Conclusions and key messages
This report has presented research findings on parents' use of and views on early learning and childcare ( ELC), to inform the development and delivery of the ELC expansion programme. This section provides an overview of key research findings across the themes considered by the research, and learning points for the future expansion to 1140 hours.
Uptake of funded hours
The research indicates that the great majority of parents with eligible children use some form of ELC, and nearly 9 in 10 use funded hours. Most of those using their funded entitlement combine this with paid and/or informal provision, and research findings suggest that this mix of providers is vital in enabling parents to secure the days and hours of ELC they require.
Uptake of the funded entitlement is significantly higher for 3 and 4-year olds than for 2-year olds – nearly all parents with a 3 or 4-year-old use some form of ELC, compared to less than half of those with an eligible 2-year-old.
Variation in uptake of the funded entitlement is due in part to parental choice, most commonly because they feel their child is too young. However, parents also referred to barriers to their using the entitlement such as not being aware that funded hours are available, or a lack of flexibility or choice in opening hours and childcare settings in their area.
Delivering flexibility, accessibility and quality
Flexibility, accessibility and quality of ELC are three of the key principles on which the planned expansion in entitlement is based. Key findings in relation to each of these principles are summarised below.
A substantial number of parents feel there is not enough flexibility in current ELC provision ( i.e. 600 funded hours per annum), and this has an impact on whether and how parents use ELC. A lack of flexibility in current provision is of most concern for those who are unable to afford private provision, single working parents, and those without access to informal ELC. Parents also experience a lack of flexibility and choice linked to their location – in rural areas due to a limited number of providers, and in urban areas due to limited availability of places.
Parents feel that private providers currently offer significantly better flexibility than local authority nurseries, and suggested that inflexibility in the hours offered by local authority providers are a significant barrier to these settings enabling parents to work. This is reflected in the number of parents using multiple ELC providers to secure the hours they require. However, some are unable to secure the required pattern of provision due to a lack of available places, affordability pressures, and/or lack of access to informal ELC.
Accessibility and quality
Study findings suggest that travel time is not a significant barrier to parents accessing suitable ELC, although parents in rural areas and those without access to transport are more likely to find location a constraint on their access to ELC. The majority of parents are aware of the funded entitlement, but a lack of information on available providers can limit parents' ability to make best use of the entitlement.
Parents are very positive about the quality of ELC they use. Satisfaction is strongest for how staff interact with their child (also the aspect of provision that parents rate as most important), staff qualifications and knowledge, and the quality of facilities.
The experience of parents of children with ASN suggests some room for improvement. Most are satisfied with their access to suitable ELC and are satisfied with the quality of their provider, although ratings are somewhat lower than for other groups. However, around half have experienced some barriers to accessing ELC. These difficulties most commonly relate to a lack of information on how providers support children with ASN, and the time that staff have available to meet children's needs.
Expanding the funded entitlement
In addition to assessing parents' current use of and views on ELC, the study also sought to gather feedback to inform the planned expansion in the funded entitlement by asking parents about their hypothetical use of 1140 hours per year, if it was available to them now.
Findings suggest that on average parents use 29 hours per week for a 3 or 4-year-old, and 24 hours for an eligible 2-year-old. This is broadly similar to the funded hours that the expansion would give parents; around 30 hours per week if used only during term-time, and 20-25 hours per week if used year-round. This suggests that many parents could be willing to use the additional hours when the expanded entitlement is introduced. This is reflected in feedback from parents with eligible children, 90% of whom would use some of the additional hours, and 75% of whom would use all or almost all of the 1140 hours.
However, research findings suggest that awareness of the entitlement may be a barrier to take up of the planned expansion. Around a quarter of parents have not heard of the planned expansion, and awareness is lowest for lower income and younger (under 35) parents. Moreover, around a fifth of those who are not currently using funded hours said that this is because they were not aware of the entitlement, or did not know how to use it. This suggests that raising awareness of the ELC entitlement could have a positive impact on uptake of the expanded hours.
The study suggests that there remains room for improvement in the flexibility of ELC provision, particularly for local authority nurseries. In terms of how parents would wish to use the expanded entitlement, this includes greater flexibility to use funded hours all year round, and in longer sessions each day. There is some variation in preferences, but year-round use and longer sessions are the most common preferences across all parent groups.
Qualitative feedback also suggests that a lack of flexibility in how funded hours can be used is a barrier to some parents using local authority provision. However, this feedback also suggests that parents are highly diverse in their specific requirements, and the patterns of days and hours over which they would wish to use the 1140 hours.
Affordability and financial impact
Making childcare more affordable to parents is also a key principle for the planned expansion. Study findings confirm that this is a priority for parents, and suggest the potential for positive financial impacts associated with reduced ELC costs and improved access to employment.
A little more than half of parents pay for ELC for children below primary school age, and those that do pay on average spend a total of almost £500 per month. More than two thirds of those parents who pay for eligible children say they have experienced affordability difficulties in the past year – including a fifth of those who pay with experience of significant difficulties.
In terms of financial impact, the proportion of parents paying for ELC and the prevalence of affordability difficulties suggests potential for the expanded entitlement to deliver direct financial impacts for the affordability of ELC. The study also highlights potential for the expansion to create opportunities for parents to move into work or study or to increase their working hours, which would also be expected to bring financial benefits. For example, for parents who would expect to use all or almost all of the expanded hours, nearly 80% would do so to work or look for work and around a third would expect to increase their working hours.
Impact and inequality
Supporting disadvantaged families, and reducing the attainment gap between the most and least deprived households, is a particular focus for the planned expansion. In this context, the report has highlighted significant variation across key parent groups under each theme.
In terms of financial impact, the study suggests that the expanded entitlement is likely to have a more significant impact for some parent groups. This reflects variation in the proportion of parents paying for ELC, how much of their income is spent on ELC, and experience of affordability difficulties. Those likely to see the most significant impact include two-earner households, parents who currently use 30 hours or more per week ELC, those who currently pay more for their ELC, and parents with experience of affordability difficulties. Each of these groups are more likely to expect to use the full 1140 hours.
Lower income households are less likely to pay for their ELC, and those that do typically pay less. However, the study also suggests that lower income households are more likely to report that they find it difficult to afford childcare, and a substantial proportion expect to use the 1140 hours to enable them to work. This suggests potential for the planned expansion to have a positive financial impact for lower income groups.
In terms of other significant variation in parents' views and experiences, these typically relate to income, deprivation, and how parents use ELC (particularly whether they pay for their provision). Key points of note are:
- Flexibility. Lower income households, single earners and those in the most deprived areas are more likely than others to prefer to use their entitlement during term-time only, in shorter sessions each day, and with a local authority nursery. Those who pay for ELC are more likely to prefer to use their entitlement all year round, for longer sessions, and with a private nursery.
- Accessibility. Lower income households, single earners and those in the most deprived areas are less likely than others to be aware of the planned expansion. Those who pay for ELC are more likely to be aware.
- Affordability. Lower income households and single earners are less likely to pay for ELC, and those that do so typically pay less than others. These parents are also less likely to expect to have to top up the 1140 hours, and are more likely to have experienced affordability difficulties. In contrast, those who do not use funded ELC are more likely to pay for their provision, more likely to expect to have to top up the 1140 hours, and more likely to have experienced affordability difficulties.
- Likely future use of 1140 hours. Lower income households, single earners and those in the most deprived areas use less hours of ELC on average, are more likely to use funded hours and less likely to pay for ELC. Those who pay for ELC use more hours on average, more likely to use private nurseries or childminders, and more likely to expect to use the full 1140 hours.
- Quality. Lower income households and those in the most deprived areas are more likely to rate a range of factors as very important to the quality of ELC, and are more satisfied across all aspects of their current provider. In contrast, those who pay for ELC and parents of children with ASN are less likely to rate a range of factors as very important, and the latter group are also less satisfied with several aspects of their current provider.
- Outcomes and benefits. Lower income households, those in the most deprived areas and single earners are more likely to use ELC to study or improve their work skills, and for more time to look after other children or household tasks. Those who pay for ELC and who do not use any funded hours are more likely to use ELC to work or increase their hours of work.
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