Developing a new model of early years provision

Scotland has long been debating how best to provide early learning and preschool provision to meet both the developmental and social needs of children, as well as parents. The Open Kindergarten model, offered by our Nordic neighbours, is widely accepted as a good approach, but we are still asking how it can be adapted to meet the needs of Scottish parents more effectively. 

Throughout the Nordic countries, such as Finland, Sweden and Denmark, early years and pre-school centres provide parent support and advice alongside care and learning for children. One element of this is the provision of open group activities for parents and their young children – mostly attended by parents who are at home with young children, yet to start attending day care or pre-school provision. These sessions take place several times a week and are supported by the centre staff. In Sweden, communal singing is seen as a key element of group activities and in many staff expertise is supplemented by specialist practitioners such as art, music and movement specialists.

The groups provide peer support for parents, professional advice on supporting children’s healthy development and an opportunity for children to become familiar with the setting and people they will encounter once they start attending pre-school provision. It is not a ‘programme’ but an open provision that any parent with a young child can attend as and when they wish to. 

A partnership between Children in Scotland, Parenting Across Scotland and the Centre for Child Wellbeing and Protection at the University of Stirling, has been conducting development work in Edinburgh and Midlothian. Part of our work has been to review existing research evidence, considering what we know about why parents do or don’t use advice and support services, as well as about the issues where parents need more help. Knowing what parents themselves, and those who work with them directly, think was, however, a vital complement to the research data.

We spoke to Scottish parents, both mums and dads, as well as to the practitioners who work with families with young children, gathering and compiling their feedback.  We were also very interested in how parents found out about support services and what had motivated them to attend in the first place, why they came back, or why they decided that it wasn’t for them. 

Our research revealed many parents had not found it particularly easy to find out about services in their community where they and their children might access support and advice. In most cases they had found out about provision through other parents. If parents did not have social connections locally, it could be a lot more difficult. This may be particularly problematic for families whose first language is not English and who may have come from places where there is much less in the way of early years services or where systems are configured in completely different ways. 

The health visitor could be absolutely pivotal here. For many, they had been a great source of advice. Not everyone, however, had found that their health visitor had a good knowledge of local services, or had not encouraged them to attend. We were often told that it would be invaluable if health visitors maintained an up to date and comprehensive knowledge of what was around in the local area and shared this information with families as a matter of course. 

There was also an issue of access. Not everyone found it easy to get along to a group or other service. In some areas transport could be a real problem. Some buildings were not particularly easy to find – they might be tucked away behind another building, look as if (as many buildings have been) they are used for some completely different purpose, access was not always geared to the needs of young families and signage externally and internally was not always sufficient to make a venue easy to find.

Critically important for many was the welcome they received. Being met on arrival on the first visit rather than trying to find a group yourself could make a huge difference. A friendly, smiling face and an approachable manner again was very important to families, particularly when parents were nervous or lacking in confidence. Going into a room full of strangers is never easy, and it can be even harder if you are anxious that you will not fit in, or that others may be critical of you. Being ‘chummed’ could be a big help. Some parents suggested that health visitors could accompany parents on their first visit to a service. Knowing some of the staff and other parents in advance could also be helpful. Offering an informal opportunity to meet and find out more before attending, possibly by visiting the family at home, could help reduce parents’ anxieties. 

The attitude of the professionals was vitally important. Some parents did not find it easy to approach them or felt that they were being judged. Some Dads inparticular felt that their role in the family had not been valued or well acknowledged, or that their genuine commitment to being fully involved in the lives of their young children was interpreted as being ‘controlling’. We are, it seems, still quite some distance away from fathers being seen and valued as equal parents, and from ensuring that parents, no matter their circumstances, were always treated with courtesy and respect. 

We also found parents were more receptive when the content of the groups was less prescriptive, allowing them to raise issues that were current and important for them. Practical help and advice that they could realistically act on were valued. Many described the peer support from other parents as being a very important element of groups they had used. The attitude of and acceptance by other parents was a determining factor in whether they continued involvement with a service or if their first visit was to be thir last. 

Finally, while parents enjoyed doing activities with their children and learning together, many really valued a balance between doing things together and having some element of respite. The opportunity to do things with other adults – even just going to a café for a coffee – knowing that their child was safely cared for, was a real support to many. 

Based on these findings we want to develop a model of family support that meets children’s and parents’ needs and builds on the mainstream, universal and community level services available to all. Alongside the baby boxes, this could be another import from the Nordic lands that improves and equalises the early life experience of Scottish children.

Marion McLeod is Children in Scotland’s Policy Manager


The Open Kindergarten project has been made possible thanks to funding from the Scottish Government’s Social Innovation Fund, and collaboration with operational partners, the City of Edinburgh Council Early Years Service and Midlothian Sure Start.