Scottish Study of Early Learning and Childcare: Phase 1 Report - Updated 2021

Phase 1 of the Scottish Study of Early Learning and Childcare (SSELC) aimed to gather a robust baseline of child and parent outcomes for a cohort of eligible two-year-olds who were receiving 600 hours of funded early learning and childcare provision.

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Executive Summary


This report outlines findings from the first 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 programme 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 from August 2020. The expansion seeks to achieve three long term outcomes:

1. To improve children’s development, particularly amongst those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, and to narrow the attainment gap between children from the most and least deprived areas in later years.

2. To enable more parents to have the opportunity to be in work, training or study – again, with a particular focus on benefitting parents in disadvantaged circumstances.

3. To increase family resilience through improved health and wellbeing of parents and children, with a particular focus on families in disadvantaged circumstances.

The SSELC has been designed to evaluate whether the ELC expansion programme has achieved these objectives by measuring outcomes for children and parents receiving the existing entitlement and comparing them to those who receive the increased entitlement.

The aims of Phase 1, which focussed on eligible two-year-olds, were to gather:

  • A robust baseline of child outcomes for a cohort of eligible two-year-olds who were receiving 600 hours of funded ELC provision.
  • A robust baseline of parent outcomes linked to the above cohort of eligible two-year-olds who were currently receiving 600 hours of funded ELC provision.
  • Data and evidence on the quality of a sample of ELC settings linked to the above cohort of eligible two-year-olds.

The eligibility criteria for statutory funded ELC for eligible two-year-olds are aimed at those who experience the greatest disadvantage from their circumstances. This means that most of the children included in the research were more likely to be experiencing varying levels of socio-economic difficulties. The criteria include children who are looked after, are subject to kinship care or guardianship order. They also cover families who are in receipt of certain qualifying benefits[1] (out of work benefits or income related benefits with an annual income below a designated threshold). In addition to the statutory entitlement, local authorities can use their discretion to offer funded or subsidised ELC over and above the legal entitlement to provide support for a wider range of families. As a result, some two-year-old children included in the research will be receiving funded ELC though these discretionary powers.


The cohort in the study consisted of children aged between two years and two years six months[2] who received up to 600 hours of funded ELC provision[3] and their parents. Participants were recruited via ELC settings in 17 local authorities. Data were gathered on children via a survey of parents/carers, a survey on the children’s development undertaken by their ELC keyworkers (using the same cohort of children as the parent/carer survey) and observations of ELC settings attended by sampled children. Fieldwork was conducted between October and December 2018. A total of 428 questionnaires were received from parents/carers and 574 from keyworkers across 151 settings.

Key findings

Characteristics of the cohort

  • Fifty-three percent of respondents were single parents, while 47% lived in two parent households.
  • Seventeen percent of respondents had degree level qualifications and a further 19% had other post-school qualifications; 17% had Highers, Advanced Highers or equivalent, and 36% had Standard Grades, National 4/5s or equivalent as their highest level of educational qualification. Twelve percent had no formal qualifications.
  • Half of the respondents (49%) were in households amongst those with lowest 10% of equivalised household incomes (having an annual income of less than £9,701)[4] and a further 33% were in households with annual incomes of at least £9,701 but less than £17,638 (the lowest 11%-30% of household incomes). As noted above, the disproportionate representation of low-income households amongst the cohort reflects the eligibility criteria for government-funded provision of ELC to two-year-olds.
  • The eligibility criteria are also reflected in the deprivation levels of the areas where respondents lived. Almost half (47%) of respondents lived in areas amongst the 20% most deprived in Scotland[5] with the remainder living in less deprived areas.
  • Most respondents (96%) were White and the vast majority (91%) spoke only English at home.

Use of ELC

  • Sixty-four percent of parents/carers lived within 10 minutes of their child’s ELC setting and only 1% said it took 30 minutes or longer to make the trip. Parents living in urban areas were more likely than those living in rural areas to live within 10 minutes of their child’s ELC setting (64% compared with 51%)[6].
  • Almost all parents (99%) had engaged in at least one activity at their child’s ELC setting since the child started. Visiting the child’s room (92%) and discussing the child’s progress with a member of staff (84%) were most common. Least common were learning a new skill such as cooking (4%) and receiving help with transport to and from the nursery (3%).
  • Parents living in the most deprived 20% of areas were more likely than those living in other areas to report having: stayed and played with their child (60% compared with 55%); talked to someone about how to support their child’s learning at home (42% compared with 38%); and learned a new skill such as cooking (7% compared with 2%).
  • Attending ELC was generally recognised as being more beneficial for children than for parents. Parents were most likely to say the main advantage was that it helped with the child’s educational development (58%). Many also mentioned the benefits of socialising with other children (51%). No parent stated there were no advantages to a two-year old child being in nursery.

Child health and development

  • Most parents (57%) ranked their child’s general health as being ‘very good’, with 32% reporting it as ‘good’. A small proportion (10%) said their child’s health was ‘fair’ and even fewer (1%) said it was ‘bad’.
  • Thirteen percent of children had a long-term illness and 11% had a long-term limiting illness.
  • Thirty-three percent of respondents had concerns about how their child talks and 16% had concerns about what their child understood. In both areas, parents were more likely to be concerned when the child was male.
  • Almost all children (99%) had been engaged in some form of home learning activity in the previous seven days. The most common was reciting nursery rhymes or singing songs (64% of children had done this every day). Looking at books and reading stories was also very common (50% had done this every day).
  • Boys, children from more deprived areas and those in single parent households were slightly less likely to have engaged in any activities and to have done so less frequently in the last seven days than girls, children living in other areas and those in couple households.

Children’s keyworkers at ELC settings were asked to complete observations of the child’s development using the Ages and Stages (ASQ) and Strengths and Difficulties (SDQ) questionnaires.

The ASQ provides a structured assessment of five developmental domains: communication, gross motor, fine motor, problem-solving and personal-social. It is used to identify children at greater risk of developmental problems. Each domain produces a summary score which can be used to indicate whether the child’s development is on schedule, needs monitoring or requires further assessment.

  • In all domains other than gross motor, only a minority of children were deemed to have development which was on schedule. This was least likely in relation to problem solving.
  • Reflecting commonly found differences by sex on a range of health and developmental measures, across all domains boys were less likely than girls to have development which was deemed to be on schedule. The difference between them was largest in relation to the communication domain where 35% of boys were viewed as having development which was on schedule compared with 58% of girls.
  • With the exception of the gross motor domain, children from the most deprived areas were less likely to have development on schedule than those from other areas. This was most stark in the fine motor domain (36% compared with 45%).
  • There was a generally close relationship between children’s development as measured by the ASQ and their social, emotional and behavioural development as measured by the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) scores. Children whose ASQ scores indicated they required further assessment tended to have a higher level of social, emotional and behavioural difficulties (measured via their SDQ total difficulties score). The relationship was particularly close in the communication and personal-social domains. Children with a ‘very high’ level of difficulties were three times more likely than those with a ‘close to average’ level of difficulties to have been identified as needing further assessment in relation to communication (62% compared with 20%).

The SDQ is a behavioural screening questionnaire designed for use with children aged between 3 and 16. The questions address five different measures of the child’s development: emotional symptoms, conduct problems, hyperactivity, peer relationship problems and pro-social behaviour. The first four measures can be combined into a ‘total difficulties’ scale. On all scales except pro-social, a higher score indicates a higher level of difficulties and a developmental status suggesting greater concern. Scores have been banded into four groups indicating increasing levels of difficulties ranging from ‘close to average’ (children with typical development) through ‘slightly raised’ and ‘high’ to ‘very high’ (children with the highest level of difficulties).

  • Most children (70%) had an SDQ total difficulties score in the ‘close to average’ (43%) or ‘slightly raised’ (26%) range. However, 14% had a score in the ‘high’ range and a further 16% in the ‘very high’ range.
  • Children were most likely to score close to average in the emotional symptoms domain (80%) and least likely to do so in relation to peer problems (36%).
  • There were no notable differences between boys and girls or by area deprivation in emotional symptoms or conduct problems scores. However, boys were less likely than girls to score close to average and more likely to score very high in relation to hyperactivity and peer problems. In addition, children from more deprived areas were more likely to score very high in these domains than children in other areas. These trends are also reflected in the total difficulties scores.
  • Having a close to average SDQ total difficulties score was also associated with: having a parent with some educational qualifications, having a parent with no longstanding illness, average or high parental wellbeing, having a parent who was coping most or all of the time and ever being breastfed.

Parent outcomes

  • A third (33%) of respondents reported that they were in work, with 10% working full-time (30 or more hours a week), 21% working part-time, and 2% being on maternity or parental leave from an employer. A further 9% reported that they were out of work and looking for a job, while 70% said they were looking after the home or family, often alongside working.
  • Parents living in the most deprived 20% of areas, were slightly less likely to be in work than parents living in other areas (31% compared with 35%), much less likely to be working full-time (5% compared with 16%) and more likely to be working part-time (24% compared with 18%).
  • Thirty-six percent of respondents who were in employment or training agreed and 34% disagreed that “If I could afford good quality childcare which was reliable, convenient and affordable, I would work more hours.” Those living in the most deprived 20% of areas were more likely than those in less deprived areas to strongly agree (27% compared with 12%).
  • Thirty-two percent of parents who were not working agreed and 43% disagreed that “A lack of affordable, convenient, good quality childcare is one of the main reasons I’m not working at the moment.” Single parents were more likely than couple parents to agree with this statement.
  • Most parents (63%) believed their own health to be good or very good, 28% said it was fair and 9% considered it to be bad or very bad. Parents living in the most deprived 20% of areas were less likely than those living in other areas to rate their health as good or very good.
  • Forty-one percent of all respondents had at least one longstanding illness, including 36% who had a limiting longstanding illness.
  • On a life satisfaction scale of 0 to 10, parents in couple families and those with higher qualifications were more likely to score 9 or 10 than single parents and those with lower qualifications. Parental mental wellbeing was higher amongst those living in less deprived areas.
  • Fifty-six percent of parents felt they were coping well most or all of the time, 41% felt they were coping only sometimes and only 3% reported that they were not coping very well. There were no notable differences in perceived coping between single and couple parent households nor by area deprivation.
  • As a result of having their child in ELC most parents agreed they felt happier (54%), less stressed (61%), that they had more time to themselves (69%) and that they had been able to think about what they may do in the future (68%). A significant minority also agreed it had allowed them to look for work (41%) or undertake study or training (27%).
  • Single parents were more likely than parents in couple households to agree that having their child in nursery had allowed them to think about the future (72% compared with 62%). They were also more likely to say they had been able to look for work (44% compared with 38%).

Characteristics of ELC

Reviewers from the Care Inspectorate conducted observations of 146 settings using the Infant / Toddler Environment Rating Scale (ITERS-3). This is a widely recognised and highly regarded instrument designed for use in settings where most children are under 36 months. The ITERS-3 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.

ITERS-3 comprises 33 items across 6 different subscales: space and furnishings; personal care routines; language and books; activities; interaction; and program structure. Settings were scored from 1 to 7 on each item.

  • Settings scored highest on the Programme Structure subscale, with 77% of settings scoring 5 or above. Settings also scored higher on the Interaction and Space and Furnishings subscales, with slightly under two-thirds of settings being ranked 5 or above in these areas (64% and 62% respectively).
  • On the Personal Care Routines and Language and Books subscales, 48% and 53% of settings scored 5 or above.
  • The Activities subscale stands out as an area where many settings were performing less well, with only 6% of settings scoring 5 or above.

It is important to note that the ITERS-3 tool is not the only method of assessing setting quality in Scotland. Indeed, the Care Inspectorate ratings provide a broader measure of the quality of practice and policy within settings that have also been found to be related to children’s outcomes in Scotland.



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