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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This report outlines findings from the surveys and observations conducted as part of the first phase of the Scottish Study of Early Learning and Childcare (SSELC), the research project established to evaluate the expansion of early learning and childcare (ELC) in Scotland.

The ELC Expansion Programme

The current expansion programme follows a commitment from Scottish Government to almost double the hours of funded ELC for all three- and four-year-olds, and eligible two-year-olds, to 1140 per year from August 2020[7]. This increase follows a number of smaller expansions in the past decade. Parents and carers in Scotland have had the opportunity to use funded ELC since 2002: initially 412.5 hours per year which was then increased to 475 hours in 2007. In 2014 the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 increased funded ELC to 600 hours per year for all three- and four-year-olds and eligible two-year-olds who are looked after, subject of a kinship care order or a guardianship order. Eligibility criteria also incudes two-year-olds who have a parent who is in receipt of one or more qualifying benefits[8].

The expansion to 1140 hours of government-funded ELC provision is intended to support children across Scotland, particularly the most disadvantaged (including eligible two-year-olds). This change seeks to achieve three principal outcomes:

1. To improve children’s development, particularly 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.

Local authorities are responsible for implementation and delivery of funded ELC to their local communities. They have flexibility to determine the most appropriate way to phase in the expanded entitlement in their local area as they build capacity.

The Scottish Study of Early Learning and Childcare

The SSELC has been designed to evaluate whether the ELC expansion programme has achieved the above objectives by measuring outcomes for children and parents receiving the existing entitlement and comparing them to those who receive the increased entitlement. The overarching evaluation questions are based on the Theory of Change set out in the Evaluability Assessment published by NHS Health Scotland in 2017[9]. This Theory of Change is based on the principles of Getting It Right For Every Child (GIRFEC). Existing sources of information and reporting processes – for example National Statistics publications such as the ELC Census and Scottish Household Survey, and Care Inspectorate and Education Scotland inspection data and thematic inspection focus areas – will be used alongside the SSELC to consider the contribution and effectiveness of the ELC programme.

Specifically, the SSELC has the following overarching aims:

  • To assess the extent to which the expansion from 600 hours to 1140 hours has improved outcomes particularly for children at risk of disadvantage between the ages of two and five.
  • To assess the extent to which the expansion from 600 hours to 1140 hours has closed the gap in child development outcomes between children who are most and least advantaged between the ages of two and five.
  • To assess the extent to which the expansion from 600 hours to 1140 hours has improved outcomes for parents, particularly parents of children at risk of disadvantage.
  • To assess the extent to which the expansion from 600 hours to 1140 hours has increased family resilience, particularly for families in disadvantaged circumstances[10].
  • To provide reliable, longitudinal data that will provide the basis for a Value for Money assessment of the expansion programme.

To evaluate the impact of the expansion programme, the study has been designed to collect data across several phases from 2018 to 2023, with full findings being published in 2024. Phases 1, 2 and 3 are collecting baseline data on the outcomes of children accessing 600 hours of funded ELC and their parents:

  • Phase 1 – November 2018
    • Data collected on eligible two-year-olds as they begin ELC
  • Phase 2 – June 2019
    • Data collected on four- and five-year-olds as they leave ELC to begin Primary 1
  • Phase 3 – November 2019
    • Follow-up with the same group of eligible two-year-olds after one year in ELC
    • Data collected on three-year-olds as they begin ELC

Phases 4, 5 and 6 will data on the outcomes of children accessing 1140 hours of funded ELC and their parents:

  • Phase 4 – November 2022
    • Data collected on eligible two-year-olds as they begin ELC
  • Phase 5 – May/June 2023
    • Data collected on four- and five-year-olds as they leave ELC to begin Primary 1
  • Phase 6 – November 2023
    • Follow-up with the same group of eligible two-year-olds after one year in ELC
    • Data collected on three-year-olds as they begin ELC

The focus of the initial phase being reported here (Phase 1) was data collection on children aged between two years and two years six months who received 600 hours of funded ELC provision. To be eligible for government-funded provision of ELC when aged two years, children must be in households in receipt of certain state benefits, or be looked after or in care. Local authorities can use their discretion to fund additional places for two-year-olds in situations where the child has additional needs, or the family requires extra support. These criteria mean that most of the children included in the research were from lower income households. Additionally, those children included in the research who were not living in lower income households would be receiving funded ELC either because they are looked after or in care, or through local authorities using their discretion to offer funded or subsidised ELC over and above the legal entitlement to provide support for a wider range of families. At the time of data collection, statutory funding in these settings provided up to 600 hours a year of funded ELC provision.

The aims of Phase 1 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.
  • To gather 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.
  • To gather data and evidence on the quality of a sample of ELC settings linked to the above cohort of eligible two-year-olds.

The results from Phase 1 will contribute to a baseline for assessing the impact of expanded ELC provision that will be covered in later phases of the evaluation. Consequently, this report’s focus is mainly descriptive; providing a general summary of the data collected and identifying some basic relationships between variables. The report is not intended to provide a detailed consideration of the relationship between use of funded ELC and child or parent outcomes.

During Phase 3 of the evaluation, the children and parents who took part in Phase 1 will be followed up approximately one year after the first data collection exercise – in October/November 2019. This longitudinal element will allow the study to examine the impact of one year of funded ELC on this group of children and their parents. In Phase 3, a second nationally representative group of children of the same age will also be included, to allow a comparison between three-year-old children who received funded ELC provision at age two and those who did not.

The data used in this report cover a wide range of parental and child outcomes. The specific outcomes of interest were:

  • Child
    • Social, emotional and behavioural development
    • Cognitive development
    • Physical and mental health and wellbeing
    • Home learning activities
  • Parent
    • Uptake of employment, training or study
    • Physical and mental health, and health behaviours
    • Parenting self-efficacy
    • Engagement in their child’s learning and development.

With regards to the child, developmental outcomes are presented using data from ELC keyworker observations utilising the Ages and Stages (ASQ) and Strengths and Difficulties (SDQ) Questionnaires[11]. These are age-relevant versions of questionnaires which are used throughout Scotland by Health Visitors to capture information on parental concerns about their young children in relation to development. Parent-report information was also collected on the presence of developmental risk factors – such as sleep patterns and breastfeeding – and on the child’s general health and long-term illnesses.

The report also provides baseline data on the characteristics of the ELC provision experienced by the child, using observational data on the quality of the ELC setting. Finally, it explores how parents use their ELC provision presenting information about funding and perceived accessibility as well as details on their use of other forms of childcare.

By providing the necessary baseline figures for the evaluation of the ELC expansion programme in Scotland, this report is an integral component of the overall research project. Although the results presented here are primarily descriptive, with detailed analysis beyond the scope of the report, these baseline figures will be vital for determining later whether this significant policy programme has delivered the outcomes as intended.


As noted above, this phase of the SSELC was designed to provide baseline data on several specific child and parent outcomes as well as information about socio-economic characteristics, family and household circumstances, characteristics of childcare use and a range of additional circumstances, experiences and behaviours known to be associated with child outcomes. In addition, observations were made 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 cohort consisted of children aged between two years and two years six months[12] who were eligible for and receiving up to 600 hours of funded ELC provision and their parents. Participants were recruited via ELC settings in 17 local authority areas.

The required size of the sample was determined by observing the difference in ASQ scores on the Communications domain between the least and most deprived two year olds across Scotland. The sample size was calculated on the basis of the ability to measure a closing of this difference. Within those local authorities still offering 600 hours of funded ELC to eligible two-year-old children, a cluster sampling approach was then taken in order to identify the sample. However, as more local authorities than expected had moved on to 1140 hours for their eligible two-year-olds and as some settings did not feel able to take part, the study had to widen its scope and include most settings that met the eligibility criteria in the relevant local authorities. As a result, the achieved sample was not geographically representative of all eligible two-year-old children in Scotland and therefore may be best described as a specific cohort of children rather than as nationally representative, even though there are significant similarities between the two. The data have not been weighted.

Data were gathered on children in the cohort via three methods: 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, carried out by Care Inspectorate inspectors (who were acting as observers and not in their regulatory capacity, and using a different tool in their observations than would be used for a formal quality grading).

Within participating settings, all children within the specific age range receiving the funded entitlement were eligible for inclusion in the study. Parents were recruited by ELC staff and provided with information about the study before being asked to complete a paper self-administered questionnaire that covered a wide range of information on themselves, their child and their household. Parents were also asked for their permission for the child’s keyworker to complete a questionnaire about the child’s development. This largely consisted of the Ages and Stages (ASQ) and Strengths and Difficulties (SDQ) Questionnaires[13] but also collected information about the number of hours the child attended the ELC setting in the previous week.

Fieldwork was conducted between October and December 2018. Response rates to the surveys were relatively high. Questionnaires were sent to 190 ELC settings, and at least one questionnaire was returned from 151 of these. Of the other 39, approximately half reported that they had no eligible children. A total of 428 questionnaires were received from parents/carers and 574 from keyworkers. Not all sampled settings provided a figure for the number of eligible children. As such, it is not possible to provide an exact figure for response. However, it is estimated that keyworker questionnaires were returned for 90% of eligible children in the participating settings, and parent/carer questionnaires were returned for 67%.

Nearly all the parent/carer questionnaires (93%) were completed by the child’s mother or a female carer within the household, so where the terms “parent” or “parent/carer” are used throughout this report, they refer mostly to the mother or main female carer within the household.

Observations were conducted of 146 participating ELC settings using ITERS-3. This is a widely recognised and highly regarded instrument designed for use in settings where most children are under 36 months (thus being suitable for the cohort of two-year-olds being studied at this phase). It provides an observational measure of the quality of ELC settings for under-threes across 6 subscales: space and furnishings, personal care routines, language and books, activities, interaction, and program structure.

Observations were conducted by Care Inspectorate staff seconded to the study and involved a single visit lasting between two and three hours. It was emphasised to ELC setting managers and staff before and during these observations that they were not formal inspections of the kind routinely undertaken by Care Inspectorate.

One of the primary purposes of the ELC expansion programme in Scotland is to improve child developmental outcomes and to provide more parents with the opportunity to take up work, study or training if they wish to. These are desired outcomes for all parents and children, but especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Where there are identifiable and interesting relationships between variables such as area deprivation and child or parental outcomes, these are outlined as far as possible in the report. Additional analysis of subgroups is included in the separate annex tables (see Appendix B).



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