Publication - Research and analysis

The expansion of early learning and childcare: evaluation report 2017

Published: 22 Dec 2017

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

79 page PDF

1.2 MB

79 page PDF

1.2 MB

The expansion of early learning and childcare: evaluation report 2017
9. Conclusions

79 page PDF

1.2 MB

9. Conclusions

This chapter provides a reflection on the key findings from the different chapters of the report, both in terms of changes after the ELC expansion set out in the 2014 Act, and learning to inform the future expansion to 1140 hours.

The ELC expansion following the 2014 Act

The 2014 Children & Young People (Scotland) Act introduced a number of changes to the funded ELC entitlement, including:

  • An expansion from 475 to 600 hours of funded ELC per year, and to eligible two year olds
  • A statutory requirement on local authorities to deliver more choice and flexibility of hours of provision

Expanding the hours of funded ELC delivered to 600 hours and to eligible two year olds

Building capacity

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 includes both the expansion from 475 to 600 hours, and the extension of the funded entitlement to eligible two year olds.

Between 2013 and 2016 the total capacity for funded 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.

While the overall capacity for number of funded ELC places for children increased, there are differences between local authorities, with some local authorities showing significant increase in capacity places for children between 2013 and 2016, and nine local authorities showing a decrease.

A very small percentage of parents with eligible children (0.3%) say that they do not take up the ELC entitlement for an eligible child because there are no available providers near them.


Almost all 3 and 4 year old children in Scotland use some or all of their 600 hours funded ELC. Moreover, evidence suggests that the expansion from 475 to 600 hours entitlement indeed led parents to use more hours of funded ELC, with an estimated increase of just over 1.5 hours per week comparing the six months immediately before and after the expansion.

However, uptake amongst eligible 2 year olds has been significantly lower, with estimates suggesting that just over a third of eligible 2 year olds currently use funded ELC. This is partly because of parental choice, for example because they think their child is too young. But there is also a proportion of parents who don't use their ELC entitlement because of structural barriers: because they weren't aware of the entitlement (22%), don't know any available providers near them (21%) or because of a lack of choice in available opening hours (19%).

Providing more flexibility

The evidence presented in this report suggests that since 2013/14 flexibility in ELC delivery has increased year on year, both in terms of opening hours during the day and holiday provision.

There is still room for further improvement as more than half (56%) of funded places across the country in 2016 were in a setting offering provision during school hours only. Moreover, the increase in holiday provision between 2013 and 2016 was smaller and in 2016 less than a quarter (23%) of funded ELC places in local authority settings in Scotland were in settings operating during school holidays.

Evidence shows that private partner providers offer more flexibility than local authority settings. Given that so far the expansion in capacity for funded ELC has been primarily due to an increase in local authority providers and less so in private providers, this suggests that more increased flexibility could be offered by local authorities through increasing their use of partner providers.

There is significant variation between local authorities in the flexibility offered, with some authorities having a considerable proportion of funded places at providers with extended opening hours or provision during school holidays, while in other local authorities no or very few of the funded places are. Many, though not all, of the local authorities which offer limited flexibility are more rural and/or remote authorities.


Evidence does not show any significant impact of the expansion in 2014 on the quality of funded ELC. Quality of funded ELC provision across the country is rated highly, and has remained stable over the past years. There have also been no significant differences in quality between urban and rural areas, or different areas of multiple deprivation.

However, there is room for improvement in the provision for children with additional support needs. While only a relatively small proportion of parents of eligible children with additional support needs in September 2017 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%) [59] . The most frequently mentioned difficulties related to a lack of information on how ELC providers support children with ASN and the time available to ELC staff to meet children's additional support needs.

Expansion to 1140 hours

This report has also presented evidence specifically aimed at helping to inform the further expansion to 1140 hours by 2020.

Take-up of the 1140 hours

The expansion to 1140 hours would give parents around 30 hours per week of funded ELC if they only use it during school term-time, and fewer hours if using year around. Estimates presented in this report suggest that parents on average already use approximately this number of hours of regular childcare (funded, privately paid for and informal regular childcare).

This suggests that when the provision of 1140 hours commences, many parents could be willing to use the additional hours, which would likely replace some of the childcare parents currently pay for themselves.

This is also reflected in parents' responses when they were asked if they thought they would take up the additional ELC hours if it were available now and provided the flexibility they needed: almost all parents (90% for 3 and 4 year olds, 82% for 2 year olds) said they would use at least some of the additional hours, and a substantial majority (75% for 3 and 4 year old children and 67% for 2 year olds) said they would use all or almost all of the 1140 hours.

For 2 year old children this high expected uptake of the 1140 hours may come as a surprise because the current uptake of the 600 hours for eligible 2 year olds is much lower. To some extent, this might be due to the commonly observed phenomenon that when people are asked to make predictions about their future behaviour in surveys, this may not exactly match their actual behaviour at that future time. Yet another potential explanation is that an important reason identified for why some parents do not use their ELC entitlement for 2 year olds is that they were not aware of the entitlement. Research in 2016 with a small number of parents with eligible 2 year olds who did not use their entitlement suggested that when the parents were told of their entitlement they were positive about using it - and the parent research presented in this report appears to confirm that finding. This suggests that a key method for promoting the uptake of the 1140 hours and thus the success of the ELC expansion policy is to improve the awareness of the ELC entitlement, especially amongst parents with eligible 2 year olds.


The high percentage of parents who said they would use the 1140 funded hours if it were available now included the condition that the funded ELC would provide them the flexibility they need. Evidence presented here indicates that while flexibility of funded ELC provision has improved over the past years, there is still room for further improvement as the expansion to 1140 hours is being rolled out, since there are still local authorities offering limited flexibility.

A key area for improvement as the expansion to 1140 is rolled out seems term-time only provision. Most parents (71%) say 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, but (in 2016) less than a quarter of places in local authority settings offering the funded entitlement operate during school holidays.

Most parents (65%) 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. Yet there is considerable variation in the exact pattern in which parents would like to spread the 1140 hours, and parents highlight that their preferences may change over time due to changing work requirements, older siblings starting school, etc. This suggests that full flexibility of provision for parents might also mean the option to easily change their pattern of use as their circumstances change.


Another aim of the expansion to 1140 hours is to make childcare more affordable to parents. This report indicates that the expansion of funded early learning and childcare can have a considerable financial impact on families once implemented. A large proportion (69%) of parents with eligible children say they experienced affordability difficulties in the past 12 months paying for early learning and childcare for children below primary school age. Estimates indicate that parents who pay for ELC on average spend almost £500 per month on childcare for all their children below primary school age.

This financial impact is expected to be highest for two-earner households, parents who currently already use 30 hours or more per week of early learning and childcare, who currently pay more for childcare, and who currently say they experience difficulties affording ELC - because these groups of parents were all significantly more likely to say they would take up more of the 1140 hours.

This means that there is the potential that when considered in terms of net financial gain, the expansion will give proportionately more benefits to parents in higher income groups than those in lower income groups because proportionately fewer parents with lower household incomes currently pay for childcare; and those who do on average spend less than parents with higher incomes. Furthermore, some of the benefits 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 in lower income groups who do pay for childcare spend a higher proportion of their income on childcare, and more frequently report that they find it difficult to afford childcare. In addition, if parents with lower household incomes can use the available childcare to start paid employment or work more hours, this would provide them with more net financial gain and reduce the potential difference in net financial benefit for parents in higher and lower income groups in the longer term. An important element for both the expansion policy and the monitoring and evaluation of the policy is therefore the extent to which parents, especially parents with lower incomes, use the additional funded ELC hours to work or prepare for work.

Reducing poverty and inequalities

While the ELC expansion policy aims to support all children and parents, a specific aim is to support the least advantaged children and parents, in order to reduce the gap in development and attainment between children from the most and least advantaged backgrounds; and reduce poverty and inequalities between parents from the most and least advantaged backgrounds.

Wherever possible, this report has highlighted where views on or experiences with ELC were different for parents and children in different income groups, different areas of multiple deprivation ( SIMD) or other potentially disadvantaged groups. This showed that on a number of aspects there were no significant differences between the most and least advantaged parents. For example, there are no significant differences between parents living in different SIMD areas or in rural instead of urban areas in the overall quality ratings of ELC providers, parents' average travel time to their main ELC provider or the number of future 1140 ELC hours parents think they would use.

On other aspects, statistically significant differences were found, including:

Current use

On average, parents with higher household incomes use somewhat more hours of ELC than parents with lower household incomes. Looking at all types of regular ELC (funded, privately paid and informal), estimates suggest that parents with an annual household income of at least £60,000 on average use 33 hours per week, compared to 25 hours per week for parents with a household income of less than £16,000.


A lack of awareness of the current ELC entitlement was more frequently mentioned as a reason for not using the entitlement amongst parents in lower income groups, households with no parent in employment and parents with English as an additional language.

Lack of awareness of the future expansion to 1140 hours was also significantly more common amongst parents living in the most deprived areas, households with no parent in employment, parents with English as an additional language, and especially amongst parents with a lower household income and parents below the age of 25.

Flexibility for 1140 hours

While only a minority of parents in all parent groups prefer to use the future 1140 hours of ELC in school term-time only (25% amongst all parents), this preference is somewhat more common amongst parents with children with Additional Support Needs (34%), a household income below £16,000 (36%), households with no parent in employment (44%), and parents with other school-aged children (39%).


Finally, as said above, parents with lower household incomes are less likely to currently pay for ELC, but those with lower incomes who do pay for ELC are significantly more likely to say that that they experienced affordability difficulties in the last 12 months affording childcare for their pre-school aged children.

When parents who had experienced affordability difficulties were asked about specific types of difficulties, those with a household income of less than £30,000 were more likely than others to have experienced difficulties associated with upfront payment of fees: 33% parents in this income group, compared to 21% of those with a household income of £45,000 or more.

Awareness of these differences in experiences and preferences may help the implementation of the expansion to 1140 hours, and as the expansion is being rolled out towards 2020, monitoring the differences in experiences and needs of different groups of parents will remain a priority for the monitoring and evaluation strategy.