Early Learning and Childcare Audit 2021

Early Learning and Childcare Audit 2021
INDEPENDENT REPORT: Urgent Step Change Required on Scottish Childcare Policy, as Implementation is Failing Childminding and Threatens Parental Choice

An independent report, published today by the Scottish Childminding Association (SCMA), has found that national and local implementation of the Scottish Government’s policy of providing parents of pre-school children with 1140 hours of funded/free childcare has largely failed Scotland’s childminding workforce - which has declined by over 26% (1457 childminders) in the last five years in parallel to local authority nursery expansion to deliver this policy. This has significant implications for parental choice and also threatens the Scottish Government’s ability to deliver key commitments within the Programme for Government

In 2016 the Scottish Government published an ambitious blueprint to increase the entitlement to free Early Learning and Childcare (known as ‘funded ELC’) to 1140 hours for all three- and four-year-olds and eligible two-year-olds in Scotland from August 2020. This became known as ‘1140 by 2020’. Since then, a huge amount of activity has been undertaken in Scotland at a national and local level to implement this important policy aimed at closing the attainment gap. It was also intended that this entitlement to funded ELC would increase parental choice over different types of childcare and provide flexible childcare responsive to their needs. 

During this time SCMA has been commissioned by the Scottish Government to undertake an annual audit charting progress of all Scottish local authorities in including childminders in the delivery of ‘1140 by 2020’. Its delivery was put back until August 2021 due to the pandemic and SCMA didn’t conduct an audit last year. However, SCMA conducted an audit in August 2021 (to which all 32 local authorities submitted returns) and also undertook linked snapshot surveys of childminders and parents to capture their important experiences of ELC expansion and implementation. 

The SCMA ELC Audit 2021 presents both a snapshot of where we are in 2021 and a report on progress of over five years of national and local implementation activity to support ELC expansion. 

Key findings include:

  • the numbers of childminders included in delivering funded ELC, after five years of national and local implementation activity, remains very low:
- progress in involving childminders in delivering funded ELC for ‘Eligible Two Year-Olds’ (a Scottish Government priority area linked to support for low-income families) has stalled with only 4.1% of the childminding workforce in Scotland involved in delivery. This is of significant concern;

- an additional 510 childminders are now involved in delivering funded ELC to Three- and Four-Year Olds. However, with only 17.5% of the childminding workforce actually delivering funded hours to this age group and only 2% of children receiving funded hours accessing them through childminders - this cannot be considered a success after five years of activity;

- significant differentials continue to exist between the numbers of childminders approved and those actually delivering funded ELC. This can often involve lengthy delays in which childminders continue to lose children/business from their settings;

  • the founding ELC principle of ‘provider neutrality’ (through which parents should be able to choose to access their funded ELC from a range of childcare providers and local authorities should support this approach) is not working as it should. There is clear evidence through the parent and childminder surveys, audit returns and, indeed, on local authority websites, that a number of local authorities are not practicing provider neutrality, continue to prioritise their own nursery provision and are not promoting childminding equitably to parents as they should be, alongside their own nurseries, as an option for accessing their funded ELC entitlement;
  • too many offers for funded ELC made by local authorities to parents are inflexible. These can often involve only a single option, to be taken on fixed days or at fixed times, and/or including a requirement to take some or all of the funded ELC hours with a local authority nursery. There is strong demand for increased flexibility;
  • while the number of childminders delivering funded ELC for Three-and-Four Year Olds has increased, our parents’ and childminders’ surveys confirmed the vast majority of childminders are only doing so at a lower level of hours through blended placements (in which childcare is split with a nursery). Several local authority audit returns also confirmed that it can be normal practice to base hours firstly around nursery needs;
  • many childminders believe delivering funded hours is very important to their business sustainability, but there is often a weak match between the offers made by local authorities to parents and childminders’ business viability. This can particularly be the case when there is requirement to take the majority of hours in a local authority nursery and parents are only offered a much-reduced level of hours with a childminder;
  • delivering funded hours and wider ELC expansion has led to a very significant increase in bureaucracy and additional paperwork for childminders, including through duplicative quality assurance systems at a national and local level, which is not sustainable. This has been causing childminders to stop delivering funded hours, to leave the childminding workforce and is also now putting off more childminders from getting involved in funded ELC delivery;
  • more encouragingly, the results of the snapshot surveys would suggest that a majority of parents are receiving their first choice of childcare provider. However, this needs to be qualified with concern about the lack of choice and options available locally, with more than half of parents reporting they only received a single option for accessing their funded ELC within the offer from their local authority. As such, preferences could clearly differ if parents were presented with more options and the ability to make an informed choice.
Graeme McAlister, Chief Executive, SCMA, said: "The findings of our latest audit may make stark, challenging or uncomfortable reading. We do not under-estimate the scale and complexity of implementing the expansion of ELC; nor do we under-estimate the unprecedented nature of the pandemic and the disruption which this has caused. However, the reality for childminding is that many of the problems which childminding has faced with ELC expansion were deeply embedded before COVID-19 emerged and have not been adequately addressed. 

"The childminding workforce has declined by 26% in the last five years - and this has accelerated in parallel to ELC expansion. This cannot be sustained and has significant implications for families, access to childcare and parental choice. It could also threaten the Scottish Government’s ability to deliver on it’s commitments in the Programme for Government to extend ELC downwards to one-year-olds and to develop a new system of wraparound school-aged childcare – both areas in which childminders are heavily involved and will play a vital role. As such, a step change in action is now urgently required."

The SCMA ELC Audit 2021 makes a series of recommendations including: 

  • The principle of Provider Neutrality is not working in practice and should be replaced as a matter of urgency. If it is to be maintained, then it is essential that the Scottish Government and local authority representative bodies accept responsibility to ensure this is implemented fairly, equitably and consistently and that local authorities who fail to implement this principle in practice are held to account.  There is a need for the Scottish Government to step in, to move beyond encouragement to requiring and ensuring that this now happens;
  • All funded ELC offers need to become more flexible and based on parental need rather than developed from a preferred nursery operating perspective; 
  • There would be value from a public accountability and scrutiny perspective for a specific follow-up audit to be undertaken independently (by Audit Scotland or the Scottish Parliament’s Education, Children and Young People Committee). This should examine the flexibility of the funded hours offered to parents by local authorities, given the loss of public expenditure which could arise if the current practice of allocating fixed 10-hour days to parents, regardless of their need and preference in some areas, is replicated widely around Scotland;
  • Urgent, and immediate, action is required by the Scottish Government to reduce the level of bureaucracy and paperwork for childminders associated with ELC expansion, as this has played a significant role in the reduction of the childminding workforce. This should include working with SCMA and other stakeholders to reduce duplicative systems of quality assurance at a national and local level, and also engaging SCMA to develop standardised documentation and templates to support childminders.
  • The Scottish Government should undertake an urgent review of the wider scrutiny landscape BEFORE creating any additional scrutiny through Education Reform, the National Care Service and the development of the Programme for Government’s commitments to extend ELC to one year-olds and to develop a new system of wraparound school aged childcare.
  • The Scottish Government should provide financial support to extend the planned demographically-targeted childminder recruitment campaign, initially in development for remote and rural areas, over the short, medium and long term; 
  • Eligible Twos uptake: as a matter of urgency, Scottish Government should review the uptake of funded hours in eligible two year-olds, implementing measures to increase the use of childminders for this priority group - particularly as a pre-cursor to the expansion of ELC to include one year-olds.
Susannah Knox, a professional childminder for 14 years, commented: "Parents should be able to choose the type of childcare that best suits the needs of their family – whether this be with a professional childminder, a local authority nursery or a blended approach where the child attends both.  Some families have chosen to use their full 1140 hours entitlement with me because their child prefers the home-from-home, nurturing environment which childminding can provide.  It has the lowest adult-to-child ratios of all childcare options which means we can tailor the support and care provided to meet the unique needs of individual children.

"Nursery isn’t for all children and it’s vital that parents and families have the ability to choose what’s best for the wellbeing of their child.” 

The Scottish Government reaffirmed its commitment to enabling parents to choose childminding as an option for receiving their funded hours in the Programme for Government 2019-2020. SCMA has been working constructively with local authorities and the Scottish Government to support implementation of the policy.  

Professional childminding is consistently one of the highest rated forms of childcare in Scotland by provider type, with 92% of childminders achieving ‘good’ or above across all quality ratings at inspection by the Care Inspectorate. Evidence has shown childminding can enhance a child’s early learning, confidence and social development.

WATCH | Graeme McAlister has recorded a short video, which explains more about the findings of our ELC Audit 2021

Further information and FAQs regarding accessing funded ELC can also be found at childminding.org/elc, including a template letter that parents can use for contacting their local authority and MSP if childminding is not presented as an option in their area. This can be found in the ‘ELC hub’ section. 

Early Learning and Childcare (ELC) Audit 2021
ELC Audit 2021 Full Report

Appendix One | Childminders Providing Funded ELC Hours in Scotland: Eligible Two-Year-Olds
Appendix Two | Childminders Providing Funded ELC Hours in Scotland: Three and Four-Year-Olds
Appendix Three | Change in the Childminding Workforce 2016-2021

Supporting Documents:
Executive Summary
Childminders’ Survey Results
Parents / Carers Survey Results