The expansion of early learning and childcare: evaluation report 2017

A report exploring the impact of the expansion of government-funded early learning and childcare after 2014.

Executive summary

Background and aims

The Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 ("the 2014 Act") expanded the entitlement to government funded early learning and childcare ( ELC) from 475 to 600 hours per year, as well as to eligible two year old children. In 2016, the Scottish Government published 'A Blueprint for 2020: Expansion of Early Learning and Childcare in Scotland'; a public consultation document setting out its commitment to almost double the hours of funded ELC to 1140 hours per year by 2020.

The primary objective of this expansion is to support children's development, especially children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, and the second key objective to support more parents into work, study or training, especially parents from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. To achieve both these objectives, further aims for the expansion are that ELC is high-quality, accessible, affordable and flexible.

This first evaluation report of the ELC expansion policy:

a. Explores the impact of the expansion to 600 hours and eligible two year olds after the 2014 Act;

b. Provides learning to help the implementation of the ELC expansion to 1140 hours as it is being rolled out;

c. Provides an evidence-based picture of how things stand at the moment to provide a baseline for monitoring and evaluating the extent to which the expansion to 1140 hours is achieving its aims as it is rolled out.

Because the expansion of funded ELC to 1140 hours by 2020 is still being implemented, this evaluation report focusses primarily on the shorter-term objectives of building capacity for the increased ELC entitlement; providing high-quality, accessible, affordable and flexible ELC; and encouraging use of the entitlement by parents. The longer term aims of improved outcomes for children and parents will be explored in future reports.

Key findings

Building capacity for the increased ELC entitlement

  • Comparing the delivery of funded ELC before and after the 2014 Act, it is estimated that between 2013 and 2016 the number of funded ELC hours delivered across Scotland increased by around 30%. This reflects both the expansion from 475 to 600 hours, and the extension of the funded entitlement to eligible two year olds.
  • Over the same period the number of funded ELC capacity places for children increased by 4%, which was primarily created by an increase in capacity amongst local authority ELC providers and less so by increasing the number of funded places delivered through partner providers.
  • There were differences between local authorities, with most showing an increase in capacity places and nine showing a decrease.
  • Of the parents who don't use the entitlement for their eligible 2, 3 or 4 year old children, 17% gave as a reason in the 2017 ELC parent survey that there are no available providers near them (0.3% of all eligible parents).
  • The total workforce in settings delivering funded ELC in terms of full-time equivalents grew by around 6% between 2013 and 2016.
  • The number of full time equivalent ( FTE) GTCS registered teachers in ELC settings providing the funded entitlement decreased from 1,032 in 2015 to 915 in 2017. While teacher numbers decreased, teachers are not the only staff members working in the ELC sector with specialist qualifications. There were 2,316 FTE graduates with relevant degree level qualifications working in settings providing funded ELC in 2017 (information collected for the first time in 2017), such as the BA in childhood practice introduced in 2009.


  • Since the 2014 Act, which required local authorities to deliver more flexibility for parents, there has been a trend of increased flexibility of opening hours during the day. The percentage of places in local authority settings which operate before, during and after school hours increased from 19% in 2013 to 30% in 2016.
  • Nonetheless, in 2016, more than half (56%) of places in local authority settings across the country were in a setting operating during school hours only.
  • The percentage of funded places in local authority settings which operate during school holidays increased from 18% in 2013 to 23% in 2016.
  • Private partner providers offer more flexibility for funded ELC than local authority providers. This is true for both operating hours during the day (in 2016, 66% of places in private partner providers were in a setting operating before, during and after school hours) and even more so for holiday provision (96% of places in partner providers were in a setting operating during school holidays, an increase of over 16 percentage points from 79% in 2013.).
  • There is considerable variation across local authorities in the extent to which flexibility in operating hours and holiday provision is offered. Many, though not all, local authorities which offer limited flexibility are more rural or remote authorities. Whilst in most local authorities the percentage of places in settings providing funded ELC which operate before, during and after school hours increased between 2013 and 2016, in seven local authorities there was a decrease.
  • In the 2017 ELC parent survey, most parents (71%) said they would prefer to use the future 1140 hours annual entitlement every or almost every week of the year as opposed to during school term-time only.
  • Most parents (65%) also would prefer to use the 1140 hours in longer sessions on fewer days per week as opposed to shorter sessions spread over more days per week.
  • In addition, there is considerable variation in the exact pattern in which parents would like to use the 1140 hours, and parents' preferences may change over time due to e.g. changing work requirements or older siblings starting school, which suggests that fully flexible provision would also include the option for parents to easily change their patterns of use.


Geographical accessibility of ELC:

  • The large majority (85%) of parents with children eligible for funded ELC live within 15 minutes of their main ELC provider. 13% travels between 15-29 minutes and 3% travels for 30 minutes or more. There were no significant differences for parents living in rural areas or in different SIMD (deprivation) areas.
  • These travel time findings are similar across most parent groups, including parents living in urban and rural areas and parents living in different SIMD (deprivation) areas.

Awareness of the entitlement to funded ELC:

  • Over a fifth of parents (22%) with eligible children who do not take up their current entitlement gave not being aware of the availability of funded childcare as a reason (0.4% of all eligible parents).
  • Around half of all parents with children below 6 have definitely heard of the expansion to 1140 hours, and around a quarter had not heard of it. Lack of awareness is significantly higher amongst lower income parents and younger parents.

Accessibility for children with additional support needs:

  • Although a relatively small proportion of parents of eligible children with additional support needs indicated that they are dissatisfied with their access to suitable ELC (17%), nearly half of all parents of eligible children with additional support needs mentioned having experienced one or more difficulties accessing suitable provision (48%).


  • 69% of parents with eligible children said they experienced some (52%) or significant (18%) affordability difficulties paying for ELC for their pre-school aged children in the past 12 months.
  • Parents who pay for at least some of their ELC are estimated to spend an average of £494 per month for all children below school age.
  • Estimates for the average cost to parents of purchasing an hour of ELC range from around £3.87 to around £4.45. In real terms, prices have been relatively stable over recent years.
  • 52% of parents with eligible children who use the funded ELC entitlement also use paid ELC. This suggests that the expansion is likely to give considerable financial benefits to those parents.
  • The net financial benefits may on average be lower for parents with lower incomes than those with higher incomes. This is because proportionately fewer parents with lower household incomes pay for childcare; and those who do on average spend less. Moreover, some of the benefits of the increased ELC entitlement for low-income households may be offset by the withdrawal of working tax credits which are partially linked to childcare expenditure and to income.
  • Nonetheless, parents who pay for childcare in lower income groups on average spend a higher proportion of their income on childcare, and proportionately more of them report difficulties affording childcare. In addition, if parents with lower incomes use the increased ELC hours to start paid employment or work more hours, this could reduce the difference in average net financial benefits for parents in higher and lower income groups.


  • Overall, quality of funded ELC provision in Scotland is rated highly, and has remained broadly stable over the past 4 years, since before and after the expansion following the 2014 Act. In 2016, 92% of providers of funded ELC were graded good or better on all Care Inspectorate quality themes, compared to 93% in 2013.
  • ELC providers providing the funded entitlement on average receive higher quality ratings than those not providing funded entitlement, of whom 71% were graded good or better on all quality themes in 2016. This followed a drop from 79% to 71% between 2014 and 2015 for providers not offering funded entitlement. More analysis would be needed to better understand the causes of this drop.
  • There are no significant differences in the overall quality ratings of ELC providers between urban and rural areas, or different SIMD areas.
  • The large majority of parents are satisfied with the quality of their main current provider of funded ELC.

Use of the funded ELC entitlement

Registrations for funded ELC

  • Since 2012, almost all eligible 3 and 4 year old children have been registered to use their funded ELC entitlement (99%), but estimates suggest that just over a third of eligible 2 year olds are.
  • A considerable proportion of the eligible parents who do not use funded ELC say this is because they don't want to, but another proportion say they were not aware of the entitlement, don't know how to apply, or are not able to access available or sufficiently flexible providers.
  • Since 2012, around three quarters of ELC registrations have been with a local authority provider and around a quarter with a partner provider. Most parents with eligible children use a nursery with proportionately small numbers using a childminder, playgroup or other form of ELC.

Average hours of ELC used

  • Comparing the six months immediately before and after the expansion to 600 hours in 2014, the average number of funded ELC hours parents report using for their 4 year old child increased by just over 1.5 hours per week.
  • It is estimated that currently, parents who use the funded entitlement on average use 29 hours per week of regular childcare for 3 and 4 year olds (14 funded, 7 paid and 8 informal), and 25 hours per week for 2 year olds (13 funded, 3 paid and 9 informal).
  • Around half of 3 and 4 year olds and around a third of eligible 2 year olds are reported to currently use 30 hours or more of regular childcare (including funded, privately paid and informal childcare).
  • Around three quarters of parents with eligible children use funded ELC in combination with paid and/or regular informal provision. Only 16% of eligible parents use funded ELC only.

Expected use of the 1140 hours funded entitlement

  • 75% of parents with children below six say they would use all or almost all of the future 1140 hours for a 3 or 4 year old if it offered the flexibility they needed, and 67% for a 2 year old.
  • On average, expected use of the future 1140 hours is highest amongst parents who currently already use 30 hours or more per week, who currently pay for ELC, who currently experience difficulties affording ELC, and two-earner households.
  • The most commonly mentioned reason why parents said they would use the 1140 hours was to work or look for work (mentioned by 78% of all parents who said they would use the increase in funded ELC if it were available now and provided the flexibility they needed).


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