and a representative body to recruit their clients for the research.

1.4.5 Differences in the views and experiences between participant demographic groups have been highlighted throughout, and any issues unique to particular participant/family circumstances have also been highlighted. However, it should be noted that decisions about the use of funded ELC and families experiences appeared to be largely driven by participants’ personal situations (e.g. whether they were in work, education or training or not, whether there were other children in the household and the needs of wider family routines, the range of funded ELC options available locally, etc.) rather than being driven by personal demographic profiles.



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