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.

Executive Summary


This report outlines 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.

The expansion of funded ELC in Scotland was due to take effect from August 2020. Implementation of the programme has, however, been paused due to the wide-ranging impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic[1]. An alternative timetable for the ELC expansion will be agreed by the Scottish Government and local authorities once the full implications of the pandemic are understood. The timetable for completion of Phase 4-6 of the SSELC will also be affected by this change and an updated evaluation timetable will be confirmed in due course.

Once the expansion programme is rolled out, it will see the hours of funded ELC nearly double for all three-and four-year-olds, and eligible two-year-olds, to 1140 per year. The expansion seeks to achieve three long term outcomes:

1. Children's development improves and the attainment gap narrows;
2. Parents' opportunities to be in work, training or study increase; and
3. Family wellbeing improves through enhanced nurture and support.

The SSELC has been designed to evaluate whether the ELC expansion programme has achieved these objectives by measuring outcomes for children and parents and carers receiving the existing entitlement and comparing them to those who receive the increased entitlement. The aims of Phase 2, which focussed on children who were coming to the end of their time in ELC and were about to start primary school, were to gather:

  • Robust baseline data on child outcomes for a random sample of four- and five-year-olds who were receiving 600 hours of funded ELC provision;
  • Robust baseline data on parent outcomes linked to the above cohort of four- and five-year-olds; and
  • Data and evidence on the characteristics of a sample of ELC settings also linked to the above cohort of four- and five-year-olds.


The sample in the study consisted of children aged between 4 years 3 months and 5 years 6 months who received up to 600 hours of funded ELC provision,and their parents. Participants were recruited via ELC settings in 30 local authorities. Settings providing 600 hours of funded ELC provision were selected at random from lists provided by each local authority, stratified by area deprivation and the number of four- and five-year-olds in attendance. Separate samples were drawn for settings in the most deprived areas and those in less deprived areas. Within each setting, up to 10 children were randomly selected and then invited to take part. The combination of these two random selections meant that all children across the 30 local authorities in deprived areas had an equal chance of selection, and all in less deprived areas had an equal chance of selection.

Data were gathered on children via a survey of parents / carers and a survey on the children's development undertaken by their ELC keyworkers (using the same cohort of children as the parent / carer survey). Data on the characteristics of ELC settings was collected via observations of ELC settings attended by sampled children. The two questionnaires were very similar to those used for two-year-olds in Phase 1 of the study, with adjustments made for the ages of the children. Fieldwork was conducted in May and June 2019. A total of 1,382 questionnaires were received from parents / carers and 1,846 from keyworkers across 223 settings. Observations were conducted in 150 settings.

Key findings

Characteristics of the cohort

  • Half (50%) of the children in the cohort attended settings in the most deprived areas, although only 31% actually lived in the most deprived areas.
  • One-in-five (20%) of those responding to the parent / carer survey were single parents, with the remaining four-fifths (80%) living in two-parent households.
  • Slightly under half of the respondents to the parent / carer survey (44%) had a university degree or equivalent qualification. A further 23% had post-school qualifications, while 13% had Highers, Advanced Highers or equivalent, 16% had Standard Grades or equivalent and 4% had no formal qualifications.
  • Twenty-two percent of children lived in households with an annual equivalised income[2] of less than £14,300 whilst 14% lived in households with an income of £49,400 or more. The remaining 64% had incomes between these ranges. This spread of incomes broadly corresponds with what would be expected from a nationally representative survey sample.
  • Nearly all respondents were White (95%) and most spoke only English at home (90%).

Use of ELC

  • Around half (47%) of families were using at least one provider of childcare (including both formal childcare from other nurseries or childminders and informal, such as from grandparents) in addition to the nursery at which their child was registered for participation in the survey. The use of additional childcare was more common among couple parents (50%) than single parents (37%). It also rose as levels of deprivation decreased, from 37% in the most deprived areas to 57% in the least deprived.
  • One-in-five (19%) of parents used multiple settings for formal childcare. Much more common was use of a single formal setting, in some cases topped up with informal childcare. Eighty one percent of parents used a single formal setting. In half of these cases (41% of all cases) the only childcare received was the funded childcare. In the other half of these cases, this was topped up with either additional unfunded childcare at the same setting (16% of all cases), informal childcare (20% of all cases), or both (5% of all cases).
  • Where funded ELC was topped up with unfunded ELC at the same setting, on average this roughly doubled the total hours at the setting to 30 hours per week. Similar levels were seen where funded ELC was topped up with informal childcare, where total hours from funded ELC plus informal childcare averaged at 32 hours per week.
  • A third of parents (33%) mentioned using grandparents to look after their child. This represents more than three-quarters (81%) of those who used any additional form of childcare. Grandparents were much more commonly used by parents who worked than those who didn't (42% compared with 7%).
  • Most children had been in at least one form of childcare before reaching the age of three. Of those children that had, more than half (56%) of families had used grandparents, and a third (33%) had used a private or workplace nursery or crèche.
  • Nearly half (47%) of families lived within five minutes of their ELC provider. A higher proportion of those living in rural areas or small towns lived this close (57%, compared with 43% of those living in urban areas).
  • All but a few parents had engaged in at least one activity at their child's nursery. Nearly all parents had visited their child's room (93%) and discussed their child's progress with his or her keyworker or another member of staff (97%). Large proportions had also attended a parents' evening or information event (86%).
  • Attending ELC was generally recognised as being more beneficial to the child than to the parents. Nearly all parents said that it was good for their child to interact and socialise with other children (99%), that it was good for their independence / confidence (97%), that it prepared them for school (97%) and that they enjoyed it (94%). Two-thirds (64%) of parents said that having their child in nursery enabled them to work, study or train.

Child health and development

  • Three-quarters of parents (76%) ranked their child's health as being 'very good', and a further one-fifth (21%) ranked it as being 'good'. Single parents were less likely to rate their child's health as 'very good' than those from two parent households (65% compared with 78%).
  • One-in-ten children (10%) had a longstanding illness or health condition. Of these children, 15% of parents said that the longstanding illness limited the child 'a lot'.
  • The majority of parents had no concerns about how their child talks (86%) or how they understand (96%). Parents were more likely to have concerns about boys than girls on both matters. For example, 17% of parents of boys were concerned about how their child talks compared with 11% of parents of girls.
  • More than half (57%) of children had looked at books at home every day in the previous week. Half (51%) had recited nursery rhymes / sung songs every day and 42% had played at recognising letters, words, numbers and shapes every day. A quarter (25%) of children had done painting or drawing at home every day.
  • Children in single parent households were less likely to have looked at books and read stories than children in couple parent households. Thirty-nine percent of those in single parent households had read books / looked at stories every day in the last week, compared with 61% of children in couple parent households. Those living in deprived areas were also less likely to have looked at books every day: 41% of children living in the most deprived areas had done so, compared with 61% of children living in other areas.

Children's keyworkers at ELC settings were asked to complete observations of the child's development using the Ages and Stages Questionnaire (ASQ). The ASQ provides a structured assessment of a range of developmental domains. There are 30 items split into five different domains: Communication, gross motor, fine motor, problem solving and personal-social. Each domain produces a summary score which can be used to indicate whether the child's development is perceived to be on schedule, needs monitoring or requires further assessment.

  • On each of the five ASQ domains, the majority of children (over 80%) had development deemed to be on schedule, as may be expected for a nationally representative sample.
  • Reflecting trends commonly found in child development data, girls were more likely be on schedule than boys for all five domains. The difference was largest for the fine motor domain (92% of girls on schedule compared with 73% of boys).
  • Children living in the most deprived areas were less likely to be on schedule than those living in other areas in three of the five domains -communication, fine motor and problem solving. The difference was again largest in the fine motor domain where 76% of children living in the most deprived areas were on schedule compared with 85% of those living in other areas.
  • A number of other factors were associated with children having development deemed to require monitoring or further assessment on at least one of the domains.
  • Regression analysis was used to identify the key drivers of not being on schedule for at least two domains. This found that the most significant factors were being a boy and having a long-term health condition, followed by level of parental education. Being in a home where English is not the main / only language was also significant, as was having two or more siblings. When controlling for these variables, other factors, such as area deprivation, showed no independent association with delays in development on at least two domains.

Children's keyworkers were also asked to complete observations of the child's development using the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ). The SDQ comprises 25 questions about a child's behaviour. Responses can be combined to form a measure of 'total difficulties', plus five different subscales measuring aspects of the child's development: emotional symptoms; conduct problems; hyperactivity / inattention; peer relationship problems; and prosocial behaviour. Within each domain (with the exception of the prosocial one) children's scores can be put into the following categories: 'close to average', 'slightly raised', 'high' and 'very high', with 'very high' indicating multiple behavioural difficulties identified. For the prosocial domain higher scores indicate more positive behaviour, so categories of 'slightly lowered', 'low' and 'very low' are used.

  • Again, the majority of children (85%) scored close to average on the SDQ total difficulties scale. For the separate domains, the proportion scoring close to average ranged from 78% on the hyperactivity domain to 92% on the prosocial behaviour domain.
  • Across all the SDQ domains, with the exception of emotional symptoms, girls were more likely to score close to average than boys. For the total difficulties score, 91% of girls were close to average compared with 79% of boys, with 7% of boys scoring 'very high' compared with 2% of girls.
  • Area deprivation was not significantly associated with a child's SDQ total difficulties score, nor was it for any of the individual domains.
  • Children's scores on each of the ASQ domains were strongly correlated with their SDQ total difficulties score. Those who had an SDQ score that was close to average were much more likely to have development deemed to be on schedule in the ASQ domains than those who scored 'very high' on the SDQ total difficulties scale.
  • Several other factors were identified as being associated with raised scores on the total difficulties scale.
  • Regression analysis was used to identify the key drivers of having a raised / high total difficulties score. This found that the most significant factors were being a boy, the child having a long-term health condition, and having a parent with low mental wellbeing. Neither area deprivation, nor any other factor showed a statistically significant association once other factors were taken into account.

Parent outcomes

  • Around two-thirds of parents (mostly mothers) were in work, with 31% reporting they worked 30 or more hours a week and 38% working less than 30 hours a week.
  • Thirty-eight percent of working parents agreed they would work more hours if they could afford high quality childcare; the same proportion disagreed. Those with a lower household income and single parents were more likely to agree with the statement than those on higher incomes / in couple households.
  • Twenty-eight percent of non-working parents agreed that "a lack of affordable, convenient, good quality childcare is one of the main reasons I'm not working at the moment", while 40% disagreed. Those on lower incomes were more likely to agree.
  • Most parents reported their own health to be good (42%) or very good (43%). Single parents and parents with lower levels of education tended to report worse health.
  • Eighteen percent of parents reported that they had a physical or mental health condition or illness lasting or expected to last for 12 months or more. Fourteen percent of those with a longstanding condition reported that it limited their activities a lot. Three-fifths (61%) of those with a condition said that it affected their mental health or exhibited as social, emotional or behavioural issues.
  • Parents were asked how satisfied they were with their life as a whole nowadays, on a scale of 0 to 10. More than a third (37%) of parents rated their life satisfaction at 9 or 10, while a further third (30%) scored themselves an 8. Only 8% rated their life satisfaction as 5 or below.
  • Single parents were more likely to be dissatisfied with their life (19% rating it as 0 to 5) than couple parents (6%). Dissatisfaction also fell with increasing income - 15% of those in the lowest income group rated their life satisfaction between 0 and 5 compared with less than 1% of those in the highest income group.
  • Three-quarters of parents (75%) said that they were coping well as parents most or all of the time with only 1% admitting they were not coping well for much of the time. Confidence in how they were parenting rose with increasing levels of education and income. It was also higher in two parent households.
  • The majority of parents said that as a result of having their child in nursery they had been able to work or look for work (59%), and that they had been able to think about what they might do in the future (54%). A third (32%) had used the time freed up by having their child in nursery to study or improve work related skills, while a slightly larger proportion (39%) had used the time to care for other family members. Just over a third agreed that they were feeling less stressed because their child was in nursery (38%) and that they were feeling happier (35%).

Characteristics of ELC

Reviewers from the Care Inspectorate conducted observations of 150 settings using the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECERS-3). This is a widely recognised and highly regarded instrument designed for use in settings where most children are aged between three and five. The ECERS tool was used to provide a snapshot of the everyday experiences of children in their ELC settings and to generate data in order to control for the effect of settings on children's outcomes in the study. The ECERS tool is not the only way of assessing quality and is best considered in conjunction with other measures such as the Care Inspectorate ratings, which provide a wider measure of the quality of practice and policy in the setting and have also been found to be related to children's outcomes in Scotland.

ECERS-3 comprises 35 items across 6 different subscales: space and furnishings; personal care routines; language and literacy; learning activities; interaction and programme structure.

  • Settings scored highest on the 'interaction' subscale, with 79% scoring 5 or above (out of a maximum of 7).
  • The majority of settings also scored at this level on the 'personal care routines' (65%), the 'space and furnishings' (59%) and the 'programme structure' (59%) subscales. On two of these subscales ('space and furnishings' and 'learning activities') no settings scored the maximum 7, and of the other four the highest proportion achieving the maximum, indicating 'excellent' on all items, was 10%.
  • On the 'language and literacy' subscale only 29% of settings scored 5 or above. Scores were lowest on the 'learning activities' subscale, with only 7% of settings scoring 5 or above, and 33% scoring below 3.



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