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Save the Children’s excellent new briefing, Thriving at two and beyond, makes the case for improving the uptake of funded early learning and childcare for two year olds in Scotland. Although the evidence shows that Early Learning and Childcare has a positive impact on improving outcomes for children living in poverty, only a third of eligible two year olds are attending childcare.
Too many children living in poverty fall behind before they reach their third birthday, and critically even before they’re entitled to early learning and childcare. We need to look at a coherent early years offer that integrates with ELC and supports families in the first three years. As well as being the most joyous of times, the first three years of life that even those who have sufficient income and support can find overwhelming.
For some families attending early learning and childcare may just be an ask too far at this point in their lives; what’s needed is a more holistic offer of support. Frustratingly, this is part of the ELC offer but hasn’t been widely used or offered – the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 also allows local authorities to make “such alternative arrangements in relation to the child’s education and care as it considers appropriate for the purposes of safeguarding or promoting the child’s wellbeing”.
The law, the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014, that initially introduced the childcare expansion to 600 hours, also enabled this for certain groups of two year olds. The groups of two year olds that are eligible to receive funded ELC are those from kinship care families and those receiving certain benefits or tax credits.
A further clause, section 49, allows local authorities rather than offering the childcare hours to provide other support. Currently this only applies to the kinship carers group and even then it’s not being used as widely as it might be.
We’d like to see the offer of support extended to all eligible twos and to see practice guidance developed about ways in which this might be used to support families.
Children in kinship care arrangements (when a child is looked after by their extended family or close friends if they cannot remain with their birth parents) have already experienced trauma and separation from their first carer. Given that their attachment pattern has been disrupted and they need time to form attachments with their new carer, this may not be the best time to be starting nursery. But this doesn’t mean that families don’t need support at this time in their lives – they absolutely do and using section 49 to provide other support would be very welcome. For some families, that might be some respite provided by a childminder, for others it might be family support, others may want to attend stay and play sessions. Whatever the offer, it needs to start with where families are and what they want and need.
Currently the offer of other support doesn’t cover the second group, families on benefits or tax credits. And yet we know that many of these families need support and aren’t ready to or don’t want to take up the ELC hours. Many families that PAS organisations are working with often have much to contend with and things to sort out in their lives before getting their child to childcare becomes a possibility. We need to support families from their starting position and tailor support to their needs rather than building a one-size solution and trying to make families fit into it.
It’s not simply a numbers game about upping the numbers of two year olds attending ELC; the ultimate aim is about improving outcomes for children through supporting families – and this may not always be through ELC. Many families need support at this important stage in family life; only then will they be able to properly take advantage of the benefits of ELC. An integrated approach to supporting families is needed to ensure all Scotland’s children get the best start in life.