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.

6 Challenges with using funded ELC

6.1 Negative impacts of ELC settings

6.1.1 Very few negative impacts of using ELC generally, were cited, although there was some concern that children were picking up bad habits from other children, and that, for some, too much time spent in a nursery setting in particular could make them grumpy/irritated and leave little room in the day for quality family time:

“When she comes back after a full day, she’s absolutely exhausted and it’s good in a way, you know, she’s kind of like worked hard and things. But then you come back and you’ve got a grumpy child, all they want is dinner, rest and bed and that’s all, your day is ruined by them, you just give them dinner, get them ready for bed and put them to bed and it’s like, ‘Where is that quality time?’.” (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)

6.1.2 The spread of illnesses/coughs/colds was also a frustration due to the need to take days off due to child sickness absence - some parents perceived that ELC settings were a breeding ground for viruses.

6.2 Challenges in using the funded ELC provision

Structural issues

6.2.1 The most commonly cited complaint about the funded ELC provision was that the different models operated between providers could be confusing, with different providers offering different patterns of hours across the day, week and year. While the different options were welcomed as they helped different needs to be accommodated, it was felt there was also confusion and a lack of transparency around the funded ELC provision.

6.2.2 Parents also often perceived the provision to be inflexible, with providers offering set days/hours which families had to fit in with, and no ability to swap a day if needed. This issue was perhaps more relevant to local authority nurseries where parents felt it was a ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ type of offer, and that private nurseries could offer more flexibility in terms of the days offered. However, even with private providers participants noted issues with nurseries only offering fixed sessions within a day to maximise capacity:

“My issue with it is that the way each nursery interprets those hours is different. So I think if it’s a council nursery, they have their set hours or whatever it is they offer. But in private nurseries, they can kind of do whatever they want. So what my boy’s nursery does is they offer you the all year round funded hours but it’s mornings only… So if you are a parent that works all year round and you work three full days, you’re having to pay for three afternoons… you’re having to top-up and that’s my issue with it - some nurseries are choosing to not be flexible. And I guess for some private nurseries it is a way to make money. Fair enough, I get it. But at the end of the day, it’s great we’ve got the funded hours, but a lot of parents are having to top-up.” (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)

6.2.3 Places offered on the basis of fixed times of day and days of the week also presented a challenge for some parents in being able to use their full entitlement. As outlined above, it was noted that some parents might prefer five shorter days but could only access three long days per week, or vice versa. This resulted in families utilising funded ELC times they did not need/want while incurring additional costs or imposing on family members to provide top-up care. Others chose not to utilise the hours they did not need but perceived that these were then “lost”/unavailable for a blended model as the provider had allocated that full space/timeslot to the child. This was considered to limit the flexibility of the funded ELC and placed the priority largely on operational needs rather than parental/family needs:

“So we just have two full days and I know myself and I know a lot of other people can’t use that, we’ve got children to get to school and get back, it doesn’t make practical sense to pick one up at three o’clock, come home and then go out and pick the other one up later. So we ended up having those hours paid for from the government but we don’t actually as parents get to use them… As far as the nursery’s concerned, we use them up [the full 1,140 hours], but it’s not actually parent focused, [the nursery] claim their full allowance but actually, we’re not able to access it… it’s a generous thing from the Scottish Government but it feels less generous when the nurseries are sort of scooping a big section of it up.” (Mother of two, one in primary school, and a four-year-old using funded hours in a private nursery and paying to top-up with a childminder)

6.2.4 One parent suggested that the lack of flexibility meant the system did not work well for those who worked shift patterns:

“Like for our family and our situation, it works. But certainly friends that are in shifts, like my police officer friends or my nurse friends, it’s more tricky… Cos you could end up with them in nursery days that you’re just in the house and things like that.” (Mother of two, one in primary school, a three-year-old using funded ELC hours in a private nursery)

6.2.5 Issues were also discussed around the different intakes between settings. It was noted that school nurseries had set intakes across the year to tie in with school terms, whereas private nurseries would accept a child from their third birthday. This meant that some parents felt they were missing out on being able to use their funded ELC hours, in some cases for several months, while others could start immediately.

6.2.6 A few parents also indicated that they had not been clear on how they could split time between providers, or whether they could “roll-over” unspent hours. This was an issue particularly where families were not using their full allocation of hours on a weekly basis, but were using a term-time only model - they were keen to know if they could “bank” those unused hours and transfer them to another provider through the holidays.

Availability of ELC places

6.2.7 A few noted issues around general availability of funded ELC spaces. One parent in the sample had been unable to access a funded place for her three-year-old at the time of the interview (due to a house move), and several spoke of difficulties finding funded ELC childminders with capacity. Two participants also noted examples where they were aware of availability issues and eligible families not being able to access funded places:

“I do have families [I work with] that apply for nursery when their child’s two-years 11-months and think they’ll get a place, and they don’t realise that you won‘t. So I think someone does need to explain to them when they turn two, apply for your place… State nurseries, like particularly last year with the pandemic, they were all full and children weren’t starting till they were three-and-a-half.” (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)

Quality of settings

6.2.8 A few parents noted issues with the quality of either the provider or the staff. One felt that staff could be judgemental, while others worried the staff may have limited training in childcare or development. Personal hygiene and ensuring the health and safety of children was also mentioned as a concern for some - which was concerning for any parent, but particularly for those whose children had additional support needs:

“She came back a week ago… she had a vest on, a cardigan and… like it’s winter… then they lost her hat which means she’s probably not had a hat on when she’s been outside.” (Father of one, a three-year-old using funded ELC at a Family/Early Years Centre, lone parent)

“[Interviewer: So who gives him [his medication] at lunchtime?]… Nobody now. I have to give him it in the morning and give him it at night and that caused a bit of a problem… he was getting very, very distressed… although it’s rectified now, I think they should have a bit more training on [medications]… [at home he] gets his laxative in juice and [the nursery] don’t give him juice, they give him milk… [but you] can’t put the laxative in milk or it will make the milk curdle. So it caused a bit of a problem at the start.” (Mother of one, an eligible two-year-old using funded ELC at a Family/Early Years Centre, lone parent with a disability in the household)

6.2.9 Another parent who had experience of using a private nursery for her older child but was now using a local authority nursery for her funded ELC provision commented that the facilities in the ‘free’ nursery were perhaps not as good as those provided in the private sector. Specifically, she mentioned that the toilets were not as well adapted for children (i.e. the private nursery had bespoke toilets, which were low to the ground and were more accessible to children). She expressed some disappointment that local authority facilities perhaps did not receive the funding input that they required to make them as user friendly as they could be for early years learners.

Dietary issues and cost of food

6.2.10 There were some concerns around diet, although most settings were said to accommodate any special requests and a few parents reported that the nursery had perhaps encouraged their child to try new foods that they would not otherwise eat at home (with children being encouraged to try new things because they had been involved in the preparation and/or their peers were eating the same foods). Two parents explained that their request for Halal food provision had been well accommodated:

“We have halal food because we are Muslim, so they [the nursery] didn’t mind at all… They give my daughter halal food and try to give her vegetarian food, so this is good for me.” (Mother of four, one teenager, two in primary school, and an eligible two-year-old using funded ELC in a local authority nursery, from an ethnic minority background with a disability in the household)

6.2.11 Where dietary issues were specifically highlighted, although this was in a minority of cases, they represented significant issues for the families involved as the children had food aversions and additional support needs which parents felt were not being accommodated/met:

“Some of the behaviours that he’s portraying… he eats the same three things on repeat… It is an issue cos they all have the same lunch and [he] just won’t touch it… they will phone, then I have the option of taking something down that I know he’ll definitely eat if he is so intensely hungry… or I can go and pick him up… He was gluten free for a while and twice he came home with a reaction to gluten from nursery...” (Mother of one, an eligible two-year-old using funded ELC at a Family/Early Years Centre, lone parent with a disability in the household)

“When the hours changed [increased to 1,140 hours], [the nursery] weren’t willing to feed her lunch. My daughter has a food aversion… she’s very fussy about what she eats, she only eats like just a handful of food… I used to take food in for her and then they stopped it saying that Covid had restricted that.” (Mother of one, four-year-old using funded ELC in a local authority nursery, with a disability in the household)

6.2.12 One mother also noted that she would still have a food bill at the private nursery they used after her child was eligible for funded ELC hours. She was aware that other nurseries did not charge for this and so was unclear why the funding did not cover food at their chosen provider:

“I’m still going to have a bill for food, which I don’t understand… If I move him to the Early Years Centre, which we’ve been offered a place at but I’ve rejected, I’d have no fees and they would feed him… but I don’t understand why the funded hours doesn’t go towards that in this nursery… And there’s no option for me to take food in for him either… But not all private nurseries charge you a food bill, this is what I don’t get.” (Mother of one, a three-year-old using a private nursery, not yet using funded ELC hours, lone parent)

Cultural diversity

6.2.13 In this sample, there were no issues reported around funded ELC settings accommodating cultural diversity or meeting religious education needs - participants indicated that they would pursue this independently where it was important to them (i.e. taking their children to dedicated classes/ environments/social events outwith ELC time to give them exposure to different cultural/religious learning).

6.2.14 Only one family commented that a full-time funded ELC placement may interfere with their religious education plans for their child:

“We are Muslim, so we want to teach them about our religion and our culture and things as well and, again, by them being away from the house for that length of time [1,140 hours], they’re going to miss out on all of that.” (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)

6.2.15 No participants identified any issues with settings not being inclusive in terms of cultural diversity, or had experienced any language barriers in terms of supporting children with limited English. Indeed, most noted that their child had benefited from the funded ELC setting and, as outlined above, it was stressed that their language skills had developed allowing them to communicate better.

Additional support needs

6.2.16 A few mothers whose children had disabilities, health issues or additional support needs had made a deliberate decision not to return to work or study as they wanted to care for and spend more time with their children, as a result of their more complex needs. It was felt that working and supporting a child with health issues or significant additional support needs was not always possible or desirable. However, this was not the case for all, with a few choosing to continue working and one mother noting that the funded ELC provision had allowed her to go to college while her child was at nursery.

6.2.17 While most parents in the sample who had a child with additional support needs were happy with their chosen ELC provider, their ability to accommodate and support their child, support the child’s development, and the extent to which they liaised with/supported the family, two parents detailed the difficulties they had in accessing a suitable provider. One had been unable to use her preferred local nursery as they claimed to be unable to accommodate the child’s specific needs, and as they lived in a rural area they had been left with no choice but to use another nursery much further away. There were also trust issues with this nursery’s ability to suitably identify the child’s needs and to provide the required care and support. This was noted to be an issue both in terms of personal development and their dietary needs:

“I have to put my trust in them and they did fail... It’s not one size fits all and inclusion doesn’t mean saying that the child’s like every other child, you know… If the government continue to push for inclusion, they need to fund it and they need to get it right… or there’s no point. There’s absolutely no point to it. She’s actually - and actually this is evident, really evident that [the child] thrived during the school holidays. She thrived during breaks from nursery. So [nursery’s] all about the social [aspect] really for me cos she learns other skills like reading, numbers, etc. all of these things, she learned those from me.” (Mother of one, a four-year-old using funded ELC in a local authority nursery, with a disability in the household)

6.2.18 The other mother, who had a pre-school child that she described as ‘medically complex’, discussed a perceived gap in provision - the exclusion of ‘in home’ childcare from the funded ELC provision. The mother explained that there was specific training attached to caring for her child which not all providers had and/or were willing or able to undertake, meaning in-home professional childcare was initially the only option. They highlighted that this had resulted in them being excluded from the funded ELC provision:

“I was made aware that there was something called the ‘blended model’, the 1,140 hours of a blended model which I then started to investigate… [but] it’s actually written into legislation that it cannot be used for childcare in the home… even if that’s a professional childcare provider.” (Mother of one, a four-year-old using funded ELC at a local authority nursery, lone parent with a disability in the household)

6.2.19 While her child had become increasingly more able to access mainstream nursery provision (allowing them to use some of the funded ELC provision), she had felt frustrated and constrained in childcare choices because of the legislative restrictions around home-based care and suggested that this needed to be addressed to better assist families such as her own.

6.2.20 This mother also felt there was a need for specific information (written or online) and advice about funded ELC provision for children with complex or additional support needs. It was felt this needed to be easy to access for parents. She highlighted that this was especially important because families with children living with complex needs were also often those experiencing poverty and/or social isolation issues:

“[Having a child with medically complex needs] either brings out the best or the worst in people, and it seems that, for a lot of people in the circles that I’m in, it seems as if it’s brought out the worst and marriages have broken down and [partners] are not in the picture. So overwhelmingly it was single parents. Overwhelmingly, most people had to give up their job and either take the hit and lose their house or they were already in rented accommodation… The majority of people are forced to take a childcare situation that they really, really don’t want but they feel they don’t have another option. And that’s literally - it’s a horrible thing to do to people… I think they [Scottish Government] could basically speak to people in these circumstances and understand it better cos there seems to be absolutely zero understanding of medical families.” (Mother of one, a four-year-old using funded ELC at a local authority nursery, lone parent with a disability in the household)

6.3 Provision during Covid-19

6.3.1 Most participants indicated that they had not encountered any issues with the provision over the Covid-19 pandemic. Most were comfortable that the ELC providers were implementing appropriate procedures to keep their staff, children and families safe:

“I believe that they’re doing their best at the moment with the restrictions that’s in place. They’ve got to keep themselves, the children safe. We’ve got to keep ourselves safe and I think I can’t fault them.” (Mother of one, a four-year-old and using funded ELC in a local authority nursery, lone parent with a disability in the household)

6.3.2 One family, whose child was vulnerable (but had not needed to shield) was initially worried about their child attending nursery for their funded ELC hours. However, they were reassured by the way the nursery communicated with them, allowing them to have the confidence to continue sending him:

“Of course they were worried about [their child] going to nursery during Covid. But they noticed that the nursery always informed them if there is a person or a staff member who had tested positive, so they informed the parents not to bring [the child] for two weeks at least. So after that, after they’ve seen a pattern of how the nursery is actually taking care of it and informing them, they became more comfortable to send [the child] to the nursery, knowing that he’ll be taken care of.” (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)

6.3.3 Several participants reported feeling frustrated and disappointed that Covid-19 safety measures meant they were not able to enter the nursery building and observe their child playing first-hand, and (as discussed at paragraph 5.3.10 above) had negatively impacted on parents’ ability to get to know other parents.

6.3.4 One participant also noted frustration at the differences in provision during periods of lockdown. They were using funded ELC hours in a private nursery and indicated that it had closed entirely with staff placed on furlough, while local authority nurseries had provided an online offering to their children. This disparity in provision to equally eligible children was felt to be unfair:

“During lockdown, because we were at the private nursery, the nursery basically closed and all the staff were furloughed. So we had nothing. Even though everything was online, I know people whose children were at the school nursery still got maybe someone reading a book online or the teachers or staff would come and drop off activities and things, there was still that link. So for both my children, including at the time [one child] was receiving funded hours, we got absolutely nothing, which I’m still a bit miffed about cos I wondered if, were the nurseries still getting funded hours? Were we supposed to be getting something? Were we supposed to be provided with something?” (Mother of two, one in primary school, and a three-year-old using funded ELC hours in a private nursery)

6.4 Valuing parenting and family

6.4.1 A few commented that there may be a risk of funded ELC interfering with family time/time spent at home, which they felt was undervalued:

“I just feel it’s unhealthy unless there’s an absolute need for them to be in nursery for that length of time [1,140 hours], it’s far too much and it’s just - I feel like it’s going to lead to the destruction of things like the family unit, you know, they’re not going to have these bonds with like siblings or parents. And even just simple things like, you know, on her days off, like we might spend a little bit of time just having a cuddle on the sofa reading a book and it’s things like that, that they’re going to be missing out on, you know, that physical contact, one-to-one attention. Even just her being by herself playing, being a creator, you know, quite a lot of the time, like I won’t play an activity or anything, I’ll just kind of leave her and it’s amazing the things that she’ll come up with, like just through her imaginary play and I feel like that’s really important as well, to sort of encourage that creativity and let them use their imagination and things.” (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)

6.4.2 One parent also suggested that the increase to 1,140 hours may have sent a negative public message around the value of parenting/being a mother. This participant had left their job in order to care for their children as they felt their work patterns and commitments would have negatively impacted on the children/family life, and they felt strongly that society needed to place more value on mothers/parents who are caring for their own children:

“I just think, what are we doing by paying people to look after our children, why aren’t we valuing it enough… why don’t we pay the parents to do it properly? Why… isn’t there benefits if you’ve got children at home under three or something? Sometimes I don’t know if we’re doing it right by farming out all our childcare to somebody else… Sometimes I wonder if offering increasing, and increasing, and increasing amounts of funded childcare is actually helpful. I think if you weren’t doing that, you’d need to offer more support to the parents.” (Mother of two, an eligible two-year-old not using any form of ELC, and a three-year-old using funded ELC hours in a Family/ Early Years Centre)

6.4.3 One parent suggested that professional childcare was perhaps not sufficiently well valued in the UK (compared to other countries), with ELC staff receiving low wages and the quality of provision suffering as a result.

6.5 Extending funded ELC to younger children

6.5.1 Finally, participants were asked whether they thought childcare for younger children (aged one or two) was something that they would welcome.

Extended provision for two-year-olds

6.5.2 There were mixed views regarding funded provision for two-year-olds. Those with eligible two-year-olds who were utilising their funded ELC hours generally felt this provision was appropriate and beneficial. Similarly, parents who worked and had used privately funded childcare provision from a young age also saw the benefits of such a proposal. These participants were generally very positive about the potential of funded ELC for younger children, with many noting this would have been a great support, if it had been available. They noted it might have allowed some parents to return to work after their maternity leave rather than leaving the workforce, or have allowed parents to return to work quicker - i.e. not having to wait until the child turned three. While others agreed in principle with some funded provision for two-year-olds, they would prefer an incremental process to introducing the hours, so that the hours/days built up over time. It was also felt this would get children used to a nursery setting once they reached age three, an issue all the more relevant during lockdown:

“We probably would have used it if it was available, I think it would have made returning to work sooner more affordable rather than accessing that funding when they’re three. But then also, I’m a big advocate of making sure that they get lots of time at home when they’re small as well, so I think getting that balance right must be tricky.” (Mother of two, one in primary school, and a four-year-old using funded ELC hours with a childminder)

6.5.3 Other parents, however, felt that those under the age of three were still too young to be using formal childcare settings, with participants being concerned that they would not have the physical stamina needed for prolonged periods in such settings. One family who were currently using a mix of informal care options before their eligibility for funded ELC kicked in, while noting that the main reason for doing this (instead of paying for a private place) was cost, also indicated that there were social benefits to the child being in a domestic environment until age three:

“We didn’t want to really have to pay… [and] between us and grandma, we can kind of do it, we can manage it ourselves quite easily… A lot of the nurseries that we looked at, they wouldn’t take her for less than two days and I just felt like, up until now, she’s really been a bit young to go for that length of time and we don’t need to put her in… And I feel like she gets a lot out of being at her friend’s house as well… it just keeps that relationship going, so I guess that’s another reason.” (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)

Funded ELC provision for one-year-olds

6.5.4 When considering one-year-olds, however, there was greater consensus. Most participants indicated that they would not use funded ELC for under two-years-old (if available). It was generally perceived that children were too young/still babies at that age. Some parents suggested they may find it difficult to “hand over” their child before the age of two, and that parents often wanted to spend time with infants and would find it hard to be separated from them (i.e. wanting to make the most of their time together when the child was very young and enjoy the experience of parenting):

“Those first years with a baby, they’re the best… me personally, at the age of one, I wouldn’t, cos obviously those are the years where you’re starting to show your kids things and obviously like [their] first steps.” (Father of two, a three- and four-year-old, both using funded ELC at a Family/Early Years Centre, lone parent with a disability in the household)

6.5.5 One parent who was undecided whether they would use funded ELC for an under two-year-old, commented that they would have concerns because the child would be unable to communicate effectively at that age and so may not be able to express their wants/needs to a carer:

“I maybe would have [used ELC for an under two if available], I don’t know. Obviously they’re still babies at that point. It’s a wee bit nerve-wracking. Whereas I think I was a bit more confident [when he turned two] at the fact that he could walk and he would tell me… if there’s something wrong. But at that point [under two], he couldn’t put a full sentence together. Whereas now he could, so I’m a bit more at ease.” (Mother of two, one in primary school, and one 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)

6.5.6 For one family who had used a privately funded provider since their child was 18 months old, there had been a noticeable difference in how settled the child had been as they grew older:

“When she first started going to nursery at about one-and-a-half, then you could see that nursery tires them out a little bit and is a bit bewildering. But when they’re sort of getting to the pre-school age, I think it’s really positive for them… for children under a year old, they are better off at home.” (Mother of one, a two-and-a-half-year-old, not yet eligible for funded ELC but using a private nursery, from an ethnic minority background)

6.5.7 Again, however, those parents that had returned to work following maternity leave, and had used private childcare providers, indicated that funded ELC provision/options would have been welcomed.



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