Scottish Study of Early Learning and Childcare: ELC Leavers (Phase 2) Report - Updated 2021

Findings from the second phase of the Scottish Study of Early Learning and Childcare (SSELC), a research project established to evaluate the expansion of early learning and childcare (ELC) in Scotland.

Summary and conclusions

This report was based on data from the Phase 2 of the Scottish Study of Early Learning and Childcare, which focussed on children in their last term of ELC. Together with findings from Phase 1 and Phase 3, the final phase of baseline data collection, it will provide a baseline from which to measure change once the ELC expansion in Scotland is complete. The cohort for Phase 2 consisted of children aged four and five who were eligible for receipt of 600 hours of funded ELC and were expected to start school in August 2019. The sample was designed to be representative of all such children accessing ELC in Scotland, with a degree of oversampling in deprived areas. Because of the very different nature of the sample at Phase 1, findings from this and the previous report are not comparable, although the two reports are structured in a similar way.

The results from Phase 2 will act as a baseline for assessing the impact of expanded ELC provision on children at the end of their pre-school year through comparison with data collected in later phases of the evaluation. This report is intentionally descriptive in nature – summarising the data collected and identifying some basic relationships between variables. It has not attempted to provide a comprehensive analysis of the relationship between use of funded ELC and child or parent outcomes. Furthermore, the majority of the analysis has been bivariate – examining the relationship between two variables at a time. As such, the well documented and often powerful influence of socio-economic background on outcomes and experiences has not consistently been controlled for and some of the relationships described may be attributed to this effect. As a result, results should be interpreted with caution. Despite this caveat, the data nevertheless provide an important initial view of the characteristics, experiences and outcomes of parents and children who have reached the end of their time receiving 600 hours of funded early learning and childcare and are now preparing to start school.

The families who took part in the survey at Phase 2 were representative of families with children in ELC across Scotland. To improve the analysis, there was a deliberate over-sampling of nurseries in deprived areas. This meant an adequate number of children living in deprived areas was included in the sample. The data was adjusted, via the survey weights, to account for this oversampling. This ensures the findings are nationally representative. In terms of income, education and ethnicity, characteristics of the sample using the weighted data were as expected: incomes were equally spread throughout the deciles, nearly half of respondents had a degree and 95% were white.

Most parents found their ELC setting accessible and nearly all engaged with the setting and its staff in a range of ways including discussing the child's progress, visiting the child's room and attending parents' evenings. Much smaller numbers of parents also received support from the nursery in other ways - for example with benefits issues, or in learning a new skill – this was more common amongst single parents and those with lower levels of education. Parents overwhelmingly recognised the benefits to their children of attending nursery, particularly in terms of their socialisation and education. Most also saw benefits to themselves with around two-thirds saying having their child in nursery allowed them to work, study or train. Disadvantages were rarely mentioned; where they were they tended to be around the flexibility and duration of nursery hours and how this limited parental employment patterns.

Nearly half of families used another provider of childcare alongside their ELC setting with grandparents being the main additional provider in the majority of cases. Working parents were particularly likely to require such extra childcare.

The majority (more than 80%) of children were assessed as being on on schedule in relation to each of the developmental domains covered by the Ages and Stages Questionnaire. This is an expected finding for a nationally representative sample of this nature. Boys fared worse than girls on all five of the domains, a trend which is commonly found in research into children's development, although it should still be recognised that for each of the domains, the vast majority of boys as well as girls were on schedule. Children in deprived areas also fared worse on some of the domains. These patterns were similar in relation to children's social, emotional and behavioural development, as measured by the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire.

While most children's development was as expected for their age, this was not the case for all. Scores on the SDQ and ASQ scales tended to be highly correlated, indicating that many of those children whose development was not on schedule in one area were more likely to not be on schedule in others. Settings therefore need to be able to assess and provide a range of support for children with multiple and diverse needs, many of whom may also live in households facing a range of challenges and disadvantage including poverty and low parental mental wellbeing.

Regression models were used to identify the key drivers of developmental delays, as assessed by the ASQ and SDQ scales. In both models being a boy and having a long-term health condition were highly significant factors in determining delays. Having a parent with low mental wellbeing was also significant in the SDQ model, while a low level of parental education was significant in the ASQ one. Once these were taken into account, two other factors showed significant associations with child outcomes: having two or more siblings, and being in a home where English is not the main / only language. Area deprivation showed no statistically significant association once other factors were taken into account. One of the aims of the increase in nursery provision is to narrow the attainment gap between children living in deprived areas and other children. This finding does not suggest that the gap is not real, only that it can be explained, at least in part, through associations between deprivation and the other factors identified in the models. The data suggest that supporting parental wellbeing, education and understanding of English are ways to help narrow the gap.

Regular engagement in home learning activities such as parent-child reading is known to have a positive influence on children's development. Encouragingly, more than half of parents had spoken to someone at the nursery about how to support their child's learning at home and participation in such activities was common for almost all children in the cohort. However, not all children had been engaged in these activities to the same extent. In particular, boys, children of less well-educated parents and those in single parent households were slightly less likely to have done so.

Around two-thirds of parents were in employment by this late stage of their child's nursery career. However, more than a third of these agreed that they would work more hours if they could afford good quality childcare. More than a quarter of those who were not working also said that one of the reasons they were not working was because of a lack of affordable, convenient, good quality childcare. Both of these figures were higher among low-income households. For parents like these, the expansion in hours has significant potential to improve their ability to take up employment or training, or extend their existing working hours.

The time a child is in nursery offered many other opportunities for parents. More than half said it gave them time to think about the future, and a third had been able to study or improve work-related skills. Slightly larger proportions had been feeling less stressed and had been feeling happier.

While most parents expressed relatively high levels of life satisfaction and wellbeing, single parents and those on low-incomes tended to report being less content. It is these groups, however, that appear likely to benefit the most from an expansion in hours. They were more likely to report wanting to work more hours, to be thinking more about the future and to be studying to improve their skills.



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