International Council of Education Advisers meeting papers: 19-20 February 2020

Papers from the meeting of the group on 19-20 February 2020.

Early learning and childcare: building on Scotland’s new capability 

This paper is for information/discussion (ICEA(20)03). Paper by the Scottish Government.


To seek views from the ICEA to inform policy development to maximise the opportunity of an expanded early learning and childcare public service in Scotland. 

Background – expansion of early learning and childcare in Scotland

One of the highest profile Scottish Government commitments of this parliamentary term is to deliver a near doubling of the amount of publicly funded early learning and childcare (ELC) available to all 3 and 4 year olds, and eligible 2 year olds, from August 2020.

The expansion requires a significant joint effort of national and local government in Scotland. Underpinning legislation has been passed by Parliament; total additional national investment of £2bn by 2020/2021 is funding the required local capital programmes and expansion of the early years workforce; and policy frameworks are focussed on using the opportunity of the expansion to continually improve the quality of ELC experienced by children.  

The primary policy driver of the expansion is to improve, and reduce gaps in, children’s lifelong outcomes. The evidence base for investing in early years education has grown since the pioneering work of James Heckman and colleagues in tracking outcomes for children who experienced high quality early learning in the Perry Preschool project.  

There remains a significant amount of work to do over the remaining period to August 2020 to secure successful delivery of this commitment. Officials are supporting local government in the development of contingency planning to address the risks that remain to delivery.

Nevertheless, the regularly published data that tracks local authority progress shows that the expansion is on track, and we are confident of successful delivery. Looking beyond 2020, we would welcome ICEA advice on how best Scotland can harness this new public capability in early years learning once established, in order to maximise public value in terms of improved outcomes for children, and reduced inequalities in those outcomes – in particular, the poverty related attainment gap.

Maximising the opportunity of the expansion of universal ELC 

In summary, the evidence base on early learning finds:

Consistent across the international research evidence on the impact of ELC is the finding that for positive outcomes on children’s development to be secured, the experience must be of high quality. 

The Scottish Government has introduced a new National Standard that all providers of publicly funded ELC (across local authority and private and third sector settings) will be required to meet from August 2020. The National Standard is one of the key mechanisms for ensuring the overall quality of ELC in Scotland continuously improves as the publicly funded service expands.

The National Standard sets a minimum quality threshold for providers of good or better on all four themes of Care Inspectorate evaluations:

  • quality of care and support
  • quality of staffing
  • quality of management and leadership
  • quality of environment

For those settings currently not achieving this (around 9% of existing funded providers) the Scottish Government is working in partnership with local authorities, the Care Inspectorate and Education Scotland to put in place targeted quality improvement support. 

In addition to this new requirement designed to contribute to a continuous improvement in quality across the sector, Scottish Government and partners have delivered almost all the actions set out in the 2017 Quality Action Plan. These actions are broadly grouped around three areas: workforce development; pedagogical development; and parental and family learning and engagement. Overall, a consistent message from the evidence is that the early years workforce is one of the primary drivers of quality in early learning.  

Workforce development

Scotland was already on a journey of professionalization of the early years workforce, in advance of the expansion commitment. Ministers have stressed the importance of maintaining and accelerating that journey, and ELC Workforce Development is one of the national projects underpinning the expansion. The programme of work comprises:

  • supporting the workforce to obtain qualifications
  • improving induction, training, and continuous professional development
  • improving the content of training and courses
  • promoting ELC career pathways

Graduate routes into the early learning workforce were expanded with the introduction, in 2009, of a new BA Childhood Practice – now taught in eight universities across Scotland, with year-on-year increased enrolment. The most recent workforce Census statistics, published in December 2019, show an increase in the graduate ELC workforce in Scotland. The total number of staff working in funded ELC holding, or working towards, graduate level qualifications relevant to early years (including teachers) increased by 559 FTE (13%) from 4,222 in 2018 to 4,781 in 2019. The expansion is contributing to the increase in demand for this workforce.

In addition to expanding career pathways, including graduate pathways, the workforce development programme focuses on each stage of the ELC career. A new National Induction Resource was published in 2019 which includes up to date information on the qualification requirements of the National Standard, how to access training, and a first 3 month induction programme for new entrants to the sector.  

A new Directory of Continuous Professional Learning is also available, which lists a range of CPL opportunities available at every stage of the practitioner career. A new series of Online Continuous Professional Learning Modules will be made available throughout the first half of 2020, focussing on areas where experts advised there were gaps in the available CPL. The first, published on January 30th, is on Staff skills, knowledge and confidence in delivering learning in STEM subjects in Early Learning.

Outdoor learning and play pedagogy

In addition to workforce development, the Quality Action Plan contains actions to promote outdoor learning and play based learning as part of the drive to continuously improve quality as the service expands.  

Outdoor ELC provision in Scotland is on the rise. We estimate that the number of fully outdoor settings has nearly doubled in the last two years, albeit from a relatively low base of around 18 settings. The new National Standard includes a requirement that:

“Children have daily access to outdoor play and they regularly experience outdoor play in a natural environment as part of their funded ELC offer”.

The new standards are encouraging practitioners to enable children in Scotland to have high quality experiences outdoors every day. Practical guidance for creating such experiences – Out to Play – was published in December 2018 and copies distributed to all early learning and childcare settings. Where a setting does not have its own outdoor spaces, practitioners are encouraged to use local greenspaces. The use of these spaces helps children to feel more connected to the area they live in, encouraging a care of shared spaces and increasing the likelihood of return visits outside of nursery hours with their families.

Alongside the practical guidance document, dedicated support to improve and increase outdoor learning has been provided to eight local authorities by Inspiring Scotland through a funded programme of practical advice and expertise focussed on regularly accessing greenspace, registering high quality outdoor spaces and building confidence in delivering outdoors.

The core practice guidance for the sector – Building the Ambition – is being refreshed and will be published in February. It has the importance, value and impact of child-centred practice and play pedagogy at its heart, and provides practical resources and advice to practitioners to support the development of play pedagogy in their settings.  

The focus on play pedagogy in early learning is also beginning to extend to primary schools. A potential consequence of the expansion is additional impetus behind the spread of play based pedagogy in the early primary years. Children who may have spent two or three years in early learning environments where play based learning is the norm, and outdoor learning is a daily occurrence, will expect those experiences to continue as they transition to primary school, as will their parents.  

The extension of play pedagogy in early years of primary also supports effective transitions between early learning settings and primary schools, of particular relevance in Scotland as the early level of our curriculum straddles ELC and early primary. Education Scotland have recently published an Early Level Play Pedagogy Toolkit to support practitioners to delivery play pedagogy throughout the early level of Curriculum for Excellence.   

Proportionate universalism – enhancing the universal offer with targeted support 

As in other countries, and perhaps not surprising given known variations in parental employment patterns, there is evidence of differences between the extent of ELC use among children from the least and most deprived communities in Scotland. This variation is, in part, related to differences in purchasing of additional ELC hours. The Scottish Government’s 2018 parent survey found that 74% of parents in the least deprived quintile purchased extra hours of ELC for their child, compared to 46% of parents in the most deprived quintiles.

Expanding the publicly funded universal ELC available in Scotland should reduce this gap in overall early learning hours accessed, and create more parity in the extent to which children receive formal support with their learning and development in the early years. 

In addition to expanding the universal publicly funded offer for 3 and 4 year olds, a targeted earlier ELC offer is available to around a quarter of two year olds. Eligibility criteria includes looked after children and children who are subject to a kinship or guardianship order. It is also available to those children whose families receive certain qualifying benefits, and children in families receiving support through an asylum claim. 

We are working with national and local government, private and third sector stakeholders to raise awareness and increase uptake and quality of the two year old entitlement by connecting with services that support children and families; securing a legal gateway to allow local authorities to identify their eligible population; and reviewing the content of the offer to ensure it is sufficient and meets the needs of the children and families who are accessing it.

In addition, since 2017, a new graduate level role – Equity and Excellence Leads –have been introduced to all settings in the most deprived communities in Scotland. These roles focus on pedagogical leadership in the setting aimed at closing the poverty related attainment gap.  

The Scottish Government’s expectation is that this earlier offer for eligible twos, together with the funding of an extra graduate level practitioner (an Equity and Excellence Lead) for settings serving our most disadvantaged communities, will make a key contribution to closing the poverty related attainment gap.  

Reducing child poverty itself is also a critical part of closing the poverty related attainment gap. The policy of expanding publicly funded ELC is multi-faceted: intended to impact on parental and wider family outcomes, as well as directly on child outcomes. Expanding ELC will support parents to take up opportunities to train, study, or work – making a key contribution to wider Scottish Government commitment to significantly reduce child poverty by 2030. Every Child, Every Chance – the Scottish Government’s strategy on tackling child poverty – identifies three key drivers of the child poverty reduction targets: income from work; costs of living; and income from social security. The expansion of funded ELC contributes to two of these by increasing opportunities to increase income from work, and by reducing household costs.  

How will we assess the impact of the expansion on intended outcomes?

A monitoring and evaluation strategy has been developed to measure progress on intended outcomes of the expansion of ELC, the centrepiece of which is a new study - The Scottish Study of Early Learning and Childcare (SSELC). SSELC is a cross-sectional and longitudinal study which collects information on child outcomes, family outcomes, and parent outcomes to evaluate the extent to which the expansion programme benefits have been achieved (see infographic).   

Data collection has been divided into a number of phases. In 2018 and 2019, baseline data was collected from children and parents accessing 600 hours of funded ELC. In 2022 and 2023, data will be collected from those accessing 1140 hours of funded ELC. Measuring before and after the expansion allows for an evaluation of the extent to which the expansion's intended benefits have been achieved. Full findings will be published in 2024.

Child outcomes are measured using a combination of questions from age-appropriate ‘Ages and Stages Questionnaires’ and ‘Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaires’. These questions are robust and internationally validated. They provide information relating to the social, emotional, behavioural, and cognitive development of a child, as well as their physical and mental health and wellbeing. Child outcomes are being recorded through observation of normal activities by the child’s keyworker. 

SSELC will add to the international evidence base on the impact of high quality early learning and childcare, particularly evidence on the impact of increasing hours of ELC.

Points for discussion

ICEA members are invited to offer their views on:

  • how the quality of ELC can be continuously improved at a time of significant expansion
  • how the anticipated contribution to narrowing the poverty related attainment gap from extending universal ELC can be sustained in primary and secondary phases
  • the potential for innovative pedagogical developments in early years to influence and improve practice in other learning phases and settings
  • how to sustain a system wide focus on early years, once delivery of the expansion is secured


International Council of Education Advisers minutes: 19-20 February 2020

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