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.

This document is part of a collection

2 Awareness of funded ELC

2.1 General awareness

2.1.1 All participants were asked if they had heard of the funded ELC provision before volunteering for the research. Most (n=32) had heard of it; just seven had not. It should be noted, however, that of those who had not heard of it, all but one were actually using it at the time of the interview. These participants all used (or were planning to use) a local authority nursery or a Family/Early Years Centre which they noted were paid for by the local authority or a charity. They were generally unfamiliar with the terminology of funded ELC, but they knew they could use these services without needing to pay for it themselves.

2.2 Sources of information used

2.2.1 Participants who were aware of funded ELC knew of it through various sources. The most impactful (although not necessarily the most common) sources appeared to be health visitors or other services (such as social workers or third sector support services) working with the family. The ability to discuss the provision, have questions answered, and help to complete the required applications were all highly welcomed.

2.2.2 Other sources which participants could remember, and which had raised their awareness, included:

  • letters received from the local authority and/or attending public meetings (ahead of the extended hours being rolled out);
  • information that had been circulated by private nurseries or childminders to existing service users or those enquiring about places;
  • parents pro-actively looking on local authority and Scottish Government websites;
  • word of mouth and social media chat groups and forums;
  • previous experience with older children, other family members’ experiences; and
  • local adverts, for example on post-boxes, phone boxes, and on the side of refuse collection vehicles.

2.2.3 There was also strong general awareness or expectation that children attend a local authority nursery (commonly referred to as a ‘school nursery’) from the age of three. This was particularly the case among participants who had been born/raised in Scotland, or who had lived in Scotland for a long period of time. These participants were often unable to articulate how they first heard about this provision, however, as attending nursery from the age of three was considered to be a social norm and something that participants had learned through watching others, discussions with peers, etc. rather than having seen or received any information about it.

2.2.4 For those that had not lived in Scotland for long, there was less awareness of the general entitlement from age three onwards, with these participants often relying on health visitors or other services informing them.

2.2.5 Information provision by health visitors and other services was noted to be variable across all participant groups, however. Some parents had good support from informative staff, while other parents indicated that such contacts had not informed them of the funded ELC provision. This was particularly stark for one participant (who was relatively new to Scotland) who had moved house and had a new health visitor as a result. They noted that their first health visitor had never suggested that their child could/should be in nursery. They were therefore not aware of their entitlement to funded ELC until they moved and their new health visitor advised them of this and supported them to make an application. The child was four before they started nursery but could/should have been going much earlier. Another participant (who was not new to Scotland), noted that the services they had been in contact with had been unable to provide information on any support available or to outline funded ELC eligibility:

“I remember talking to the midwife and she was like ‘I’ve got no idea if you can get any help’. So it felt like people that you would think would know these things, didn’t actually know either… As a first time parent, I was learning how to be a parent and trying to figure out how to navigate everything, and I think once you reach a couple of things where people are like ‘no, I’ve got no idea’, you just think ‘right OK, there is no help, there’s nothing’.” (Mother of one, a two-and-a-half-year-old, not yet eligible for funded ELC, not using childcare, lone parent)

2.2.6 There were mixed views around the usefulness of websites. A few participants felt that their local authority website was informative:

“I think [the] council website was quite informative, so I think they’re doing a great job with all the information provided there. I don’t know if they can do anything better than that. When anyone wants to find out, they always go to the website.” (Mother of three, one at primary school, a four-year-old using funded ELC hours with a childminder, and a two-year-old using a (non-funded ELC) childminder)

2.2.7 However, others felt that both local authority and Scottish Government websites[13] were difficult to navigate, disjointed and confusing. It was noted that the information was spread across several different pages making it hard for parents to get a clear picture of what they were entitled to and how the funded ELC provision operated locally. One participant felt there was “a lot of digging about required”. A few participants also noted that, where lists of funded ELC providers were offered, there was little detail about availability and the hours offered, meaning that parents had to phone each provider in turn to discuss:

“I actually think it’s really difficult to understand what was being offered at first. There didn’t seem to be a central source for information and I understand now that that’s because it kind of varies on a local authority basis... So finding the [local authority] council website was quite hard and also understanding how you could use the hours, whether it be a private nursery or a school nursery and when you had to apply for that, the information was spread across a few different websites. It was very unclear what the deadlines were… I really couldn’t find the information in a clear central place.” (Mother of two, a baby and a three-year-old nearly eligible for funded ELC, using a private nursery)

2.3 Awareness of how funded ELC operated locally

2.3.1 Awareness varied in relation to how the funded ELC provision operated and the different options that were available. Differences were based on whether parents had any existing link to the school or general ELC environments, for example through work, family connections, or having children already attending a setting, rather than being driven by the type of settings being used. Even where respondents had such a link, however, there were mixed experiences, with some parents having a fuller understanding of funded ELC provision generally, and others simply understanding how this related to their own setting/provider. Some parents (generally those from higher income families) had also researched local and national policy and gained a fuller understanding of how the funded ELC should operate and what options should be available.

Use of hours

2.3.2 Most participants had only a basic understanding of how funded ELC worked, generally and locally. Most parents correctly identified that the provision of the funded 1,140 hours started at age three (with less awareness of the possibility of places for eligible two-year-olds - discussed in more detail at Section 2.5 below), and parents generally felt that they could use the funded ELC hours at any ‘local’ provider (with most identifying the nursery attached to the primary school within their local catchment as where the funded hours could be used). There was an understanding that 1,140 hours were free and that anything further would need to be privately funded:

“So, my understanding is that it kicks in when they’re three and it pays for a certain number of hours of nursery per week to the providers that accept it, which I think is most places and childminders... my understanding is that the vast majority of nurseries do accept it. Like it doesn’t have to be a council nursery. And I think there’s some provision for some kids under three but I think it’s for families who are on a lower income than us.” (Mother of one, a two-and-a-half-year-old, not yet eligible for funded ELC but using a private nursery)

2.3.3 However, there was less understanding of the flexibility that should be possible with the funded hours, for example, being able to vary start/end times, select specific days of the week, and choose between term-time or all year round provision. Where participants were currently using the funded ELC provision, they typically understood the service they were using, e.g. the hours and patterns they utilised, but they could rarely explain how other providers/settings worked. Several participants who used (or were planning to use) a local authority nursery had also been unaware that they had the choice of private nurseries or childminder settings, and assumed the funded provision only applied at local authority nurseries. Others simply accepted the model/hours that their chosen nursery (either private or local authority run) had offered without being given any information about, or attempting to find out, what alternative providers or patterns of hours might be available, while those in need of particular hours of childcare had sought out providers who could accommodate this:

“I just know that you get 1,140 hours of free childcare and then I just accept whatever the nursery tells me about that.” (Mother of two, a three-year-old using funded ELC at a local authority Early Years Centre, and an eligible two-year-old not using ELC)

2.3.4 One parent also suggested that more could be done to make parents aware that they did not have to use the full allocation if they did not want to (without judgement):

“I think one thing that’s important is that parents should know that they have a choice… they assume that the child needs to be in for the full 30 hours. I think there needs to be more awareness around - ‘No, it’s your choice as a parent, you do not need to send them for 30 hours, if you want to send them less than that, you can’. There needs to be more awareness around that, more promotion of that. I feel as though a lot of people just do it because it’s there without really thinking about it.” (Mother of two, a four-year-old using part-time ELC funded hours at a local authority nursery, and a school aged child)

Blended provision

2.3.5 While a few participants combined the use of childminders and a nursery, only one used a blended model of funded ELC hours. They indicated that this had been difficult to arrange locally, with the application forms not tailored to facilitate such requests:

“When we were applying last year [2021] the form didn’t even have the choice to split the placement, you could only apply for one placement. So I contacted them and… I said ‘well can I apply for both because I had heard previous years that you don’t always get your first place’… and they said ‘no, no, no, nothing we can do’. Like that stresses you out because this is when you start to think, well if I can’t find childcare, I don’t know how we’re going to work… So on top of being incredibly restricted to the childcare options in the village, we’re also restricted by things like that, being able to apply for two setting, there was no flexibility. So I had to apply for one setting and then about a month later, I was able to fill out a form to say that I also wanted a second setting. And I knew that it was the government’s intention that you’re able to do that, but it was just trying to get that set up was a little bit more tricky. So I managed to get it in the end but they didn’t make it very easy for us.” (Mother of one, a three-year-old using funded ELC with a childminder and nursery)

2.3.6 Another working parent who used their funded ELC hours with a childminder had also tried to adopt a blended model to incorporate some time in a nursery for their child’s pre-school year. However, they found this difficult to accommodate. They noted it was difficult to coordinate nursery times with the childminder’s availability for drop-offs/pick-ups, and that the fixed session lengths in private nurseries meant they would have to pay to top-up for more hours than they actually needed/wanted to use:

“I tried to book him into a nursery and I applied for places, but as a working mum, most nurseries they do only sessions, like from half seven till one, but then I still need someone to pick him up at one o’clock and look after him… So I applied to a few nurseries but all the same came up. If I wanted longer than one [o’clock], although I said I can pay the additional hour or two, they said “no, you have to pay the whole session”, so I need to pay from one till six which means I have to pay for 10 hours a day, so six are funded and then the rest I need to pay out of my own pocket. It didn’t make any sense so that’s why he’s still with the childminder.” (Mother of three, one at primary school, a four-year-old using funded ELC hours with a childminder, and a two-year-old using (non-funded ELC) childminder)

2.3.7 Although others knew they could, in theory, split the funded ELC provision between providers, most did not know how to go about this. A few also suggested that they expected the practicality of blending funded provision might be challenging:

“Some nurseries have set pick-up and drop-off times and, because they are quite full, they only give you the hours that they can offer you, so you have to then match it. So that might be a challenge. Although it is possible [to use more than one provider], I don’t know how practically that works.” (Mother of one child, a three-year-old about to become eligible for funded ELC, was using self-funded hours in a Family Learning Centre)

2.4 Awareness raising suggestions

2.4.1 In order to raise awareness of funded ELC and the latest 1,140 hours provision, suggestions were made for more written information such as leaflets, emails or letters to either be sent directly to eligible families and/or for information to be shared via local authorities, health visitors, at vaccination appointments, via GPs, colleges, and at playgroups, mother and baby/toddler groups, and at community centres/hubs:

“Playgroups, if there were leaflets at playgroups or like other classes. For example… we go to… a local music group and I picked up a leaflet there about this research… so yeah, those sort of groups I suppose are like the main [best] contact point.” (Mother of one, a three-year-old about to become eligible for funded ELC, childcare was managed by parents and help from a friend)

2.4.2 Indeed, several were keen to get information which they could keep and refer to later:

“If it could just be available like, this is what is available, this is like the criteria, you know, even if it was on a big sheet with other things that are available, if it was handed out to you, you know, and you can stick it on your noticeboard and then you’ve got it. And it’s like, OK, right, this might be my category that I’m entitled to - even if it’s something as simple as, here’s the information where you can go and find out more.” (Mother of one, a two-and-a-half-year-old, not yet eligible for funded ELC, not using any childcare, lone parent)

2.4.3 The terminology and necessary timescales were also flagged as an issue for some parents, particularly first-time parents who had no previous experience of the childcare or school landscape. In particular, terminology like ‘term-time’ was confusing for first-time parents, and there was less awareness around the timings for applications and nursery intake windows.

2.4.4 Parents for whom English was not their native language noted a preference for written information. It would give them time to read and consider their options carefully (some also reported having better fluency in reading compared to speaking English). It would also allow them to get support with translation and interpretation if required. One parent who struggled with spoken and written English also explained that they had received information via email regarding their child’s eligibility for a nursery place, but indicated that they were not sufficiently computer literate to respond. This resulted in their child missing five months of their funded ELC provision, and the child’s placement was only arranged after their parent attended the local school nursery to enquire about eligibility and the relevant start dates. This parent stressed that digital/email communications were not suitable for all, and that some parents needed face-to-face or more personalised contact if important information was being imparted. Others also stressed the need for additional support for those where English was not their first language to both understand the information being provided and to complete the application:

“There were some parents I’d spoken to where English wasn’t their first language, there wasn’t a lot of information for them. I think maybe having more information in another languages [is needed]. I think there is a reliance on having everything online now… but maybe some of them don’t actually know how to use a computer and they are the type that maybe would rely on actually having to go in, maybe taking an interpreter with them to try and find out information, it may be a little bit harder for them… Like for example, in Glasgow, there’s the Islamic Centre which is predominantly for women and children, so if they were to give you information, absolutely fantastic, through mosques or local community centres, and the Asian radio station. So there are other opportunities.” (Mother of three, one in school, a four-year-old year old in a private nursery using funded ELC hours, and a one-year-old, from an ethnic minority background)

2.4.5 One participant also suggested that information needed to go beyond general awareness raising, and that guidance was needed for parents to help them understand what their options were and how they could best use the funded provision:

“I think as a parent, when you’re researching nurseries, it’s quite an important decision what nursery to choose. I visited so many and it was confusing going from nursery to nursery to nursery and everyone was offering something different and they were all doing things differently… It would be nice to have some sort of clearer guidance on how those hours should actually be used in order to favour the parent.” (Mother of three, one at primary school, a baby, and a four-year-old using funded ELC hours at a private nursery, from an ethnic minority background)

2.4.6 Participants generally felt that awareness raising and the dissemination of information on funded ELC provision to parents needed to allow for sufficient time before the child becomes eligible for funded ELC. This would allow parents to research the options, decide on how they want to use the hours, and to make successful applications:

“[Having a year’s notice would be good] because then that way, it gives you that extra year to say, right well I’ve got this year to either say I can increase my hours or look for a job because you know you’re going to have those guaranteed hours to help you get back into the workplace.” (Mother of three, two adult children and an eligible two-year-old using funded ELC hours at a Family/Early Years Centre, lone parent)

2.5 Awareness of provision for eligible two-year-olds

2.5.1 Awareness of funded ELC provision for children aged two was relatively low, and the eligibility criteria for this age group was seen as particularly confusing. Again, it was suggested information and support from other professionals was often mixed, with some parents being supported with enquiries about eligibility and submitting applications, while others were erroneously told they would not be eligible. This was an issue, in some cases although not all, where NHS Boards covered more than one local authority area and the eligibility criteria varied between the local authorities:

“My daughter is an eligible two and I heard about it through the grapevine, through some other parents. And it wasn’t until she was actually two-and-a-half that I managed to get to the bottom of whether she was entitled or not and did a self-referral… the health visitor at the time actually said that we weren’t eligible and we were.” (Mother of one, a four-year-old using funded ELC in a local authority nursery)

2.5.2 Those using eligible two-year-old provision were generally aware of the basic eligibility criteria, e.g. low incomes and care experience, and often indicated it was also extended to lone parents and those with disabilities. However, most participants felt that the eligibility criteria could be more clearly explained or that there could be some easier way of assessing eligibility. Several had tried to find information about the eligibility criteria for their area and found it difficult to access and understand, while three participants had applied for a place for what they perceived was an eligible two-year-old, but had been refused. A lack of recourse for failed applications was mentioned, as well as the need for an accessible point of contact to check eligibility and to discuss unsuccessful applications:

“…it wasn’t a case of I looked in one place and found the answer. I had to look through quite a few different council websites and various different websites before you work it out… and sometimes you do get different answers. You look on one and it says something and you look on another and it says something else. And again, there isn’t anyone you can really call up to say, is my two-year-old eligible or not. You kind of have to work it out for yourself.” (Mother of three, one in school, a four-year-old in a private nursery using funded ELC hours, and a one-year-old, from an ethnic minority background)

“One thing I’ve been really unclear on is that quite often people say to me, I would qualify for hours when the twins are two. But I found it really hard to find out if I really did qualify and, even when I spoke with my [third sector organisation] person, she made some calls. I think she ended up saying I didn’t qualify and I don’t really know why cos everyone else says I should. But if there was like a web page that gives clear information.” (Mother of twins, two-and-a-half-year-olds, not yet eligible for funded ELC, family provided childcare, lone parent)

2.5.3 Two participants also felt that the financial threshold for eligible two-year-olds needed to be considered in context rather than being one fixed limit. They argued that individual circumstances needed to be taken into account, and that large families and those with multiples (i.e. twins, triplets, etc.) required additional consideration:

“I have no doubt that my income is above what is specified, but the case for me is that should not be enough reason for me not to be eligible because, looking at the cost [of childcare] and the circumstances [with a large family], it is still draining the resources that I’ve got… It’s just like a generic application. Once you are above this income, ‘Boom!’ you are off the ladder. So at least they should have looked at personal circumstances [because then] you will see that even though this person’s income is above this mark, there are reasons they are still at risk of getting into the poverty trap.” (Father of seven children, a baby, five teenagers, and a two-and-a-half-year-old, not yet eligible for funded ELC, using a private nursery, from an ethnic minority background)



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