In February 2021, new Scottish Parliament legislation laid out plans for the expansion of Early Learning and Childcare (ELC) funding for children whose parents or carers choose to defer their entry to primary school. The expansion automatically entitled children born between mid-August (the start of the academic year) and December to an additional year of ELC funding, something only guaranteed for children with January and February birthdays until this point. Previously, mid-August-December born children were only granted funding at the discretion of their local authority.
In anticipation of full implementation in August 2023, the Scottish Government and the Convention Of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) published a Joint Implementation Plan, setting out the approach to implementing and evaluating a pilot programme of funded deferrals during 2021-22 and 2022-23. The new policy was piloted in ten local authorities with five 'Year 1' areas starting in 2021 and an additional five 'Year 2' areas added in 2022. The Scottish Government commissioned Ipsos Scotland to undertake an evaluation of the 10 pilots. The overall aim was to evaluate the implementation of the new automatic entitlement in Year 1 and 2 pilot areas to inform the national roll-out of the additional year of ELC funding across Scotland from August 2023. The evaluation was primarily qualitative in nature, exploring the experiences of staff delivering the new policy and those of parents of children who became eligible for the funding under the pilot. It also used uptake data from the pilot areas and national School Census data to examine any impact of the change on the uptake of deferral.
In order to provide structure to the evaluation, a logic model was developed to map the theory of change behind expanding the entitlement. The intended impact outcomes for parents and children were:
- a more consistent approach to deferral across Scotland
- increase in child-centred decision making
- increase in parental choice
- parents feel supported by ELC/LA staff in their decision making
- financial barrier of additional year of ELC removed or reduced
- reduced stress and concern for parents over their child starting school
- deferral rates become more uniform across Scotland including by Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD)
When considering the findings (summarised below), it is important to keep in mind that this project used a qualitative research design to address its research aims. This means that estimates of the prevalence of particular views or experiences are inappropriate and that findings from the 10 participating local authorities may not be representative of all local authorities in Scotland.
Impact on the uptake of deferral
The deferral rate for children with mid-August-December birthdays was higher in pilot areas compared to the average across Scotland, and more so in the Year 2 pilot areas. However, it was not so great that it caused widespread capacity issues in ELC settings. It is difficult to disentangle various drivers of increases, particularly given the Covid-19 pandemic appears to have driven increases nationally, and the pilot areas had different 'pre-pilot' policies to funding mid-August-December deferral requests. There is a slight indication that the less deprived pilot areas were more likely to see a sharper increase. January-February deferral rates did not appear to be affected by the pilot.
Implementation and processes
Overall, the pilot was implemented broadly as intended, and did not have a major impact on local authority and ELC resources. Both pilot leads and ELC staff felt the implementation had gone smoothly. It had reduced workloads in local authorities where previously a panel would review each application and professionals may gather information and/or observe a child. The planning of the pilot involved developing communications to ensure all settings were informed and staff felt supported. ELC heads and practitioners felt that the communications they had received were sufficient to enable them to inform and support parents around the pilot and what it could mean for their child.
The main changes in practice for frontline ELC staff were: additional time talking to more parents about the entitlement and whether it could be beneficial to their child; and adjusting pedagogical approaches to ensure older children who have been deferred are challenged. Staff generally felt confident about these changes, although there were examples of staff feeling unclear about whether they should raise the subject of deferral with parents. Handling conversations with parents sensitively was emphasised by ELC practitioners as vital but also as something they were doing before the pilot.
Capacity was only an issue in a small number of "hotspots" where spaces for younger children starting nursery were limited. There were concerns among local authority and ELC staff that capacity could be a problem in the future. A further challenge was the timing of deferral decisions balanced with the need to plan Primary 1 (P1) teacher numbers.
Parents' experiences of the new processes
Parents' experiences of finding out about the entitlement were mixed. They ranged from those who felt well informed, having received written communications from their ELC setting, to those who did not know the funding was guaranteed until after their child's place was confirmed. This highlighted the need for a more consistent approach across all settings as some asked staff to speak to all eligible parents, and others relied on written communication being read (which did not always happen). The deferral process itself was found to be straightforward, although those who had to apply for both a P1 place and an ELC place felt this could be streamlined.
Parents highly valued conversations with ELC staff, feeling their professional opinion and knowledge of their child was useful in deciding whether to take up the funding. There were, however, those who felt upset and/or shocked when staff initially raised the possibility. To them it felt 'scary' because they worried there was something wrong with their child. This highlighted the importance of a sensitive approach to conversations with parents, particularly given there continues to be a stigma around deferral in some communities. The qualitative research indicated that this negative perception of deferral as 'holding them back' was more apparent among parents from more deprived areas.
Overall, parents found staff approachable, supportive and able to answer questions regarding their child's progress and developmental needs, as well as deferral processes. Staff saw their role as providing supporting information if they felt deferral would be beneficial, but also emphasising that the decision lies with the parent. There were parents who appreciated this position while others found it frustrating that ELC practitioners took a "neutral" position. Where parents were not happy with support provided by ELC staff, this tended to be when they disagreed with the advice offered. ELC staff spoke positively about the pilot enabling more informal conversations about deferral. They also provided a range of approaches which they felt best support child-centred decision making. These included approaching the topic in an open way and making time and private space for what can be an emotional conversation.
Impacts for parents and children
The funding has largely removed, or at least reduced, financial barriers to deferral. Some parents did not feel they could have afforded to defer their child without the funding, and may not have applied to defer them without this guarantee. The pilot increased parental choice by: enabling parents who were not aware that deferring was an option for their child to consider it and by increasing the choice available for parents who wanted to defer their child but may not have for financial reasons, or because they felt their application would be unsuccessful.
The evidence also indicates that the pilot has increased child-centred decision making – parents reported concentrating on what they felt was best for their child, rather than any practical considerations, with ELC staff in agreement that this reflected their experience. In addition, whether their child was 'ready' (including: emotionally, socially, academically, physically) for school consistently emerged as the main factor informing decisions, with the main influences on parents' decisions being others who were well positioned to comment on what would be best for the child. ELC staff felt that the automatic funding had led to an increase in child-centred decision making.
Remaining barriers to child-centred decision making included: stigma around deferral (although there was a suggestion this was lessening); peer group considerations (wanting children to remain with friends or be separated from another child); and the timing of deferral decisions (considered to be too early). Having the guarantee of an additional funded year has helped to reduce parental stress by simplifying the deferral process/removing the need to gather supporting evidence for deferral and by giving parents full control of the decision. Parents were generally happy with the decision they had made for their child, making the process of starting school feel less stressful.
Conclusions and lessons for roll-out
The pilot has been implemented broadly as intended and the findings are positive in relation to the short- and medium-term intended outcomes. The signs are also encouraging in relation to longer-term outcomes of more consistent approaches and more uniform deferral rates across Scotland.
Areas for consideration which would improve parents' experiences include: producing standard written communications for settings to send to all eligible parents and clearer guidance for settings around communication to avoid instances of parents not receiving any official communications about the entitlement. This would ensure all eligible parents benefit from the opportunity to consider deferral, thereby increasing choice and child-centred decision making. The full report provides further recommendations on communication. Greater information provided earlier in the preschool year about what P1 is like in their school and on what an additional year in ELC would comprise, would also help parents make a more informed decision.
Further points to consider for ELC staff include: training and/or resources to ensure they are aware and feel confident raising the subject of deferral; and clarifying their role in relation to parents' decisions on deferral. Settings may benefit from support so they can provide additional training and resources for staff on pedagogical approaches for older children. Areas that could improve the deferral process itself are: reviewing the timing of when deferral decisions need to be made, keeping in mind the need for flexibility for parents and local authorities' requirements for planning teacher numbers; and looking at whether the process can be simplified further by not requiring parents to apply for a P1 space when deferring.
While ELC capacity was not a major issue across the pilot areas, it was flagged as a potential future issue. It will be important to continue to review capacity issues across ELC settings as the entitlement is rolled out alongside other policies which require more spaces. Increasing the analysis by local authorities on children who defer would also aid future evaluation of the expanded entitlement. This would ideally include monitoring: Additional Support Needs (ASN), disabilities, households on low-income benefits, ethnic group, and SIMD quintile of children who defer.
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