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.

5 Parents' perspectives

Awareness of free ELC

5.1 Awareness of free ELC for 2 year olds was mixed among the parents who participated in the research. 14 Those who were aware of it had typically found out through word of mouth, either 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 (where there was also a younger child) or family worker.

I only heard about [it] through a friend, so I went down to the nearest nursery just to ask about it and enquire and we went in and wrote the form out and basically [my daughter] started a few days after that.

Mother, aware and using

[I heard] through the midwife… I said what age [my son] was and she said I could get him in the nursery, how many hours that sort of thing.

Mother, aware and using

5.2 It was rare for parents to be aware of any other form of communication promoting the free ELC, though some parents thought they may have seen adverts on the sides of buses or information online or on television. Additionally, there was little awareness among participants of the Scottish Government poster promoting the provision. Some indicated that, if they had seen the headline of the poster "Is your 2 year old eligible for free early learning and childcare?", they would have assumed it was not for them - because it was only for 'vulnerable' children or dependent upon the working status of the parent(s).

I've not heard anything… Is that just for working parents?

Mother, unaware - probably would use

5.3 Indeed, some parents said they had been vaguely aware of having seen the provision advertised but it was not until friends or professionals had spoken to them about it that they understood what it was and that they were entitled to it. This reinforces the opinion of professionals (see paragraph 3.10) about the importance of personal contact in helping to promote ELC provision.

5.4 While word of mouth was the main way in which parents became aware of the free ELC, 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). For example, 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.

5.5 The one kinship carer interviewed was not aware and she indicated that she had not received any communications regarding their entitlement.

I think there is a lot of people aren't aware. I mean [the Scottish Kinship Care Alliance] wasn't even aware of it, and I thought that they would get [information] from the Scottish Government at least [15] .

Kinship carer, unaware - probably would use

Uptake of free ELC

5.6 Overall, views on the provision of free ELC for 2 year olds and on ELC in general were very positive. Typically, parents who were aware of the provision had used it. These parents, who were predominantly single mothers [16] , tended to find the process of applying for a place straightforward (they were offered support by nursery staff or health visitors during the application process if required), saw clear benefits for their 2 year old and valued the opportunity the ELC gave them to take a break from childcare (the perceived benefits are discussed further below).

5.7 Among those who had previously been unaware of the free ELC, after being told about the provision and who was eligible, the dominant reaction was very positive - and parents indicated that they would use it, or would have used it if they had known in time.

The minute he turned 2 if I had known there was childcare and his [development] was fine, which it has been, I definitely would have considered it.

Mother, unaware - probably would use

5.8 Indeed, when those whose child was about to turn 3, or had recently turned 3, found out about the provision during the interview, there was a sense of frustration at an opportunity missed.

Well, personally [if I had known] I would have been dragging her down because she is hard work for me!

Mother, unaware - probably would use

Reasons for not taking up the provision

5.9 As outlined in Figure 1, only a small number of parents (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 three couples, 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.

5.10 Two couples had previously heard of the free ELC but decided not to use it. One mother was pregnant and not working and had only found out about the ELC provision when her child was 2 and a half years old. Her view was that she was happy to wait until her child was 3 before using ELC and had no plans to work until both her children were at nursery (aged 3 or 4) or school. She also raised concerns about how her child would have behaved if he had gone to nursery at 2 years old.

I'm worried about the nursery because he does socialise with adults quite a lot, so I'm just kind of scared in case he goes in and he is a bully.

Mother, aware - not using

5.11 The other couple who had rejected the ELC provision were both out of work and, as such, the mother felt they had less need to rely on other means of childcare. Further, she took her 2 year old to mother and toddlers' groups and felt he gained the benefit of socialising with other children there.

My thinking is I'm taking him to toddlers' [groups] so he's socialising and I don't work so I don't see why I should need to [use the provision]… He's still getting what he would get there in other places.

Mother, aware - not using

5.12 Another mother, again from a couple where neither was working, was previously unaware of the ELC provision but said that she did not think she would use it. Her older child had gone to nursery at 3 years old and she was happy to wait until then before sending her 2 year old. This would also allow her to spend more time with him while he was still young.

It's not really essential if I take that bit longer to do it…. He will have plenty of time to go to [nursery and] school, he's only wee once.

Mother, unaware - would not use

The benefits of free ELC

5.13 Parents identified a wide range of potential benefits of the provision, both for their child and themselves. 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 take some time off from their childcaring duties to catch up on other things. The benefits experienced by those who had used the provision were very much in line with the potential benefits identified by those who had not (yet) used it.

The benefits for children

5.14 The most important benefits of ELC perceived by parents were opportunities for the improvement of their child's social and language skills. It was a dominant view that ELC would provide the opportunity for their child to socialise with other children their own age, which would help improve their social skills: 'learning to share' was a common theme. This was particularly important for parents who did not have friends or family with young children.

Her speech really improved and so did her social skills as well, like playing with other kids like sharing and things like that, because obviously she didn't know how to share other than with me.

Mother, aware and using

I moved from England, so I don't have many friends, so it's just me and [my daughter]. I just thought it was great for her to have kids to play with and be able to socialise more, because it was all adults she was socialising with, my mum and her granny and her grandad, and there was never any kids to play with.

Mother, aware and using

5.15 The opportunity for children to develop their language skills was thought to be another key benefit of ELC. It was felt that being around others, in different social situations, would help their child learn to communicate more effectively. For parents who had used the provision, this was one of the most significant differences they had noticed in the child's development.

It gets them interacting with other kids. The language, their speech comes on and learning things, and nursery rhymes, [my daughter] was coming home and singing away to you. The advantages were that me and [my daughter] communicated better and we were singing away to things she had learned.

Mother, aware and using

[My daughter] definitely gained a lot from it, because you could just see like even with her speaking, her language development has just been amazing and she is so fluent when she speaks and I think that's definitely helped in nursery, being around other kids her own age.

Mother, aware and using

5.16 There was a view that this was a particularly important benefit for children from larger families where there might be a tendency for other family members to finish the child's sentence for them - which impacted upon their speech development.

I think they do need an environment where there are other children. [My son's cousin] is a few months older than him and [my son's] speech is well behind his.

[My son] didn't get a word in with these guys that's why his was so bad when these two kept talking for him. But now that he is [three and] at nursery they can't get a word in.

Mother and father, unaware - probably would use

5.17 Parents also recognised the potential behavioural changes offered by ELC. It was felt that spending time in a nursery environment would have a positive impact upon their child's behaviour, such as getting used to routines. It would also allow them to spend time away from home and help lessen dependence on their parent(s).

It gets them to know that, knowing when you're getting dropped off you're still getting picked up, there is still somebody going to come and pick you up. It prepares them for interacting with people when you're not there, that you're not just always going to be there and rely on you the whole time.

Mother, aware and using

5.18 Other important, perceived benefits for children included the more general learning opportunities ELC provided. For example, at nursery children were regularly read to, which was felt to improve concentration, and given opportunities to try new activities and experiences, such as arts and crafts and outdoor activities, which they may not otherwise have had.

When I was learning with her she wouldn't have the concentration span, whereas she listens a lot more in nursery... I can sit and read her a full book now without her ducking away half way through it.

Mother, aware and using

Just even messing with the painting and all the rest of it. I'm not that great when they start pulling the paint out and flicking it all over the place, at least at the nursery you leave it to them to clean it up.

Mother, aware and using

Benefits for parents

5.19 Overall, parents perceived the most important benefits of ELC to be those for children. However, several important benefits for parents were also raised, in particular, the time off it provided parents (to either take a break or catch up with chores etc.), or to work, train or study.

5.20 Being able to take a break from childcaring responsibilities was identified by parents as one of the main advantages of ELC. They appreciated the chance to take time off to relax and enjoy some 'peace and quiet'.

I got time to actually come home and have a coffee and think about things, and was able to get [doctors or hairdressers] appointments.

Mother, aware and using

5.21 The opportunity for time off was particularly appreciated by parents who had more than one child or other caring responsibilities. These parents reported that they were 'on their feet' for most of the day so any time off was highly valued.

I would probably find [the free ELC] quite useful, especially obviously since I'm caring for my partner as well, so I'm on the go constantly from the minute I get up to when I go to bed.

Mother, unaware - probably would use

I mean you don't realise how much even a couple of hours a day can do if you've got that child constantly, and usually for Kinship carers there is not a large support network round about them… That couple of hours makes a lot of difference in a week.

Kinship carer, unaware - probably would use

5.22 ELC also gave parents the opportunity to catch up on household chores, something that was felt to be challenging with young children in the house. Having this time to catch up on housework and other errands meant that, when their child was in the house, they were able to worry less and spend more time with them.

5.23 Another perceived benefit (particularly among those who had used the provision) was that it enabled parents to work, train or study. Parents who were not working highlighted the value of ELC in allowing them to look for work or to study. For those currently working part-time, ELC gave them the opportunity to increase their hours. While none of the mothers had intentions of working full time, it was felt that the hours offered by the free ELC would at least enable them to look for part-time work.

I would up my hours… I think if he was in childcare I would [work] a wee bit more but I wouldn't do so much that I never seen him and somebody else was [raising my child].

Mother, unaware - probably would use

It was a big help for me just to get that college qualification. I've done quite a lot of courses as well while she has been in nursery, like my health and hygiene, health and safety, practical cooking courses. I've done quite a lot and got a lot of my [food hygiene certificates], so it's been helpful that way for me.

Mother, aware and using

Other benefits

5.24 For parents in particular circumstances, additional benefits of ELC were identified. Single, working mothers often relied on family members or friends to provide childcare. These parents felt that ELC lessened the burden upon others to provide childcare. This was particularly important for those with family members who had other responsibilities, such as work or other caring duties, or health issues.

If I'm working and there's nursery that day, it's giving [my mum] a break. She has my nephew was well, he is autistic, so my mum has him full time. It's hard for her.

Mother, unaware - probably would use

5.25 Spending time with other adults was seen as a benefit by those who did not have friends or family nearby. Along with the benefit of spending time with other children their age, ELC let them get used to spending time with other adults.

He is totally changed, he isn't the same boy as he was last year, that's because he went to the nursery. He wouldn't talk [to other adults]. So, nursery made him talk more with adults and all that as well, it wasn't just children.

Father, aware and using

5.26 Another benefit for parents new to an area was the ability to meet other parents. Along with a support network, which could provide advice about parenting and about services in the area, this allowed parents to make new friends and become more socially active.

When [my son] is at nursery now I've joined a couple of groups through the school and it's fab just to have adult time and speak to other adults.

Mother, aware and using

I actually went for a coffee this year with the mums that I would never have thought I would ever have.

Mother, aware and using

5.27 For parents with younger children, another benefit of ELC provision was the opportunity to spend time with these children while their 2 year old was at nursery.

[The ELC] is giving me a couple of hours' time out, like to spend with my son as well.

Mother, aware and using

Concerns about using free ELC

5.28 It was clear from speaking to parents, that the perceived benefits of the free ELC provision far outweighed any concerns they may have had. Indeed, in comparison to the benefits, only a small number of concerns were identified. These tended to be concerns about sending their child to ELC at a young age or the length and flexibility of the available hours.

5.29 One of the main concerns for parents was apprehension about sending their child to nursery at 2 years old. Parents worried that their child may not have been ready to spend time away from their family or be too young physically or mentally to be in a nursery environment. Some parents who had used the provision said they had these concerns before their child had attended.

I think just because 2 to me is young, she is still a baby at 2 and I thought, 'Oh no, I'm going to be handing my baby across'.

Mother, aware and using

5.30 However, this concern did not stop, nor would not have stopped, parents from using the provision. Parents, particularly first time mothers, acknowledged that they were probably being overprotective and didn't want to 'let go' of their child. These concerns were mitigated by reassurances from professionals, such as health visitors and family workers, about the benefits of ELC for 2 year olds and that staff at nurseries were trained to deal with children that age. Moreover, it was felt that the benefits outweighed any potential problems. Those who had used the provision for 2 year olds found their child adapted very quickly to the new environment without any problems.

I was a bit worried that way, but I got to actually stay with her for the first couple of days and after like the first full day, the first full day she sort of stuck to me, on the second day at the start she stuck to me and then she was off and on the third day I didn't see her for dust.

Mother, aware and using

The age of 2, being put into childcare, I think that is young. However, the good things overrun the bad things, well for me it did anyway.

Mother, aware and using

5.31 The other main concern identified by parents was that the provision of 600 hours per year, typically 15 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 15 hours per week, meant further difficulties finding work. However, there was an opposing view that the hours were flexible enough.

If I was to work and he was in nursery [for just three hours], somebody would have to go and pick him up and stuff like that.

Mother, unaware - probably would use

It's only [morning] or the afternoon. So, like where can you go and work for three hours and then you've got to get back for your kids?

Mother, aware - not using

5.32 Other concerns were specific to those living in more remote or rural areas. Some parents thought there was a lack of childcare options in their local area and that travel costs were too expensive for them to be able to consider options further afield.

You've got to take them [to childcare] and there is a financial thing to that. You've got travel costs to get there… That is a big concern.

Kinship carer, unaware - probably would use

5.33 Parents were asked about a number of other potential concerns that people may have about childcare. They were first asked, unprompted, about any concerns they may have and then shown a series of statements on showcards, displaying potential concerns that people may have [17] . However, other than the concerns discussed above, they generally disagreed or felt that the concerns listed did not apply to them.


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