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.

2 Introduction and methods


2.1 Improving and increasing access to high quality, flexible early learning and childcare ( ELC) has been a key focus of early years' policy in Scotland in recent years. Prior to 2014, 3 and 4 year olds in Scotland were entitled to 475 hours per year of free pre-school education. However, the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 significantly expanded this, extending provision to 600 hours for all 3 and 4 year olds and for eligible 2 year olds i.e. children who are Looked After or subject to a kinship care or guardianship order ; and, those whose parents are 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. An estimated quarter of 2 year olds are entitled to 600 hours per year (equivalent to 16 hours a week during term time) of free ELC [7] . The Scottish Government has pledged to increase hours of free provision for those children by the end of the current parliament (2020), from 600 hours to 1,140 hours a year.

2.2 The extension of free, formal ELC provision 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 - 97% of all 3 and 4 year olds in Scotland were registered for places in 2015 [8] - take up for eligible 2 year olds has been lower than anticipated: it is estimated that only 7% of 2 year olds were registered, (according to the latest figures available at the time of writing). Uptake has also varied widely by local authority area - in ways which do not seem to be a simple reflection of higher eligibility rates in areas with higher levels of deprivation [9] .

2.3 In order to improve the uptake of free ELC for 2 year olds, the Scottish Government aims to identify the key barriers restricting uptake of places for eligible 2 year olds, and to identify practical lessons that might help to increase uptake. To this end, the Scottish Government commissioned Ipsos MORI to carry out research across Scotland with the parents of eligible 2 year old children, and with local authority stakeholders and key delivery partners. This report provides the findings from that research.

Research aims and objectives

2.4 The overall aim of this study was to understand the practical issues that influence uptake rates amongst eligible 2 year olds, to allow policy to be tailored accordingly. To do so, the study examined issues around:

  • parental awareness of ELC provision
  • why parents engage or do not engage (including exploring views about: the benefits of ELC for 2 year olds, for their parents and for other family members; the suitability of provision; the practical constraints on take-up; any stigma attached to the offer; and issues relating to parental employment options)
  • the profile of families engaging (or not) with the provision
  • what, if any, alternative childcare arrangements parents of eligible 2 year olds use - and why they use these instead of free ELC
  • the barriers and facilitators for local authorities and key delivery partners in promoting and achieving maximum uptake by eligible 2 year olds.


2.5 The research was conducted using a qualitative approach, comprising:

  • in-depth interviews with 30 parents/guardians [10] of eligible 2 year olds. The interviews were mainly carried out face-to-face, with the remainder carried out by phone
  • 13 in-depth interviews with local authority stakeholders and key delivery partners, mainly carried out by phone (one paired depth interview was carried out face-to-face).

Interviews with parents

2.6 As the parents of 2 year old children who are eligible for free ELC are a relatively hard-to-reach audience, two methods of recruitment were employed: telephone follow-up of respondents who had taken part in the Scottish Household Survey ( SHS) and in-street, face-to-face recruitment.

2.7 Initially, a sample was purposively drawn from the SHS re-contact database [11] . Parents of 2 year old children (or those who had just turned 3) who seemed likely to be eligible for free ELC (based on their working status and benefits that they were in receipt of) were identified from the sample, sent an advance letter, and recruited by phone. However, there were difficulties recruiting individuals from this sample. There was a high level of non-contact (because of unobtainable phone numbers, people not answering their phones, and people not responding to voicemail messages), and some of those with whom we did make contact were screened out because they were not in fact eligible for free ELC (e.g. because they were no longer in receipt of certain benefits). It was therefore necessary to supplement this approach with in-street, face-to-face recruitment.

2.8 The sample was not designed to be statistically representative of all parents of eligible 2 year olds. Rather it was designed to include parents in a broad range of circumstances in terms of awareness and use of free ELC for 2 year olds, working status, whether a single parent or a couple, local authority and urban/rural locations (see Section 4: Profile of the Research Participants for more details).

2.9 It should be noted that we had great difficulty finding parents who were aware of the provision but had not used it. We had originally intended that around two-fifths of the sample would be in this category. However, our recruiters found that most of the eligible parents that they spoke to were either using the provision or were unaware of it. In the end, we were only able to recruit four 'sets' of parents who were aware of the provision but had not used it and we had more parents who were unaware of the provision than we originally planned. While we cannot quantify the proportions in each category in the population in any statistically robust way, this does suggest that parents who are aware of the provision but not using it are relatively rare - and that lack of awareness is a bigger barrier to uptake than rejection of the provision.

2.10 Interviews were carried out with parents who indicated that they were the primary caregiver for their 2 year old child (in all cases, the child's mother). These were carried out as an individual interview, in pairs along with a spouse/partner, or in pairs with a friend who was also the parent of an eligible 2 year old. Overall, 23 interviews were carried out (sixteen individual depths, six paired depths with couples and one paired depth with friends), with 30 participants in total. The majority (15) of the interviews were conducted face-to-face, with the remainder conducted by telephone.

2.11 All interviews were conducted by members of the Ipsos MORI research team and took place between 21 st September and 16 th October 2016. Participants were given an incentive payment of £25 as a 'thank you' for their time.

Interviews with local authority stakeholders and key delivery partners

2.12 To help contextualise the findings of the research conducted with parents, 13 interviews were carried out with stakeholders across six local authorities. The professionals interviewed were mainly local authority early years leads, or health visiting team managers or leaders.

2.13 Stakeholders were recruited from a mix of local authorities (selected by the Ipsos MORI research team) in terms of the geographic area of Scotland, size and uptake levels of free ELC for 2 year olds (with estimates across the six local authorities ranging from 4.5% to 11%, based on Scottish Government data).

2.14 All interviews with parents and stakeholders were structured around discussion guides (see Appendices A and B), designed by Ipsos MORI in consultation with Scottish Government. Interviews were audio-recorded (with participants' permission). The transcripts of recordings and interviewer notes were then systematically analysed to identify the substantive themes which emerged in relation to each section in the discussion guide and illustrative verbatim comments.

Interpreting the findings

2.15 Unlike survey research, qualitative social research does not aim to produce a quantifiable summary of population experiences or attitudes, but to identify and explore the different issues and themes relating to the subject being researched. The assumption is that issues and themes affecting participants are a reflection of issues and themes in the wider population concerned. Although the extent to which they apply to the wider population, or specific sub-groups, cannot be quantified, the value of qualitative research is in identifying the range of different issues involved and the way in which these impact on people.


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