Early learning and childcare - parents' views and use: survey findings 2022

Findings from a survey undertaken to explore use of, and views on, early learning and childcare (ELC) services among parents and other primary carers of children in Scotland who have not yet started school.

Executive summary

This report presents the findings from a survey undertaken to explore use of, and views on, early learning and childcare (ELC) services among parents and other primary carers of children in Scotland who have not yet started school.

Background and study objectives

From August 2021 the funded entitlement to ELC in Scotland increased from 600 to 1,140 hours per year for all three and four year olds, as well as for eligible two year olds[1]. This is a significant increase in funded hours for eligible children and aims to deliver three main benefits for children and families: that children's development improves and the poverty-related outcomes gap narrows; parents' and carers' opportunities to take up or sustain work, training, or study increase; and family wellbeing improves.

As part of the programme of evaluation and research on this increase in funded hours, Scottish Government appointed independent researchers, Progressive Partnership, to undertake a survey of parents. The study sought the views of parents in Scotland with children aged under six years who were not yet in school. It involved an online survey, primarily promoted to parents through ELC providers, and telephone interviews with parents who have pre-school children drawn from the re-contacts database of the Scottish Household Survey. Efforts were also made to include parents whose children were cared for by childminders and those not in ELC. It should be noted that the respondents to the online survey were self-selecting. The main fieldwork took place in April and May 2022.

The survey provides up‑to-date information on parents' use of and views about ELC, particularly accessibility, flexibility, affordability and quality, with a focus on funded ELC. This builds on a previous survey undertaken in 2017 which also explored parents' views on use and experience of ELC prior to the expansion. It should be noted that the vast majority (95%) of survey respondents were women.

Key findings and conclusions

Use of childcare

The majority (98%) of parents who responded to the survey reported that they use some form of childcare[2] for their children. The likelihood of using childcare increases with a child's age, rising from 67% for under twos to just under 100% for three to fives. Parents from more disadvantaged households were less likely to use childcare generally and tended to use fewer hours.

The type and mix of childcare used also varies by the child's age, not least because most of the three to five year olds in the sample were entitled to funded ELC. Around 60% of parents of two year olds use paid-for childcare, compared to around 41% of under twos and 22% of those with children aged three to five years.

The average number of hours of paid-for childcare used per week during term time – including for children not entitled to funded ELC and in addition to funded ELC for those eligible – was similar across all child age groups at around 20 hours per week. Parents used slightly less paid-for childcare during school holidays, especially for children aged three to five. Generally, households with two working parents used more paid-for childcare hours than other households, and the amount of paid childcare used increased with income.

Use of funded ELC

Most of the survey focused on views relating to funded ELC. Almost all (97%) of the parents with a three to five year old and most (86%) with an eligible two year old had used funded ELC for their child since August 2021.

Since August 2021, all parents of eligible children have been entitled to 1,140 hours of funded ELC. Around three-quarters (73%) of parents with a three to five year old and around half (52%) of those with a two year old used all the entitlement. Households with a working parent were more likely than others to be using their full entitlement. Of those not using their full entitlement, most were doing so through choice: typically, they did not need or want the full entitlement or did not want their child in nursery for so many hours. However, around a quarter (23%) of those not using the full 1,140 hours could not get the sessions that they wanted at their preferred setting. This was a particular issue for households with two parents in work.

Only 3% of parents with a three to five year old surveyed said they had not used funded ELC. Most of these children had recently turned three and had to wait until August 2022 to take up their place. Generally, parents of two year olds who did not take up their entitlement felt they did not need it because their child was still too young, or because they preferred to look after their child themselves. However, a few mentioned being unaware of funded ELC and how to access it.

Flexibility of funded ELC

The majority of parents used their funded ELC in a local authority nursery class (72% of parents with children aged three to five; 61% of parents of two year olds), with almost all of the others using private nurseries. Three per cent used a childminder. Around a tenth (11%) of parents of two year olds used a family centre.

Overall parents were roughly split between using their funded hours all-year round and during term time. Parents of children aged three to five were more likely to use their hours during term time only (57% vs 41%), while parents of eligible two year olds were more evenly divided (49% vs 47%).

On average, the three to five year old children tended to spend 24.9 hours per week in funded ELC during term time, and 21.4 hours per during holidays. This is slightly longer than the eligible two years olds, who spent 21.0 hours and 17.6 hours respectively. For both age groups, households with two working parents used more hours throughout the year than those with no working parents.

Parents, on the whole, said they were satisfied with the flexibility they have been offered to use their funded hours in a way that meets their family's needs: 88% of those with a three to five year old and 92% of those with a two year old were satisfied, with 58% and 74% respectively very satisfied. Those who were dissatisfied would prefer the option of being able to have longer sessions on fewer days each week, shorter sessions on more days each week, and sessions throughout the school holidays. Many of these parents wanted flexibility to match their funded hours more closely to their work patterns, so they could minimise the amount of top-up care they had to purchase.

Accessibility of funded ELC

Nearly all eligible parents found it easy to travel to their main provider of funded ELC, with 97% of parents of three to five year olds and 95% of parents of eligible two year olds saying they found it easy to travel to their funded ELC provider, and around three-quarters saying they found it very easy.

Use of ELC for children with additional support needs

Fifteen per cent of parents said at least one of their eligible children has additional support needs (ASN). The most commonly mentioned were language, speech and communication difficulties; social, emotional or behavioural difficulties; and autistic spectrum disorder.

Parents were generally satisfied that funded ELC meets their child's additional support needs: 85% said they were satisfied, this includes 53% who said they were very satisfied. One in 10 were dissatisfied. The majority of parents of children with ASN also said they had not experienced any specific difficulties with their provider (69%). In 2018, around half (48%) of parents with a child with ASN had experienced difficulties accessing suitable provision, compared with 31% in 2022. Those who had experienced difficulties most commonly cited staff not having enough time available to meet the needs of their child (14%) and a lack of information on how providers support children with ASN (14%). Some mentioned a lack of confidence in the staff's qualifications, knowledge and experience (10%).

Choosing a funded ELC provider and quality of funded ELC

Parents indicated that the location of the setting, the staff and the provider's reputation were the most important factors in choosing where to send their children. Other factors such as continuity (being attached to the same school their child will go to or the setting attended prior to funding), the opportunities open to the child (for example, outdoor activities, Gaelic), siblings currently/previously attended; and reliability were also considerations.

Parents were very positive about the quality of the provision from their main funded ELC provider. Almost all parents (97%) were satisfied with the quality of their provider, including 70% of parents who were very satisfied. While levels of satisfaction were high, a few sub-groups of parents were more likely than others to be very satisfied: those with eligible two year olds compared with three to five year olds; households with no earners in the household compared with households with one or two earners; and parents whose children do not have ASN compared with those who have a child with ASN.

Effect of Covid-19 on the use of funded ELC

The pandemic delayed the increase in funded ELC by a year to August 2021. Most (74%) parents said that the pandemic had not influenced their use of ELC since August 2021. The biggest impact for those who had been affected was a reduction in their use of funded ELC (18%). Often this was because their provider reduced the setting's hours or closed completely. In some other cases the parent had to withdraw their child (for example, having to self-isolate). A minority (4%) experienced an increase in use of ELC, for example to accommodate their own increased work commitments. Other impacts (noted by around 3%) included providers being less flexible with the hours/days they offered, limiting or restricting access to the setting, and concerns about their child's development.

Impacts and benefits of funded ELC

The main reasons for using funded ELC were to benefit their child's development, confidence/independence and learning (all mentioned by around four-fifths of parents). Around three-fifths (61%) of parents of three to five year olds also said they used funded ELC so they could work/look for work; this was especially important to working parents of three to five year olds (mentioned by 84%).

The survey also asked about the impact that funded ELC has had on parents' lives, the activities they have been able to undertake because of access to funded hours, and the contribution to their health and wellbeing. The most commonly mentioned impacts of the funded hours were to enable parents to work or look for work (74%) and to have time to think about what they may do in the future (mentioned by 71%).

Wellbeing impacts were next most commonly mentioned, although substantially less frequently: just under half had been feeling happier (47%), less stressed (46%) and had had time to look after themselves more (44%).

Affordability of childcare

Thirty six per cent of the survey respondents said they paid for some of their childcare. For this group, the average household spend per month on childcare is higher for households with children aged under three years, at £533, than for those with children aged three to five years, at £306. It seems likely this reflects, at least in part, the impact that funded ELC has on reducing costs for families once their children are old enough to benefit from the entitlement. Forty-four per cent of parents of children under three are paying more than £500 per month on their childcare, compared to just 13% of parents of children aged three to five years.

The majority (62%) of those who pay for childcare indicated they have experienced affordability problems in the last 12 months. Perhaps not surprisingly, given their access to funded ELC, parents of three to five year olds were much less likely to have had difficulties than parents of children aged under three (58% vs 69%). A number of other key sub-groups were especially likely to report significant difficulties affording childcare, including lone parents, households with no/single earner, and parents of a child with ASN. Most (four-fifths) of the parents who experienced difficulties mentioned the high cost of childcare (97%). Around a fifth also mentioned difficulties paying childcare fees upfront.

Extension of funded ELC to younger children

The Scottish Government has committed to build the evidence base required to inform the development of a high quality offer of ELC for one and two year olds, as well as developing wraparound care for school-age children. Currently around 64% of parents of children aged under three years (and not eligible for funded ELC) use some form of paid-for childcare. Most commonly mentioned was private nurseries (46%), with others using childminders, playgroups, community nurseries and family centres. Those not using paid-for care gave two main reasons: 53% said they could not afford to pay for childcare and 47% preferred to look after their child themselves.

However, when asked how interested they would be in using funded childcare or early learning for their child under three years, almost all (91%) of these parents said they would be interested, with most (80%) saying they would be very interested. Just 7% said they would not be interested. Households with working parents would be especially interested. If funded ELC were to be extended, parents would be looking for a setting where they could have confidence in the staff (100% agreed with this), where their child can meet/play with other children (99%), that provide good outdoor experiences (98%), in a convenient location for home (93%) and that offers flexible hours/sessions (90%).


The majority of parents are very positive about funded ELC. The benefits to their child's social, emotional and educational development were regarded as the main reasons for using the entitlement by almost all parents. Most parents also valued the opportunities offered to work, look for work, or undertake education and training to improve employment prospects in the future. Linked to these, many parents also mentioned feeling less stressed, with more time for themselves and their family.

However, some challenges remain. There is a need to go further to improve the flexibility of provision so that it meets the needs of more families. Also to continue to address affordability as the cost of childcare for those not entitled to funded ELC or who need to purchase additional hours to meet their childcare needs remains high, with affordability for less advantaged households a particular concern. More advantaged households (higher incomes, two parents in work) are most likely to use funded ELC and use more funded hours. Further work is needed to maximise take up of funded ELC among those who may benefit most. In addition, there is a need to continue to ensure provision meets the needs of all children with ASN.

The survey clearly indicates that the increased entitlement to 1,140 hours of funded ELC is making a real difference to parents. Not surprisingly, there was also a very high level of support for an extension of age-appropriate, funded ELC provision to children aged one and two years.


Email: socialresearch@gov.scot

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