Drivers and barriers to uptake of early learning and childcare among two year olds

Research commissioned from Ipsos MORI to examine factors affecting the uptake of free early learning and childcare (ELC) for two-year-olds.

1 Executive summary


1.1 Increasing access to high quality, flexible early learning and childcare ( ELC) is a key focus of early years' policy. Prior to 2014, 3 and 4 year olds were entitled to 475 hours per year of free pre-school education. However, the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 extended provision to 600 hours for all 3 and 4 year olds and for 2 year olds who were Looked After (including those in kinship care) and those whose parents were in receipt of out of work benefits. From August 2015, provision for 2 year olds was extended further, to those whose families meet the eligibility criteria for free school-meals, estimated to capture around 27% of the 2 year old population. The current estimate of eligibility [1] is around a quarter [2] .

1.2 Free ELC has two main policy aims: to improve outcomes for children and to support parents (particularly mothers) into employment. While uptake of free ELC for 3 and 4 year olds has been almost universal, take up for eligible 2 year olds has been lower than anticipated: at the time of writing this report, the latest figures [3] suggested that 7% of 2 year olds were registered. Since completing this research, annual statistics published in December 2016 suggest uptake has increased to 9% with around 1,000 more 2 year olds than the year before. However, this still remains lower than expected.

Research aims and objectives

1.3 In order to help improve the uptake of free ELC for 2 year olds, the Scottish Government commissioned research from Ipsos MORI to understand the practical issues that influence uptake rates, to allow policy to be tailored accordingly. The study examined:

  • parental awareness of ELC provision
  • why parents engage or do not engage
  • the profile of families engaging (or not) with the provision
  • the barriers and facilitators for local authorities and key delivery partners in promoting and achieving maximum uptake by eligible 2 year olds.


1.4 The research was conducted using a qualitative approach, comprising in-depth interviews with 30 parents of eligible 2 year olds and 13 in-depth interviews with local authority stakeholders and key delivery partners across six different authorities.

Setting the context

1.5 Estimates provided by local authority staff interviewed suggest uptake could be higher than indicated by the annual census taken in September 2015. The Scottish Government was aware of issues with the data collection methodology prior to this research being commissioned and is addressing this separately through a data transformation project which is seeking to ensure data capture reflects more widely the significant policy changes and meets user need.

1.6 The research among stakeholders highlighted the considerable variation in the way in which free ELC was being delivered across different local authorities. Differences existed in terms of the providers used (although local authority nurseries were the main providers in all areas), the degree of flexibility the session times offered, school holiday provision and whether it was possible to pay to top up provision.

1.7 In terms of promoting free ELC, the overriding message from stakeholders was the importance of personal contact between professionals and eligible families. While advertising plays a role, it alone was not seen as being conducive to engaging this group of parents - who are often vulnerable and lacking in confidence. Close partnership working among professionals was also considered crucial to ensure that all staff were advocates of free ELC and that momentum was kept up in terms of promotion.

1.8 Overwhelmingly, the greatest challenge for professionals in the promotion and implementation of free ELC lay in identifying all of those eligible for the provision. They talked about the difficulties associated with delivering targeted provision without having a list of those in the target group. Stakeholders frequently suggested that the DWP should be able to produce lists of all families with 2 year olds who were in receipt of the appropriate benefits. If this information was shared with local authorities, they could ensure that they engaged with all eligible families.

Parents' perspectives

1.9 Interviews were conducted with 30 individuals, including six couples who were interviewed together, so the research involved the parents of 24 different eligible 2 year olds. Of these 24 sets of parents:

  • eleven were unaware of the provision before the interview, but when they were told about it, they reacted very positively and it seemed likely that they would have used it if they had known about it.
  • one was unaware, and when told about it, indicated that they would not have used it.
  • eight were already aware of the provision, were using it [4] , and were very positive about it.
  • four were aware of it but were not using it although only one had clearly 'rejected' it.

1.10 It is important to note that this information is provided to show the range of circumstances of those involved in the research and on which the findings are based - it is not a profile of the whole population and the sample was not intended to be statistically representative of the parents of all eligible 2 year olds.

Awareness of free ELC

1.11 Those who were aware of free ELC had typically found out through word of mouth from a friend or family member, or from personal contact with a health visitor or another professional who was in contact with the family, such as a midwife or family worker. It was rare for parents to be aware of any other form of communication promoting the free ELC.

1.12 Lack of awareness was not limited to those who were more 'isolated' (e.g. those in rural areas, parents who were new to an area, or those who did not have any friends or family with young children). Those who were unaware included those who had friends with children the same age, used local mother and toddler groups, and had regular contact with health visitors and other professionals.

Uptake of free ELC

1.13 Overall, views on the provision of free ELC for 2 year olds were very positive. Typically, parents who were aware of the provision had used it. These parents (predominantly single mothers [5] ) saw clear benefits for their 2 year old and valued the opportunity the ELC gave them to take a break from childcare.

1.14 Only three couples said they would not use the provision. While all three couples recognised the potential benefits of ELC, they were happy to wait until their child turned 3 and felt they had no real need for childcare at this stage. None of the mothers was intending to work in the near future. Perhaps, in part, because they were couples (and, in two of the three, neither was working), none of them talked about needing a break from looking after a 2 year old or needing time to get other things done. In other words, there were no strong 'push' factors.

The benefits of free ELC

1.15 Parents identified a wide range of potential benefits of the provision. The main benefits were thought to be those related to a child's development (including social skills, behaviour, language and learning) and the chance for parents to catch up on other things such as household chores or to allow them the time to look for work or to study.

Concerns about using free ELC

1.16 It was clear that the perceived benefits of the free ELC provision far outweighed any concerns parents may have had. The main concern parents had was that, aged 2, their child may not be ready to spend time away from their family or be too young physically or mentally to be in a nursery environment. However, those who had used the provision for 2 year olds found their child adapted very quickly to the new environment.

1.17 Although not a big concern, it was mentioned that the provision of 600 hours per year, typically around 16 hours per week or 3 hours per day, meant it would be difficult to find work within these hours without having to pay for additional childcare. Additionally, there was a view that the hours offered by most nurseries were inflexible, and that only offering half day sessions in either the morning or afternoon, rather than giving parents the option on how to split the 16 hours per week, meant further difficulties finding work. However, there was an opposing view that the hours were flexible enough.

Conclusions and recommendations

1.18 The research with parents suggests that the major barrier to uptake is lack of awareness - rather than opposition to the concept, problems with the application process or dissatisfaction with the nature of the provision.

1.19 The key recommendations from the research are:

  • the research confirms the need to improve the way in which uptake data is captured to reflect changes in policy and practice and to better meet user needs
  • the Scottish Government should work with DWP (and HMRC if required [6] ) to allow data on eligibilty to be shared with local authorities which would subsequently allow local authorites to target their promotion of free ELC
  • given the importance of personal contacts, local authorities should continue to focus their efforts on raising awareness among professionals likely to have contact with eligible families and supporting them to promote the provision effectively. Health visitors are in the best position to promote the provision to eligible families. Other relevant professionals include: early years workers; children and families social workers; nursery staff and primary staff (for those with older children); play initiative staff; local groups/services (e.g. Bookbug and Play, Talk, Read); and local DWP offices.
  • the language used in the promotion of free ELC should be positive and non-stigmatising, avoiding terms such as 'vulnerable' or 'disadvantaged'.
  • promotion should focus on two key aspects: the learning and developmental benefits for 2 year olds (particularly language development and the social aspects such as 'learning to share') and providing reassurances that 2 is not too young for ELC.


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