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.

7 Conclusions

7.1 Key findings


7.1.1 General awareness of funded ELC provision or access to “free nursery” provision from the age of three was high. However, more detailed understanding of how the funded ELC provision worked in practice was mixed. Participants with recent or current experience of school or ELC settings were more likely to be better informed, and those from higher income households were more likely to have undertaken research into the way the provision worked and what options were available to them. Conversely, first time parents or those with large age gaps between their children felt less well informed, were less likely to know where to go to find information, and reported that the terminology (such as ‘term-time’) and timings for applications and intakes were often confusing or unclear.

7.1.2 Language barriers were also a contributing factor for some families in terms of initial awareness, understanding their choices, and confidence in completing the application. Once using funded ELC provision, however, no participants reported any cultural bias or disadvantage within the system or with their service providers.

7.1.3 There was also a lack of awareness around provision for eligible two-year-olds. Those already in touch with support services (either local authority or third sector) were generally better informed and supported than those who were not, although there were exceptions.

Issues impacting decisions and use of the funded ELC provision

7.1.4 Flexibility was one of the main recurring issues for participants. This was important for both working parents and those not in work, education or training. For those in work, flexibility typically referred to being able to find funded ELC hours that suited their working hours/patterns. The choice between term-time only and full-year provision was also supportive for families in accommodating their different needs. Meanwhile those not in work, education or training appreciated where there was flexibility to drop-off late or pick-up early from their funded ELC provider - this was particularly helpful for those parents who had other children as it allowed them to co-ordinate with wider family routines.

7.1.5 In relation to supporting parents to/into work, education or training, flexibility was again a key issue. While most had found a funded ELC provider which could accommodate their current needs, it was suggested that parents became stuck in particular jobs/contracts/routines as they would be unlikely to find another job which would match their childcare arrangements. As such, it appears there is a perception that funded ELC provision is not flexible enough to accommodate changes in family circumstances, with families considering funded ELC places to be largely fixed once they are established. Similarly, a few participants felt that funded ELC was not flexible enough for the needs of particular careers/jobs, for example those involving shift work, while a few others (not currently in work) felt that the funded ELC hours were too restrictive making it difficult to get a job. Others, however, suggested that they wanted work, education and training to be more flexible to accommodate a better work/life balance rather than there being a need for increases to the number of funded ELC hours provided.

7.1.6 In addition, it was noted that the full benefits of the intended flexibility of the funded ELC provision were perhaps not being realised by parents - and particularly for those who worked. Participants felt this was due to the way the provision was being implemented, both by local authorities and individual providers. For example, parents generally had lower awareness of the ability to use a blended model, and this had been difficult to achieve for the few who had tried to access it. Similarly, the fixed sessions offered by nurseries (both local authority and private providers) were said to benefit the providers at the expense of the intended flexibility for parents/families - indeed, a few indicated that it meant that some of their allocated funded provision was unusable.

7.1.7 Despite these limitations, however, several participants (across a range of backgrounds) indicated that the funded ELC provision had supported them to either find employment or take up a college course or training. The time which funded ELC provision afforded parents, as well as the financial support was key in motivating such changes.

7.1.8 Consistency in the use of providers was another common theme and preference discussed throughout the interviews. It was felt this provided stability for both children and parents, which was important for making both feel comfortable with the provision. This impacted on parents’ decisions about which provider to use, with families tending to stick with providers they had used before and were happy with, or continuing to use private providers (childminders or nurseries) for funded ELC provision where the child had a pre-existing place.

7.1.9 There was also evidence that a desire for consistency drove decisions around which provider to use for young children to ensure they did not have to move when they became eligible for funded ELC hours.

7.1.10 For those using local authority nurseries attached to primary schools, the consistency between the nursery and the school was important in supporting and assisting transitions.

7.1.11 Type of provideror the ‘ethos’ of providers was also important to some families. Some parents favoured outdoor nurseries and more child-led approaches. Others preferred childminders due to the lower number of children in the setting. However, it was noted that there was a general lack of each of these different types of providers.

7.1.12 Those who preferred a nursery setting, typically indicated they felt their child would benefit from socialising with the larger number of children who attended, as well as interacting with the range of childcare professionals working in these settings.

7.1.13 However, the key priorities for participants when choosing a funded ELC provider included accessibility/convenience, along with the quality of the staff and facilities.

Impacts of funded ELC

7.1.14 Impacts of the funded ELC provision were generally seen as positive for the child, the parents, and overall family wellbeing. ELC was considered to support the child’s general development, both socially and educationally. Several participants also noted that the ELC staff had helped to identify additional needs and supported the child and family to address these.

7.1.15 For parents, the funded ELC provision was said to support them back/into work, education or training, and/or allowed them time to tackle housework or other ‘chores’, reducing stress in the household and meaning that time with their child was more relaxed quality time. It was also noted to support parents with their own mental health, and in particular, was highlighted as providing valuable respite for lone parents, as well as couples where one parent took on the majority of the childcare responsibilities.

7.1.16 Covid-19 had perhaps hampered parents’ ability to benefit from peer support as a result of using funded ELC. While some noted they had managed to get to know other parents and that it had been important for community integration, others suggested that the Covid-19 safety measures introduced in childcare settings meant there had been little opportunity for parents to meet and chat - this was seen as understandable but also disappointing. The funded ELC provision was, however, seen as helpful in supporting families and children to tackle some of the developmental issues that were perceived to have arisen as a result of the Covid-19 safety measures. This included addressing separation anxiety, and providing valuable experiences outwith the home.

7.1.17 In several cases, funded ELC had also relieved some of the childcare burden on other family members (often grandparents) or had allowed parents to spend more dedicated one-to-one time with their other children (particularly babies, but also older children), both of which were highly valued.

7.1.18 While several participants would like the total number of funded ELC hours to be increased to better meet their needs (typically for working parents), there was also a sense, for a few at least, that the government and perceived societal desire to have both parents in work and utilise formal childcare perhaps undervalued the parenting role. It was suggested a wider debate may be needed around this and how to redress the balance placed on work versus family time/bonds.

7.1.19 The experiences of those who had someone in the household with a physical or mental health issue, a disability or additional support needs, varied in line with the wider sample. Some had positive and supportive experiences of funded ELC, but a few did experience more unique and highly impactful challenges around finding provision that was suitable for their own needs or those of their children.

7.1.20 Finally, while many of the decision making factors, issues and benefits of funded ELC were largely consistent with ELC use more generally, the funded provision was essential to ensure widespread uptake and therefore realisation of the general benefits. Without funded provision many families on low incomes would not be able to afford to access the benefits of ELC, and the 1,140 hours provided greater scope for parents to find work/training/ education or undertake other activities compared to the previous provision.

7.2 Conclusion

7.2.1 Overall, parents engaged well with the research, with more families ultimately involved in the work than initially anticipated. One gap however, was the low number of participants who were eligible for funded ELC but that had not taken up a place. This could be symptomatic of the very low proportions of those with children aged three and four that have not accessed the provision, and a lack of awareness around the provision or eligibility among those with eligible two-year-olds. The research found that, those already in touch with local authority or third sector support services were generally already using their eligible two-year-old provision, therefore, the gap in the research is focused on those that are not in touch with services. As they are also less likely to be aware of their eligibility, such families are very difficult to identify and reach.

7.2.2 While the aims of the research included consideration of issues and barriers faced by families, it should be stressed that many participants were positive overall about the funded ELC provision. Most difficulties discussed were linked to the way the provision was being implemented rather than there being any perceived issues with the policy in principle - the only exception being the exclusion of ‘in-home’ care for children with multiple or complex support needs.

7.2.3 On the whole, the funded ELC system was considered to be a significant support to families for a range of different reasons, and although challenges were identified, most participants had found a provider to suit their needs and were happy with the provision:

“I think it’s really good... I think it’s a fair amount of hours. I think it helps the majority of families. Yes, there’s always families that will need five days or that work five days. But I think it’s very fair and I think it’s very good.” (Mother of one, a four-year-old using funded ELC at a private nursery, lone parent with a disability in the household)



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