Parents' views and use of early learning and childcare: report 2017

Information on parents’ and carers’ current use, future potential use, views and experiences of early learning and childcare.

Executive summary

This report presents an overview of findings from a large-scale study to explore the views of parents and carers with children under the age of six across Scotland, to inform the expansion of the Early Learning and Childcare ( ELC) programme.

Background and study objectives

By August 2020, the Scottish Government, in close partnership with Local Authorities, will increase the hours of funded Early Learning and Childcare from 600 to 1140 hours per year. A Blueprint for 2020: The Expansion of Early Learning and Childcare in Scotland sets out a vision for this expansion, which includes delivering a flexible and high quality ELC system that is accessible and affordable for all. The primary aim of the expansion programme is to help improve outcomes for all children, especially those who may be more vulnerable or disadvantaged, and to help to close the attainment gap. A secondary aim is to support parents into work, training or study.

In 2017, the Scottish Government commissioned a nationally representative survey and follow up discussions with parents of children under the age of six. The overall aim of the research was to provide a greater understanding of parents' current use of, and experiences of, early learning and childcare and how these differed between parent groups.

The study involved two main fieldwork strands: (i) a survey of parents, incorporating a public web-survey and a telephone survey of parents drawn from the re-contacts database of the Scottish Household Survey, and (ii) follow-up discussion groups and telephone interviews with a subset of survey respondents.

Key findings and conclusions

Below we summarise key findings across the principal themes of the ELC Expansion.

Use of early learning and childcare

Survey data showed that the great majority (95%) of parents with eligible children use some form of ELC. Nearly 9 in 10 use some form of funded provision, but most combine this with paid and/or informal provision; 16% use only funded provision, and 73% used funded hours alongside paid and/or informal ELC.

Parents' choice of ELC provider was influenced by a range of factors, with convenience of location and the provider's reputation the most common. In terms of the mix of ELC used by parents, those using in excess of 16 hours of ELC per week and with above average ELC costs were more likely to use paid and/or informal provision.

Survey data indicated that parents on average use 29 hours of ELC per week for an eligible 3 or 4-year-old, and 24 hours per week for an eligible 2-year-old. There was little difference in the number of funded hours used, but parents typically use more than twice as many paid hours for 3/4-year-olds, while eligible 2-year olds are more reliant on informal hours.

Flexibility of early learning and childcare

A substantial number of parents taking part in the qualitative study felt there is not enough flexibility in current ELC provision, particularly for local authority provision. This perceived lack of flexibility was of most concern to particular groups, including parents who are unable to afford private provision, single working parents, and those without access to informal childcare through family or friends. Some parents indicated they have to use multiple providers to achieve the flexibility they require, most commonly private providers alongside funded local authority provision. Others have been unable to access the provision they required due to a lack of flexibility in hours and days available, or felt that a lack of available places and/or lack of flexibility had effectively removed any choice of provider.

In terms of how parents might hypothetically use the expanded entitlement (1140 hours per year) if it were available to them now, most indicated they would prefer the flexibility to use funded hours all year round (70%), and for longer sessions on fewer days per week (65%). These were the most commonly preferred options across all parent groups.

Most parents (63%) identified more than one type of childcare provider they would wish to use for the 1140 hours. Local authority nurseries were the most common preference, although there was some variation linked to the child's age, with parents more likely to wish to use private providers, playgroups and/or childminders for 2-year olds. Survey data also showed some correlation with parents' current use of ELC: most of those who wished to use the 1140 hours with local authority or private nurseries were already using these types of provision.

Accessibility of early learning and childcare

Relatively few parents indicated travel time was a significant barrier to their being able to make use of the funded entitlement. Similarly, a lack of awareness of the funded entitlement did not appear to be a significant barrier. However, some parents felt their use of funded hours can be constrained by a lack of information on available providers, and, in some areas, a lack of available places.

The majority of parents (74%) were aware of the planned expansion in funded entitlement, although only half were "definitely" aware of the planned changes. Household income and parent age showed the closest correlation with parents' awareness: lower income households and under 35s were less likely to be aware.

Around 1 in 20 of those taking part in the survey had one or more children aged under 6 with Additional Support Needs ( ASN). Most of these parents indicated they are satisfied with their access to ELC that suits their child's needs, but nearly half responding to a separate survey question mentioned having experienced one or more difficulties accessing suitable provision (48%). Difficulties were most commonly related to a lack of information on how providers support children with ASN, and concern that staff do not have the time required to meet their child's needs. Staff time and experience were also typically seen as key factors in choice of provider for parents of children with ASN.

Affordability of early learning and childcare

A little more than half (54%) of parents with children eligible for the funded entitlement pay for at least some of the ELC they use. These parents spend an average of £494 per month for all children aged under 6. However, this average covers a broad range of costs reported by parents; more than a third of those who pay spend less than £300 per month and around a quarter spend £700 or more.

The majority (69%) of those who pay for ELC for eligible children indicated they have experienced affordability problems in the last 12 months. Nearly all of these parents mentioned the high cost of childcare (97%). Around a quarter (26%) also mentioned difficulties paying childcare fees upfront.

Around 2 in 5 (42%) of all parents with children aged under 6 felt that they would want or may need to top up the 1140 funded hours. A further quarter were unsure.

Likely future use of 1140 hours

A large majority (90%) of those with an eligible child said they would use at least some of the additional hours if the expanded entitlement were available now (and offered the flexibility required). Most would use all or almost all of the 1140 hours: 75% for a 3 or 4-year-old and 67% for a 2-year-old. Those most likely to say they would hypothetically use the full 1140 hours if it were available now included parents currently using more hours of ELC per week, currently using paid and/or informal ELC, and currently spending £100 or more per month on ELC.

Quality of early learning and childcare

Parents indicated that staff are the most important factor for their judgement on the quality of ELC providers. The extent to which their child is learning, how providers keep parents informed and engaged, and the range of different experiences that their child gets were also rated as important factors. However, some found it difficult to judge the quality of providers prior to their child taking up a place, and highlighted parents' access to word of mouth recommendations as being important for these judgements.

Parents were very positive about the quality of ELC they use. Satisfaction was strongest for how staff interact with their child - also the aspect of provision rated as most important. Parents were also particularly positive about staff qualifications and knowledge, and the quality of facilities.

Outcomes and benefits

Parents' reasons for using ELC were most commonly related to supporting their child's learning and development. A substantial proportion also mentioned ELC helping them to support their child's learning and development at home. Enabling parents to look for work or increase their working hours were also commonly associated with use of ELC.

For parents who would expect to use all or almost all of the expanded 1140 hours, more than three quarters (79%) would do so to work or look for work, and around a third to increase the hours they or their partner work (32%)


The key learning points for the future expansion in funded entitlement are:

  • The great majority of parents with eligible children use funded hours, but parents referred to barriers to their use of funded ELC such as a lack of flexibility or choice. This was reflected in a large proportion of parents combining funded ELC with paid and/or informal provision to secure the hours they require.
  • Travel time and awareness of the funded entitlement do not appear to be significant barriers to access to ELC. However, parents indicated that a lack of information on available providers can limit their ability to make best use of the entitlement, and that there is room for improvement in access to suitable ELC for children with ASN.
  • Parents on average use 29 hours of ELC per week for a 3 or 4-year-old, and 24 hours for an eligible 2-year-old. This is broadly similar to the expanded entitlement and suggests a substantial proportion of parents could be willing to use the additional hours. Feedback from parents was consistent with this: 90% would use some of the additional hours, 75% would use all or almost all.
  • Findings suggested that greater flexibility of ELC provision could have a positive impact on take up of the expanded entitlement, including greater flexibility to use funded hours all year round and on longer sessions each day.
  • The proportion of parents paying for ELC and prevalence of affordability difficulties suggests potential for the expanded entitlement to deliver direct financial impacts for the affordability of ELC. The study also highlighted potential for financial benefits associated with the expanded entitlement enabling parents to move into work or study or to increase their working hours.
  • The study suggests that the expanded entitlement is likely to have a more significant financial impact for some parent groups, including two-earner households, those currently using in excess of 30 hours per week of ELC, those with above average ELC costs, and parents with experience of affordability problems. The study also suggests potential for the planned expansion to have a positive financial impact for lower income households, who are more likely to find it difficult to afford childcare and more likely to use the expanded entitlement to enable them to work.


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