Coronavirus (COVID-19) support in low income households: evaluation

Qualitative research evaluating a range of policies and support that were delivered during the COVID-19 pandemic. The research looks at how this support impacted on the finances and wellbeing of low income households.

5. Childcare and education

This chapter looks at participants' experiences of managing childcare and education, especially during lockdown periods and before full-time schooling returned. It sets out the types of support that parents found most valuable as well as some of their suggestions about what might have been done differently.

Key findings

  • Home schooling was challenging for all, but lone parents living in serious or severe financial hardship found it particularly difficult. For some this was about resources – including in terms of the size of the home or whether they had a garden. It could also be about loneliness and having no opportunity to take a break.
  • The support provided by schools and nurseries was hugely valued, especially during the first lockdown. This applied to practical support – such as the provision of ICT devices to enable home schooling – but also to pastoral care.
  • Participants in employment faced the challenge of balancing the needs of employers and children, whether they were working from home or outside the home. Those working shifts faced particular difficulties. Some parents interviewed had felt forced to give up work.
  • In-school places made available for key workers or vulnerable children were not always taken up, with stigma and fear of infection being two of the reasons why not. However, when parents had taken up the opportunity, it had worked well.
  • Families with a child or children with complex needs were also often under particular pressure. This could also be income-related but was also associated with the loss of formal care. Parents sometimes felt that the system of support for children with additional support needs, which involves health, social work and education, did not always fully appreciate the additional pressures that COVID had imposed on families. Some parents felt that the pandemic had exacerbated the challenges of negotiating this system.
  • Some participants felt that more support, including more financial support, could have been made available to families on lower incomes but who did not qualify for free school meals.

COVID-related changes and challenges

Closure of schools, nurseries and formal childcare

For those with nursery or school age children, the closure of these facilities on the 23 March, and the resultant shift to home schooling, represented the single greatest change to day-to-day family life. This was the case for almost all, and irrespective of family characteristics or income level.

Well that was just huge wasn't it ... that first lockdown ... wow. I was just sitting there thinking ... OK, so overnight I'm teacher as well as Mum ... now how's that going to work. But you know, I have to say, I'm so proud of them. I mean don't get me wrong ... at times it was a nightmare ... but they tried so, so hard.

Lone parent, three children (two primary, one pre-school).
Urban area.

While most parents found home schooling challenging, there were a range of factors that had made it even more so. Some of these were about the space in which home schooling was being attempted and the facilities it provided. These issues tended to be reported primarily, but not exclusively, by participants experiencing serious or severe financial hardship. Lone parents also spoke of particular challenges, especially if they also had younger children.

Not having the necessary devices, ICT skills or broadband: This was primarily about allowing children to access online learning. While most families already had a sufficient broadband or mobile package before the pandemic, not all had a sufficient number or the right type of devices to support home learning. This applied especially for households with no-one in paid employment or if all the adults in the household had limited English. Not having the required devices appeared to be connected in particular with families who had been living with severe financial hardship for an extended period in the run up to the first lockdown.

Lack of appropriate indoor space: This included sufficient space to balance the sometimes competing needs of all family members. It was a particular issue for families living in relatively small homes compared to the size of their family, especially if one or more adults were also working from home.

So fear was a massive factor about COVID in the first lockdown as well as the restrictions of being cooped up. We've got a very small flat, and we were very much in each other's pockets.

Lone parent with two primary school children.
Urban area.

For some this was connected with experiencing serious or severe financial hardship and/or with having a larger family. There also appeared to be a connection with living in an urban area.

Not having private outdoor space: This was about children, and especially younger children or children with particular needs, having a safe place to play and expend energy. Parents sometimes made a direct link between having access to good quality outdoor space and the general wellbeing of their children.

... kids they need some places to run, the space, and we live in a small flat with no garden, so it really gets you mad because he needs the space. We couldn't even go out, oh you can go, but even going to the park, people were watching you, you couldn't even cough.

Lone parent with one pre-school age child.
Urban area.

This was connected less to income or family characteristics and much more to the specific area in which families lived. Again, it was a particular issue in urban areas.

Having children with different and potentially conflicting requirements: This arose particularly for families with three or more children but also those with limited space and in families where there were significant age gaps between children. It was about older children needing quiet space and the opportunity to focus and concentrate, while younger children needed to move around and make noise.

Parents with limited English: These parents spoke of their frustration at being unable to help their children with home schooling, including not being able to help them resolve any ICT issues that were preventing them from accessing remote learning options. Not fully understanding how the Scottish school system works, especially if children either started primary school or moved between primary and secondary school during the pandemic, was also described as worrying and confusing.

Parents being in paid employment: If working from home, the pressure was generally around balancing their children's needs with that of their employer.

Juggling working outside the home, either if both parents were working outside the home or as a lone parent, could be extremely challenging.

We generally coped well until I went back to work part-time in July, August, September, until I was put back onto furlough in October because of the restrictions coming back in for us obviously.

Lone parent with one primary age child.
Urban area with substantial rural areas.

The nature of the key working being done, including in care homes or supermarkets, often meant shift working and irregular work patterns. This meant that there were challenges around providing care during normal school or nursery hours, and also both before and after school and at the weekends. In a small number of cases, lone parent key workers, or one of a couple who were both key workers, had left paid employment in order to care for their children. These families had then experienced a very substantial drop in income levels.

In the case of one couple, one parent had left employment because it had not been possible to co-ordinate working hours so that at least one of them was always available to provide childcare. The lone parents who had given up work had not had the option to work only during the hours in which their children could be in school or nursery. All of those who had given up work had returned to paid employment by the time of the study.

Families with disabled children or those with neurodevelopmental conditions: When one or more children in a family had particular needs, parents sometimes spoke of the considerable pressure they had been under, especially when their children were not attending nursery or school and any formal home-based care services were no longer coming into the home.

Of course it's been difficult for lots of people ... but if your child has complex needs, and then any practical support you got just disappeared ... well to be honest it was just exhausting, just so hard. It's been exhausting to the core ... when you are a carer your needs are never met.

Couple with two primary age children, one of whom has complex needs.
Urban area with substantial rural areas.

Parents' unfamiliarity with the teaching approaches being used: Some parents commented that things had moved on significantly since they were at school. There were associated concerns that they would confuse their children and potentially even set their learning back.

The complexity of the work being undertaken by older children: This applied especially to those working towards their Standard Grade or Higher exams. Parents often felt that the pandemic in general, but the periods of lockdown in particular, had been hardest for teenagers. Concerns about schoolwork and exams were seen as key but being separated from friends for long periods was also felt to have really taken its toll.

Although having the children at home, and especially supporting them through home schooling, was often hard, parents also spoke of some positives. Again, these positives could apply irrespective of income level or family circumstances.

Benefiting from having more family time: There were references to the whole family benefiting from slowing down and leading a less rigidly timetabled existence than was the norm. Parents also spoke of siblings becoming closer and very supportive of each other during the first lockdown in particular. This applied especially when children were relatively close in age.

Reduced stress associated with keeping their family safe from COVID: While many families had experienced considerable stress during the pandemic, there was some relief associated with nurseries and schools closing, with parents feeling better placed to keep their families safe and reduce the likelihood of their children catching COVID.

Reconsidering the needs of their children or identifying further needs: There were a small number of examples of parents realising that their children might have as yet undiagnosed needs. These included dyslexia or autism and children going on to receive formal diagnoses.

My younger daughter was a lot more of a struggle ... what lockdown showed me when being her teacher for a while was that there was more going on with her not enjoying school than what I thought initially. I thought – she's got dyslexia – then when we went back to school, I pushed for her to be tested, and it turns out she is dyslexic.

Couple with two children (one primary, one secondary school).
Urban area.

In relation to their autistic children, parents spoke of a significant reduction in stress levels, along with reduced numbers of meltdowns, during lockdown. This has sometimes led to a reconsideration of whether the school system is best placed to educate and care for their children and a decision to move to home educating.

When we were getting nearer to the schools starting, they were getting more and more upset, more meltdowns, and I just thought ... why am I doing that to you ... lockdown maybe just showed a lot of us that there's another way. So we are sticking with it ... we're home learning going forward.

Lone parent with two secondary school age children with neurodevelopmental conditions.
Urban area.

Loss of other childcare and support

The closure of schools and nurseries, along with the move to blended learning during the autumn term of 2020, clearly presented most parents with significant additional childcare responsibilities. For some families, this situation was compounded by the loss of the other childcare options which they had relied on.

When grandparents or other family members had previously been involved in providing childcare, it was clear that this loss of contact was felt across the generations. For example, parents spoke of their own parents being lonely and missing their children and grandchildren. Children had missed and were sometimes very worried about the wellbeing of their grandparents or other adults in the family. Parents experienced the same worries and anxieties about the safety of older family members, but also very much missed the care and support these older family members had often provided before the first lockdown.

In practical terms, those finding the loss of the wider package of formal and informal childcare and support most difficult were often families with children with particular needs, lone parents, and those working outside the home. There was no apparent connection here to income levels.

Families with children with particular needs: The closure of additional support services, including out-of-school activities, was often most keenly felt by families with children with particular needs.

... my son with his medical condition, he struggled because he's already internal ... my daughter is hyperactive and has a massive social life, with lots of activities and that was all gone. All the support we had that was in place for all of us due to our circumstance and also my son's condition, how it impacted us all as a family, was gone. There was nothing. All the services were stopped.

Lone parent with two primary school age children.
Urban area.

There were also concerns that the diagnosis and assessment services, including those that need to be gone through to access additional financial or other support, did not appear to be functioning well. There were specific references to challenges in getting assessments for autism. This was raised in relation to children but also to adults.

When a care and support package was already in place, there were sometimes challenges in having those packages reviewed in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. This was sometimes about getting agreements (usually from social work services) to use existing funding in a way that better suited the family's needs during a period of lockdown.

Parents with babies or younger children: The loss of in-person support, particularly the opportunity to take even a short break and rest, was very keenly felt. For first-time new mothers, not being able to access advice and support from the older generation also created additional concerns and anxieties. These were compounded by sometimes difficult experiences of giving birth, especially during the lockdowns, and the absence of in-person post-natal care.

Other supportive services and supports, such as community-based parent and baby groups and playgroups, were also missed. Again, this was about opportunities to seek advice and reassurance, but also to have a break and socialise.

Me and the baby ... we've massively missed out ... but keeping us safe was my big priority. I'm honestly not sure there's anything that could have been different around the lockdowns and places being shut.

Young couple with new baby.
Urban area with substantial rural areas.

It was suggested that these types of community-based opportunities are only now beginning to restart. This was put down to the venues often being used – such as community or village halls – not being open and available and to these types of groups often being run by volunteers.

Parents with larger families that included younger children: This was often about the practical challenges of looking after a number of children while at home, but more particularly about difficulties with leaving their home. For example, if children were not old enough to be left on their own for a short time, basic food shopping trips often became very difficult. Before the pandemic, parents might have called on a family member or a friend to look after their children for a short while but with the first lockdown, this was no longer possible.

Any connection to income level and challenges with leaving the home appeared to be around not having a car and being reliant on public transport.

I don't drive and I don't take the bus often cos I have a double buggy and a single buggy. Sometimes they don't let me on. During COVID they would sometimes say you can only have one of you on. I tried to explain that we're a whole family – they are brothers ... but some bus drivers just wouldn't allow it.

Couple with three pre-school children.
Urban area.

Mitigating or supportive factors

There were a range of factors that parents identified as having helped their family cope with some of the education or childcare challenges they had been grappling with during the pandemic.

General support from schools and nurseries

For parents with school age children, or with younger children who attended nursery prior to lockdown, the support offered by those schools and nurseries was often seen as key to the wellbeing of their family, particularly during the lockdowns.

Most parents felt that their children's school or nursery had done well, and many were very appreciative of the staff's efforts, especially during the first lockdown.

The teachers were amazing ... they did meetings twice a day, video meetings with everybody, they made it really good ... they did such a good job.

Lone parent with one primary school age child.
Urban area with substantial rural areas.

It was also clear that, while much of the support was focused on facilitating home learning and general welfare, there were also occasions when staff at schools or nurseries had stepped in to provide an immediate response to a crisis. This tended to centre around providing very basic supplies, including food, when a family in severe financial hardship was otherwise without. It was families that were already experiencing severe financial hardship at the start of the pandemic who reported receiving this type of support from schools or nurseries.

It started off really rough for us. See that whole panic buying thing ... we basically couldn't get anything around here. We had nothing in the cupboards ... so the head of the nursery went 'right come with me'. Because the nursery had been shut down, she gave us all the food they had in cupboards. Gave us all the food they had in the fridge ... see if it hadn't been for that, we would have been in real trouble. I mean major trouble because there was no bread on the shelves, no nothing and I have two kids.

Couple with two children (one secondary school, one pre-school).
Urban area.

More generally, when the support offered by schools or nurseries had worked well, several elements were seen as particularly important or were most welcomed.

The provision of tablets or laptops: A number of older primary or secondary school children had been either given or lent a device by their school. Some had already been given a tablet or laptop before the start of the first lockdown, generally as part of a pre-COVID programme to provide devices. Others received devices within a week or two of the first lockdown beginning. In some cases, parents thought this was because of an acceleration of an existing programme. In other cases, they had not been expecting to receive devices and thought it was a COVID-specific response.

Without these devices, the only other option would often have been the sharing of mobile phones. Parents were clear that this would not have been a viable option and would not have allowed their child(ren) to learn from home.

... she got a new iPad actually, from the school. We've got this old laptop somewhere but the software's no good, so I think we'd have been fighting for my phone ... and she got to keep it so it wasn't just like for a few weeks

Lone parent with one secondary school age child.
Urban with substantial rural areas.

Most of the children receiving laptops or tablets were also eligible for free school meals and – by extension – were in households experiencing severe financial hardship. However, there were occasional examples of children from families in moderate financial hardship receiving devices. This appeared to be area-related i.e. to be connected to the policy of their local authority.

Broadband service or boosts: There were also a few instances of schools arranging for broadband services, or broadband boosts, to allow children to join in with online lessons. This tended to be for families who would otherwise have been managing with only a limited, sometimes pay-as-you-go mobile package.

Regular check-ins: Many parents referred to teachers keeping in regular contact, either by phone or email. Again, this was generally much appreciated, especially when a child or children had particular needs or had already been struggling at school or nursery prior to lockdown. Parents spoke of feeling reassured that their child had not been forgotten and that it was comforting to know that someone was still looking out for their family.

Sharing information: Schools or nurseries had often been the primary source of most, and in some cases all, of the information parents felt they needed. The focus of this information was on the arrangements for schools and nurseries, but parents also spoke of receiving information about possible financial or other help or support that might be available.

In-school or nursery places for vulnerable children or children of key workers

Some parents had made use of the in-school or nursery places available for children of key workers or vulnerable children.

Parents had found the option offered very valuable support, which benefitted the whole family, including those attending school or nursery and any younger children who remained at home.

... they were happy to go I and it just made everything a bit more normal for them ... for all of us really ... and they both really like their schoolwork and some of their friends were there too ... so, yes, I think that was a good idea.

Couple with four children (two primary school age and two pre-school).
Urban area with significant rural areas.

However, while a number of families entitled to make use of the in-school places available for children had taken up this offer, others had not.

If parents had been offered a place because their children were considered vulnerable, reasons given for not taking up the offer included:

  • Anxiety about their children's health and a feeling that their priority was to keep their family safe. The children going into school or nursery was almost seen as breaching their family defences
  • Embarrassment that they were seen as in need of extra help, especially at a time of crisis. This was sometimes linked to concerns that their children would be stigmatised, but also to a sense of failure as a parent. Parents also referred to the importance of places going to children whose parents were key workers, especially if they worked for the NHS.

I did get the offer for [name of older child] to go into school, but it just didn't feel like a good idea. I didn't want to risk something coming in after being so careful ... and really it was for the kids whose mums were working in the hospital or things like that ... I think I'd have felt bad anyway.

Young lone parent with two children (one primary school age, one pre-school).
Urban area with substantial rural areas.

There were also occasions on which key worker parents had decided not to take up in-school places. Reasons given included that:

  • With their parent already going out to work, children were already anxious about their own and other family members' health. Going into school sometimes felt like a step too far for them
  • If children were at different schools and/or nurseries, and with the absence of school and most public transport, it was impossible to manage drop-offs and pick-ups
  • Shift working, and the absence of pre-and after school care, left gaps in childcare provision that needed to be filled by other means anyway.

Key workers who needed childcare had sometimes been able to put their own solutions in place. These included another family member moving in just prior to or at the start of the first lockdown. If both parents were key workers they were sometimes able to juggle shifts, and if parents were not together, this sometimes involved children moving between homes.

Being able to create childcare bubbles and then the return of pre- and after-school clubs were identified as helpful changes that eased the childcare pressure on key workers.

What could have been done differently

Parents were asked whether they had any suggestions about how their family's education and childcare needs might have been better supported during the pandemic.

Better access to support for families with children with particular needs: Parents sometimes felt that the system of support for children with additional support needs, which involves health, social work and education, did not always fully appreciate the additional pressures COVID had imposed on families. Some parents felt that the pandemic had exacerbated the challenges of negotiating this system and would like to see:

  • Recognition that parents are well placed to identify that their child may have additional support needs and that the system takes their concerns seriously
  • Swifter access to diagnostic assessment services so that families can make more rapid progress in securing the care and support needed for children with additional support needs
  • Better alignment between health, schools and other services to secure swifter delivery of financial and specialist support (such as educational psychology, speech and language therapy).

It was also suggested that, particularly at a time of crisis, people should be given additional support while waiting for the required assessments.

More support for families who did not have free school meal eligibility: Parents whose children are not eligible for free school meals, but who nevertheless felt that at times they had struggled during the pandemic, would have appreciated a little more support. Examples given included that their children had missed out on receiving laptops or tablets but that they had sometimes struggled to provide them with what they needed for home schooling.

Swifter return of pre- and after-school care services: Although recognising the challenges involved in delivering these services, especially during the first lockdown, their return was much welcomed by working parents. This applied especially when parents were working outside the home.

Return of other out-of-school activities and community-based support groups for parents: There is also a range of other activities and groups, which are often community-based and run, which have either not returned or have only returned recently. There were references to scouts, brownies, new baby groups and playgroups.

Looking forward

Overall, most parents were reasonably optimistic about their children's return to school or nursery and felt that they had adjusted well. However, there were some concerns that children are behind, not just in terms of their academic performance but also in developing their social skills and building their independence.

I've noticed with my children, especially my younger daughter missing so much of school, I think it had a bit more of an impact on her, in a sort of social sense. She was a bit more, it's not like that she's insular, but she's much more reluctant to try and go to new things or get back to where we were before.

Couple with two children (one secondary school, one primary school).
Urban area.

There were hopes that the work schools and nurseries have been doing to help children catch up will continue for as long as required. Parents were also keen that this should extend to some of the core life skills that their children may have missed out on, such as learning to swim.

Case studies

The case studies that follow pick up on a number of the key themes set out in this chapter.

The Townsend Family's story reflects the challenges of home schooling with a larger family and when children are in different age groups. It looks at the benefits of proactive support from schools and the value that in-school places brought.

The McLean Family's story looks at the pressures of being a lone parent during the pandemic, and especially during periods when the schools or nurseries were closed. It reflects on both the value that practical support – such as the provision of a tablet or laptop – could bring, but also on the value of regular and supportive pastoral care.

The Townsend Family

Emma and her family live in a small town in southwest Scotland. She has two teenage boys from a former relationship. She and her partner also have two young girls – the older one was around 18 months old when their second daughter arrived in the first week of the first lockdown.

In 2019 Emma's partner had significant health problems which meant he had to leave his construction job. He was starting to look for work in early 2020 but had not found anything before the first lockdown started. His mental health has deteriorated during the pandemic and at the moment a return to work is not realistic.

The family live in a three-bedroom private rental. It generally suits their needs but is quite small. They receive Universal Credit, and the children are eligible for free school meals. They have received a number of additional COVID-related payments automatically, all of which have been a welcome boost to the family's income. Money has been tight, especially with a new baby, but overall they have managed OK. However, the boys are at an expensive age – clothes last no time, and they desperately want phones and other gadgets like their friends have. Emma tries to say yes when she can, but that's not often.

Not long into the first lockdown, the head teacher from the boys' school was in contact to explain that there was an option for them to go into school. Her partner had some concerns and was worried they could bring COVID into the home. Both of the boys have good friends whose parents work at the nearby hospital – he felt that presented a real risk.

However, the boys were very keen to go in. They enjoy school and they knew some of their friends would be going. She explained that they had been made the offer because there are also two babies in the house, and they had no problem with that idea. She has tried very hard to make sure they get the attention they need, but it's not always been possible. She felt it was in their best interest to get a break from their baby sisters, along with the opportunity to do their schoolwork in peace and quiet. With two babies in the house, she doubts if home schooling would ever have got off the ground.

Overall, it worked really well, and she is sure she made the right decision. The pandemic has still been really tough on all of them, but she doesn't think they would have coped with all six of them home all day, every day for months at a time. The last school reports were really encouraging, and although the boys still find their little sisters annoying at times, they have become a strong family unit.

The McLean family

Josie and her two children live a large central-belt town. They have a two-bedroom Council flat in one of the town's larger estates. Her daughter is 10 and her son has just turned 5. She has a lot of family nearby, and although the children don't see their father, his parents are a great support.

The first lockdown was quite a shock. The children were used to seeing lots of people, and her son in particular was too young to understand why they had just disappeared over night.

Her daughter's school was in touch within a couple of days and explained that they had a tablet for her. They went down to collect it from the school. She was having some problems getting it to connect to their home broadband, but someone at the school talked her through it later that day. Having the tablet made a big difference to her daughter, especially during the first lockdown. Her son had been due to start nursery in April 2020 and a member of staff from the nursery dropped off a package of pens and colouring books for him. She thought that was really kind and it also gave her an opportunity to have a brief chat.

The family is eligible for free school meals, and the school phoned to say they could go and pick up lunch for both of the children from week 2 of lockdown. They went a few times, but it was hard to get the children to understand the new rules about social distancing. At one point her son ducked under the tape closing off the local playground. He screamed when she went to take him away and she felt awful - they don't have a garden and he loves the playground. It didn't help that she felt other parents were giving her dirty looks. After that she mostly stayed home, and they stopped picking up the meals. It was a big help when they switched to putting a bit extra into her bank account instead.

They did look at some of the material the school made available, but her daughter was struggling to concentrate, especially with her wee brother running round. In the end she decided it was best just to try and keep them all as healthy and happy as she could. The school checked in once a week and her daughter's teacher suggested some activities they could all do together to help her daughter with her reading and maths. They were very supportive and reassured her that lots of other parents were having the same problems.

It really helped when they could form a childcare bubble with her parents. Grandad can get both of the children to do things she can't, so he became maths teacher. It was only really when her parents could help out again that she admitted to herself how much she'd been struggling on her own.

The family are on Universal Credit and got extra COVID payments, including the Universal Credit top up. They've been OK for money, especially as the Josie's parents helped with a bit of shopping when they could. Her electricity bill has been really high, especially during the lockdowns, but she has just about kept on top of it. But she is worried that price rises mean it's not going back to pre-COVID levels and now the Universal Credit top up has gone, she's not sure where that extra money is going to come from. She's been in debt in the past, and she really doesn't want to go back there.



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