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.

4 ELC, work, education and training

4.1.1 The importance of reliable childcare is well understood as a key factor in supporting parents, and mothers in particular, into work. As outlined in Section 1.3, participants represented a range of situations, including some who were in work full-time or part-time, some who were attending college or other training courses full-time or part-time, some who were looking for work, and some who were not currently in employment, education or training.

4.2 Motivating factors for work/training/education

4.2.1 Across all participants, the main driver or motivating factor for being in (or wishing to be in) work, education or training was financial stability and trying to build a better future for their children:

“Just to give us a better future really…I don’t think we’re financially better off while I’m studying. I’d probably say we’re worse off. But in the future, yeah, I think it will benefit us.” (Mother of one, a two-year-old not yet eligible for funded ELC but using a childminder, lone parent, young parent)

4.2.2 Self-esteem and something for one’s own personal development/sense of self was a secondary, but important, factor for many working mothers and those seeking work:

“So yeah, financially and actually, just as much as I would love to be a full-time mum… you want to have some sort of thing for yourself, have something for myself - you still always put them first and think about them but, yeah, just to have something else myself and not only be a mum.” (Mother of one, a four-year-old using funded ELC at a private nursery, lone parent with a disability in the household)

4.2.3 Others felt that continuing to work after having children was important for their sense of self/self-identity and their own mental health:

“I’ve done it for so long [worked], it’s kind of become a part of who I was, and I had left for a while but I found it quite hard to just not have that sort of identity anymore and feel like something’s missing kind of thing. It was really just to have that balance of your own thing as well as joint things with your family.” (Mother of two, one at primary school, and a four-year-old using funded ELC in a local authority nursery, from an ethnic minority background)

“I think it ties in with of course financially supporting your children, but also mental health. I think going back to what makes you feel good [helps you] to be a better mum, to have my independence, all of those things. I definitely wanted to get back and find a new balance. I can be devoted to them but also have my passions and my career.” (Mother of two, one at primary school, and a four-year-old using funded ELC at a private nursery and paying to top-up with a childminder)

4.2.4 One parent, whose child had additional support needs, also described how time at work provided a much needed break from domestic demands:

“Sometimes [work is] my only sanity, which is terrible to say, but sometimes being at work is the only thing that stops you from breaking… Cos you’ve got a different focus for a very short time.” (Mother of one, a four-year-old using funded ELC at a local authority nursery, lone parent with a disability in the household)

4.2.5 A few parents also thought it was important to be a positive role-model for their children, while one mother specifically commented that she had returned to work because she felt it was important for women to be visible in the workplace and felt that she needed to make a statement about women feeling able to return to work after childbirth:

“So for me, finances played a huge part and I suppose, deep down, I want to show a good example to my son that that’s what you do in life, you know, you work for money.” (Mother of one, a three-year-old using a private nursery, about to be eligible for funded ELC hours, lone parent)

4.3 Importance of funded ELC in supporting work, education and training

Those who returned to work following maternity leave

4.3.1 In families where mothers had returned to work after maternity leave and the family had been using privately funded childcare options, the importance and benefit of the funded ELC provision was largely financial. Once their child became eligible, it meant a large proportion (and sometimes all) of their childcare costs were removed, providing greater financial stability for the family. In most cases, when the child became eligible for funded hours parents had not moved or rearranged their childcare, they typically continued to use the same provider and pattern of hours as this already suited their needs.

4.3.2 A few, whose children would be eligible for funded ELC in the coming months, indicated that the funded hours would allow them to increase the hours they currently worked (e.g. from two days to three). Similarly, one parent reflected on their experience of funded ELC with older children compared to their most recent experience and indicated that the increased funded ELC hours made life much easier and allowed both parents to work increased and more reliable hours. There was a clear alignment, for some parents at least, that the funded ELC provision was being used to maximise the time available for the parents to work.

4.3.3 A few parents, however, noted that they had not returned to work at the end of their maternity leave due to the cost of childcare before becoming eligible for funded ELC provision, and because they felt that the hours they needed to work were not conducive to caring for young children. In some cases, employers had failed to grant the reduction in hours they needed/wanted or the nature of the job would involve overnight/night-shift working. In other cases, mothers were keen to maximise their time with their children while they were young. While these issues are separate to funded ELC (as these challenges occur prior to children being eligible), participants felt it was important to note the gap in support between maternity leave ending and the funded ELC provision starting.

Those newly joining work, education or training

4.3.4 Several participants indicated that they had been able to find a job or start a course at college specifically because of the funded ELC provision. They noted it freed up their time to pursue something outwith the home, and in the case of those who took up employment, it allowed them to increase the household income and (consistent with those already in work) improve their financial stability. A few had returned to work full-time and noted that the funded ELC had made this a viable option as it meant the level of privately funded or informal top-up hours became manageable, whereas it might not have been considered as such under the previous 600 hour allocation. Others, however, who had started new jobs described themselves as ‘lucky’ to find something that fitted in with the funded ELC hours they were using:

“I think it definitely made [going to work] more feasible and financially affordable. When we’d looked at it previously [before the increase to 1,140 ELC hours], if I was to go back to work full-time and be paying for full-time childcare, it almost would have not been worth me going back to work. And if you do choose to go back to work, we’re still sacrificing time that we would have been spending with the children, so to make it more worthwhile, the funding has definitely been helpful.” (Mother of two, one in primary school, and a four-year-old using funded ELC hours with a childminder)

4.3.5 One mother had also tried to attend a college course before her child was eligible for funded ELC but could not get childcare (she had been unable to access the college nursery and could not afford private childcare). Therefore, funded ELC provided the support needed to allow her to return to this:

“She wanted to learn the language so she can actually use it in her everyday life and that also helps especially with her child going to the nursery. Previously, she had to stay home to take care of her [child], so she wasn’t able to go to college, but now she can.” (Mother (via an interpreter) of three, two in primary school, and a three-year-old using funded ELC hours in a local authority nursery, from an ethnic minority background)

4.3.6 Parents who worked or attended college reported mixed experiences about the order in which they established funded ELC provision and working patterns. Some waited to confirm working/college hours until they knew the funded ELC hours they could access, while others found a job/course, or agreed hours with existing managers and then sought a funded ELC provider who could accommodate the necessary pattern. One lone parent, whose child was two-and-a-half and nearly eligible for funded ELC, was keen to return to college or apply for jobs but was unsure about when to apply due to the uncertainty around the pattern of funded ELC hours they would be given - it was felt that earlier information about this was needed to allow parents to plan and meet application deadlines for work/study opportunities.

4.4 ELC’s fit with needs

4.4.1 Most participants indicated that the funded ELC provision they had secured generally fitted their needs well, although Covid-19 was seen to have supported working parents in this respect, with more parents able to work from home and be more flexible. As accessibility was one of the key drivers in choosing a provider, the location of funded ELC providers being used was generally convenient (although again, some noted that it was perhaps less so currently due to Covid-19 and working from home, or that it might not be as convenient in future once parents had to return to the workplace) and that the pattern of days-of-the-week and hours across the day suited them. This was the case for both working and stay-at-home parents, with stay-at-home parents generally managing their time around their funded ELC arrangements. However, for some who had children in primary school there were occasional issues with drop-off and pick-up times not aligning well.

4.4.2 Some working parents, however, noted that the fixed hours/patterns of days that some providers offered (typically nurseries) sometimes meant that families were being offered/had to use funded ELC hours and patterns which were less suitable for their needs. For example, being offered three longer days each week when they would prefer five shorter days, or vice versa. This meant that top-up care was needed (either paid for or via support from family), or that children were meant to be attending ELC settings when parents were at home and therefore it was seen as unnecessary. This issue is discussed in more detail at Section 6.2 below.

Term-time vs full year models

4.4.3 There was less certainty about term-time only versus full year provision and how well these models fitted with family needs.

4.4.4 Some felt that the option of term-time only was acceptable as at least one parent would be available during the holidays, either because they were a stay-at-home parent, or they worked a term-time only pattern. This also provided a higher number of funded hours each week during term-time, which often suited working parents. Conversely, others (typically working parents) highlighted that the school holidays may be problematic for them, and they worried about how they would find and afford clubs and other childcare options over the holidays. One family reported that they purposefully had to fit their work around the school/nursery holidays, i.e. planning time off and splitting childcare between parents to cover non-term-time childcare demands. In several cases, participants (again, typically those already in work) noted that the pattern of hours across the year had been an important factor for them when choosing a provider, and that they had chosen full year models in order to have consistent ELC provision.

4.4.5 One family, where both parents worked, indicated that they had had to swap their model from full-year funded provision to term-time only (with the same provider) as they needed to pay for additional top-up hours each week. This was proving to be unaffordable when using a full year model where lower funded hours were provided each week, and so they swapped to the term-time only model in order to utilise the higher number of funded hours per week. They planned to rely on family support to help them through the holidays.

4.4.6 A few parents using (or who had applied to) nurseries were not sure which model their provision fell into because their child had only newly started and they did not know the provider’s model in this respect. These were generally stay-at-home parents, those from ethnic minority backgrounds where English was an additional language, or those at college. In such cases, parents had typically applied to the local nursery without undertaking much research or receiving much information about the model used. Although, for stay-at-home parents, they were relaxed about either model being used as they would be available to care for the child in the holidays if necessary.

4.5 Barriers to taking up work, education or training

4.5.1 Of the participants not currently in work, education or training, time and financial situations were the main barriers to taking these up, along with perceptions that the funded ELC hours may not be conducive to facilitating such activities.

Difficulty aligning work and funded ELC hours

4.5.2 Those participants not currently in work, education or training, often noted a lack of time and/or difficulty in aligning work opportunities with the funded ELC hours. One suggested that they had no time to work because of the hours of the nursery, and two others specifically stated that they would “love” to work if time allowed. Another felt that funded ELC was not flexible enough for them to work. A few also noted that if they worked, there would be an added burden on other family members who would need to be called on at more regular intervals.

4.5.3 Two unemployed mothers who were looking for a new job explained that their choices were constrained by the lack of part-time/flexible posts and the perceived difficulty in finding work which would fit around the funded ELC hours or in finding funded ELC providers that could accommodate their required working hours:

“I probably did [feel my choices were restricted or limited], to be honest, just because obviously there’s only a certain amount of jobs that probably fit around the criteria of them going to nursery and being able to do the pick-up and drop-off as well as going to work.” (Mother of two, one in primary school, and an eligible two-year-old using funded ELC hours at a local authority nursery, young parent from an ethnic minority background with a disability in the household)

“Because it’s the care type of work that I’m looking for, it’s long hours, so obviously it’s early starts which a lot of the childcare don’t start before I need to start. And then the childcare finishes before I would finish as well. So that’s the part I’m finding a bit hard.” (Mother of three, two adult children, and an eligible two-year-old using funded ELC hours at a Family/Early Years Centre, lone parent)

4.5.4 For those in work currently, there was also a perception that finding work and ELC opportunities that aligned was difficult. One participant (whose child was not yet eligible for funded ELC) highlighted, that whilst their work and privately funded ELC provision worked for their needs, it was easy to see that co-ordinating these (both for funded or privately paid for ELC and work) could be difficult for others:

“So for me it kind of works, but I think it can be really hard for people. It can be really hard to find work and childcare that does match and does suit. I mean, especially for someone in my circumstance where there’s no one to share the responsibility with, you know.” (Mother of one, a three-year-old using a private nursery, not yet using funded ELC hours, lone parent)

4.5.5 Another mother suggested that the flexibility she enjoyed in her current work around childcare might not have been as easy to achieve if she was starting with a new employer - she felt that the relationship she had with her existing employer had made the difference between her requests for flexible working being accepted (or not). This was reiterated by another mother who indicated that, while her employer had been very accommodating of her requests for flexible working hours after her child had been born, this maybe meant that she felt “trapped” to a certain extent, as she was unlikely to find another employer who would offer the same flexibility:

“Well, one thing is that I’m actually kind of stuck there now. I would never get my working arrangement anywhere else. I really wouldn’t. So I’m limited to staying there, so I have to weather out any storms that might come within my work place.” (Mother of one, a four-year-old using funded ELC at a local authority nursery, lone parent with a disability in the household)

Cost and impact of funded ELC

4.5.6 In relation to cost, it was suggested that the funded ELC provision may alleviate this barrier, at least to some extent. Two participants had received professional advice (prior to being eligible for funded ELC) that the impact on benefits and the need to pay for childcare meant that working (or increasing their working hours) would not be financially beneficial. However, at least one parent (who was struggling to maintain part-time work prior to being eligible for funded ELC) was planning to increase how much they worked once their child was using the funded ELC provision.

4.5.7 Two other parents reported that they would like to be able to look for full-time employment/education instead of part-time. In both cases, this was hindered by the fact that their child was too young for the funded ELC provision and they needed to pay for childcare, and full-time ELC provision was unaffordable for them. Again, the provision of the funded ELC would allow these parents the opportunity to increase their employment/education hours as the top-up childcare needed would be more affordable.

4.5.8 Other parents, however, saw the current limit of 1,140 funded ELC hours as a barrier to increasing their number of working hours or their time spent in education/training. One participant explained that they would like to explore new career opportunities but felt that the time and cost commitment of doing so would exceed the funded ELC provision. The need to pay for top-up childcare may present a barrier:

“I’m starting to think I want to do something else maybe. I would absolutely love to train as a joiner or a carpenter, which would mean going back to do like an apprenticeship or something and they’re all full-time, they’re all five days a week. So, it would put me off, the prospect of me doing training and not earning an income whilst also having to pay for an extra two days a week in childcare. That does put me off looking for other opportunities. Having to pay for childcare and not potentially earning as such… And I think it would be quite difficult if I looked for another job. I’m more likely to try and set up my own business or something like that but I know that would take quite a lot of hard work and I don’t know whether I’d have time for that [either]… So I think I’ve got it quite good at the moment, I should probably just stick with this for a little while.” (Mother of one, a three-year-old about to become eligible for funded ELC, childcare managed by parents and a friend, with a disability in the household)

Valuing parenting and time with children

4.5.9 While some participants indicated that they would work or study more if the total number of funded ELC hours were increased, others liked their existing work/home life balance and wanted to be available for, and spend at least some quality time with, their children during the week. A few commented that, if they worked more, they would rarely see their child/children, would miss bed-time routines or certain day-time school events, such as sports days, or would not be available if the child was sent home sick at short notice.

4.5.10 Interestingly, there was evidence from this research that parents wanted more flexibility in education, training and employment opportunities rather than necessarily any change to funded ELC policy or provision. Some participants felt that employers and educational establishments should offer a wider range of flexible options that would fit around childcare provision, rather than childcare needing to be more extensive/flexible to fit with current work/study expectations:

“I think it’s more to do with the available jobs maybe, like jobs need to be a lot more flexible I think. Jobs and maybe training as well need to be a lot more flexible, like a lot more different part-time hours and stuff like that available… the courses that I would be interested in, I just don’t think it would be possible because they’re all like five days a week. So I think it would be great if employers and jobs and stuff would be more flexible.” (Mother of one, a three-year-old about to become eligible for funded ELC, childcare managed by parents and a friend, with a disability in the household)

4.5.11 The 1,140 hours were often seen as sufficient to give the children what they needed in terms of social and educational experiences, and so rather than looking to increase the number of ELC hours even further, a few participants felt that the focus should perhaps be on introducing more part-time and flexible options for the workforce. Indeed, one participant (who worked full-time) noted that they were exploring opportunities to reduce their number of work hours to allow a better work/life balance:

“I did mention in the office to my line manager that I would love to drop a few hours from my full-time, either like three or four hours… So like that would be amazing to drop a few hours just to have like a bit of time for myself maybe. Like I haven’t been to a yoga class for like three years now, you know.” (Mother of one, a two-and-a-half-year-old, not yet eligible for funded ELC, childcare paid for in a Family/Early Years Centre)

4.6 Pressure to work/study vs funded ELC being a motivating factor

4.6.1 Although most participants indicated that they had not felt pressured into working while their child was using funded ELC, others indicated that they had perhaps felt an ‘expectation’ to work/study/volunteer as a result of the introduction of increased funded ELC hours.

4.6.2 A few participants felt that the provision of funded ELC hours generated an expectation that parents would work, be in education or training, or be “productive” in some other way:

“If you’re using it [funded ELC hours] and your children are in nursery, you feel completely obliged to make every single minute of that count. I think lots of mums sometimes, all you want to do is get on top of the laundry, have a cup of coffee without someone sort of pulling at your sleeve… but there’s a tremendous pressure to work and fill those hours to the max.” (Mother of two, one at primary school, and a four-year-old using funded ELC hours in a private nursery and paying for a childminder)

4.6.3 One parent described feeling some social pressure to study or work while their child was using funded ELC hours, but said that they dismissed such pressures because they felt it was an unrealistic expectation for a busy mother:

“At the start, I did [feel there was an expectation]. That was just because I’m on Universal Credit and as soon as you say ‘the wee one’s at nursery’, they say ‘start looking for a job’. But the thing is, I don’t think they understand. Fair enough, I can look for a job, I’ll go and work, but do you know the role of a mum on a day-to-day basis, it’s a 24 hour job… You’re knackered by the time you’re dropping them at school and then you’ve got [a few] hours to yourself to do whatever it is you want to do. It might seem like a lot to them but, to us, it’s barely nothing cos you wake up in the morning, you drop them off, you do your stuff and then it’s like ‘Okay, look at the time, it’s time to go back and get them now.’” (Mother of two, one in primary school, and an eligible two-year-old using funded ELC hours at a local authority nursery, young parent from an ethnic minority background with a disability in the household)

4.6.4 Similarly, a lone parent whose child had not started using funded ELC yet, was worried that they might experience pressure from the Job Centre and the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) in this respect after their child started nursery. This was based on current perceived punitive practices and an increase in contact from the DWP/Job Centre since the Covid-19 pandemic began:

“I’m really worried that as soon as she turns three, it’s going to be like - cos everyone warned me that it’s going to be like this clampdown of like, well you have to be doing something now. If she’s away for like four hours, you have to be doing something during those four hours or there’s going to be sanctions. I think there’s always this fear of you’re going to be punished… So there’ll be some kind of feedback loop that keeps track on whether you’re doing something productive or not and whether it’s acceptable… it just feels like they’re kind of dangling this thing of like, ‘well she’s two now, we’re keeping an eye on you and we want to see you’ and you feel this kind of pressure from them now.” (Mother of one, a two-and-a-half-year-old, not yet eligible for funded ELC, not using childcare, lone parent)

4.6.5 One parent explained that there was, perhaps, a narrow public view of how parents should spend their time when their children were being looked after, and felt that their plans to work around the house, including completing DIY tasks, may not meet with public expectations around “productive time”:

“I do feel like I need to show… other people that I’m being productive. But I am being productive, it’s just not in the way that society expects I suppose.” (Mother of one, a three-year-old about to become eligible for funded ELC, childcare managed by parents and a friend, with a disability in the household)

4.6.6 Two other participants felt that any pressure felt by parents was likely to come from a more widespread societal expectation for parents to work, rather than being a creation or a direct result of the funded ELC provision itself:

“I think it’s society, to be honest… I think society does expect mothers to be [working], it’s probably not as socially acceptable now to be just a housewife and a mother.” (Mother of two, one at primary school, and a four-year-old using funded ELC hours in a private nursery and paying for a childminder)

4.6.7 A few also felt that they placed an expectation on themselves, rather than feeling any structural or social pressure. Two parents described being motivated by the funded ELC provision, i.e. that it had given them “an opportunity” or “a push” to take on new tasks, but described this in positive terms.

4.7 Unpaid activities/volunteering

4.7.1 In addition to supporting work, education and training, the interviews also explored whether the funded ELC provision supported participants to undertake other activities or responsibilities, such as caring responsibilities, any unpaid work, or volunteering. Mixed experiences and perceptions were reported in this respect.

4.7.2 Several participants (including those currently using funded ELC and those whose child was nearly eligible) felt that they simply did not have time to do anything other than work/study and look after their children:

“I would love to… I would like to do sort of extra-curricular things for me. But I’m basically using it to survive to work… I literally close a laptop and pick him up and… drop him off and then open a laptop.” (Mother of one, a three-year-old using a private nursery, not yet using funded ELC hours, lone parent)

“…during the week, it’s a bit tight on time because she has to rush with her college and nursery and then go back home and clean the house and prepare food for the children to come back home. And then she has to do her own homework or study for college and all that.” (Mother (via an interpreter) of four, two teenagers, one in primary school, and a five-year-old using ELC funded hours in a local authority nursery, from an ethnic minority background with a disability in the household)

4.7.3 Others, however, outlined some unpaid activities, volunteering or caring roles they had. One parent explained that, alongside working part-time, they were a ‘social entrepreneur’, they used some (but very little) of their free time when their child was in childcare to pursue this for their own wellbeing:

“I’m always volunteering and always trying to create things to do…[it is] good for me to do something, you know, feel like a sense of achievement, able to meet with friends and networking, helping others.” (Mother of three, a teenager, one in primary school, and a three-year-old using funded ELC in a Family/Early Years Centre, from an ethnic minority background with a disability in the household)

4.7.4 Another single mother, who suffered from mental ill-health, explained that funded ELC would (in the future, once her child found a space) be of great assistance in giving her the respite that she needed and that she planned to volunteer as a way of bolstering her mental health:

“For three years now, I’ve been dealing with depression and anxiety, so the doctor’s advice is you need to be doing something different. So that is my priority now because I just want to get out of the kind of feeling that I have every day…That is why I want to volunteer because I think it will give me a chance to meet different people, new people, different things to be done each day.” (Mother of three, two in primary school and a three-year-old not currently using any childcare, lone parent from an ethnic minority background with a disability in the household)



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