According to recent statistics, almost one in four children, and nearly a third of families where the youngest child is one or under, are living in poverty in Scotland. Behind these figures, families in the grip of poverty are locked in a daily struggle trying to make ends meet and these numbers are set to rise further.
Living on a low income makes it much harder for parents to invest in the things that support children’s early learning, like toys, books and days out. It also causes a great deal of stress and anxiety for parents, placing a strain on family relationships.
We know, therefore, that children growing up in poverty are much more likely to struggle with developing vital skills and are being left behind their better-off peers.
Access to high quality childcare is crucial
Improving access to pre-school care and education, alongside support at home, can help to boost young children’s learning and development. High quality childcare can provide enriching early learning experiences and particularly supports children living in poverty. That’s why we campaigned for two-year-olds affected by poverty to have access to free childcare. We were delighted when our campaign calls were heard by the Scottish Parliament and the entitlement was introduced in 2015.
Yet, nearly four years on, only a third of eligible children are attending free childcare. We are concerned that many young children living in poverty are therefore missing out on the significant benefits that great early learning and childcare can provide.
The barriers families face
So, why are families not taking up free early learning and childcare for their two-year-old? There’s not one straightforward answer to this question but speaking to families has revealed a whole range of barriers.
Many parents told us that they weren’t aware of this offer or weren’t sure if their child was eligible. As one parent said: “I was just led to believe that it was only for kids that had social work backgrounds and stuff like that.”
Other families were concerned about their little one spending time away from home and weren’t aware of the significant advantages that quality early learning and childcare could provide, both to them and their child. These are all important and widespread concerns, which must be urgently addressed.
What needs to happen
There has been a welcome government commitment to double the uptake of places for eligible two-year-olds, but this won’t be met without increased and sustained action to address these fundamental barriers. Scottish Government and local authorities must make sure families are aware of this offer and its known benefits, particularly for children’s early learning. Health professionals have an important role to play in explaining and promoting the entitlement to families. We also want to see the provision made more accessible through addressing key structural barriers, such as issues with identifying eligible families.
We’re also calling for the quality of services to be strengthened to ensure the best possible experience for all children. Staff should have the skills, knowledge and confidence to effectively support children’s development and help those at risk of falling behind.
The time is now to help our two-year-olds get the best start in life.