2. Early Learning And Childcare (ELC)
Evidence shows that many children and families have been negatively affected by the impact of COVID-19. The pandemic has taken a toll on the mental health of parents of young children, particularly mothers who are young or who are from BAME communities, in part due to the impact of social isolation resulting from reduced support from wider family and friends. For some of our youngest learners, the Covid Early Years Resilience and Impact Survey (CEYRIS) found negative impacts on their sleep, mood, behaviour and social and emotional development, and concerns have been raised about the impact on children's communication and language development. Children and families who were already facing disadvantage are likely to have suffered greater impact than their more advantaged peers.
Early learning and childcare (ELC) plays a vital role in supporting families and we know that attending high quality ELC is linked with improved outcomes for children. That is why, throughout the pandemic, we continued to provide access to ELC for those children who need it most and why we prioritised the re-opening of ELC to all children ahead of the re-opening of other sectors.
We delivered our commitment to expand the funded entitlement to ELC to all three and four year olds and eligible two year olds to 1,140 hours a year in August 2021. This will help us to achieve our long term aims to: improve children's outcomes; help to close the poverty-related outcome gap; increase family resilience; and support parents and carers into work, study or training.
We know that local authorities and the childcare sector across Scotland have worked extremely hard to deliver this commitment in the difficult circumstances of the pandemic, with over half of local authority areas delivering 1,140 hours before the statutory duty coming into effect. As announced by the First Minister on 4 August, all eligible children are now entitled to 1140 hours of funded ELC, and all local authorities have confirmed that they have the workforce and capacity in place to deliver those hours.
Whilst the pandemic has created challenges for families, some parents also reported that they enjoyed spending more time with their children and felt that their relationships with them were strengthened during lockdown. Many providers have also successfully adapted their models to offer a blended approach to in-person and digital services (e.g. by offering some classes for parents online).
We published the results of our Financial Sustainability Health Check of the childcare sector on 31 August 2021, which gathered evidence on the sustainability of all types of childcare providers, in particular in light of impact of COVID-19. The Health Check report set out the series of actions that we will take forward to support the sector to adapt and strengthen sustainability.
As we continue work to recover from the impacts of COVID-19, we will build on these new approaches. We will continue to invest in programmes to ensure a universally accessible and high quality ELC offer, which equips children to become confident individuals, responsible citizens, effective contributors and successful learners.
In addition to the work set out above, we will take the following key next steps to support early learning and childcare and recover from the impacts of COVID‑19:
1) Ensure that we have a sustainable childcare sector by:
- Supporting the sector to continue to operate safely by maintaining and updating COVID guidance for the ELC sector, school-age childcare and childminders. Thanks to the hard work of staff, we have generally seen low levels of COVID transmission within services, when compared to the number of operating services;
- Monitoring carefully, in consultation with public health experts, the number of cases and outbreaks in registered childcare services; and
2) Support children and families to flourish and recover from the impacts of COVID-19, including by:
- Working with local authorities to promote and support the uptake of the ELC offer to eligible two year olds and extending access to children with a parent with experience of care. This work will target support at those children and families who need it most and are likely to have been more disproportionately impacted by Covid;
- Supporting local authorities, and the ELC and wider childcare sectors, to expand children's access to outdoor play and learning, which not only reduces the risk of COVID transmission but also promotes other positive developmental outcomes for children, including supporting their mental and physical health as they deal with the impacts of Covid;
- Supporting the development of practitioner confidence and skills around the use of outdoor play and learning in ELC, for example by delivering the outdoor learning practicum from April until November 2021;
- Supporting the development of the Equity and Excellence Lead role which puts additional staff capacity in nurseries in the most disadvantaged areas, supporting those children who stand to benefit most. These Leads can either be teachers or other graduate-level practitioners with expertise in child development and pedagogy in the early years. They work directly with children and families in every local authority area and their work during the pandemic will inform how we develop national policy;
- Progressing our approach to embedding family wellbeing and support approaches in funded ELC through, for example, building on the Family Learning Scotland Programme. Through that programme, practitioners in all 32 local authorities have been trained to deliver intergenerational learning that supports parents to understand how best to support their children's development in the early years and to consider their own learning journey and possible next steps. Implementation support has empowered newly trained practitioners to feel confident in developing creative ways of working with families throughout the pandemic and during this recovery phase.
3) Begin the early phasing-in of community level systems of school age childcare (in 2022-23), targeted to support the six priority groups in the Tackling Child Poverty Plan.
- This early phasing will build on learning from our Access to Childcare Fund projects and input from our People Panel to help us test and understand how we can build a system of school age childcare to support a community. They will also consider and develop the role that organised children's activities can play in a school age childcare system alongside the regulated childcare sector to support families, provide choice and improve access to these activities for children from low income households. We will ensure that these systems meet the childcare needs of families before and after school
4) In this parliamentary term we will deliver on our commitments to expand childcare further by building a system of wraparound childcare providing care before and after school, all year round. We will also begin to expand free early years education to all 1 and 2 year olds, starting with children from low income households. Outcomes for children are linked not only to the learning that takes place during school hours but also to the range of life enhancing experiences and opportunities that are available to children outside of school hours and during holiday times. We know that for many children this range of positive experiences is often out of reach under normal circumstances and for others, access to these experiences will have been compromised during the pandemic.
- For wraparound childcare, those on the lowest incomes will pay nothing, and others will make fair and affordable contributions. This offer will help remove the barriers that childcare costs often present to parents and carers taking up work, training or study, which can help tackle child poverty by improving household income. We want future policy on school age childcare to be shaped by those who need it, which is why we are establishing a Public Panel of parents, carers, children and young people, including those with lived experience of poverty, who will work with us to co-design a future system of school age childcare which meets the needs of children and families.
Throughout all of our work we will ensure that services have the tools and the support they need to prioritise those children and families who stand to benefit most and who are at greatest risk of suffering the negative impacts of the pandemic. Further support specifically for the ELC workforce is summarised in section 9.