The Cost of the Nursery Day: mitigating poverty-related barriers to learning and participation

Published on: 
10 March 2021
Written by: 

Douglas O'Malley
Glasgow City Health and Social Care Partnership


Douglas O'Malley, Health Improvement Lead at Glasgow City Health and Social Care Partnership, tells us about Cost of the Nursery Day work in the city.

The Cost of the Nursery Day project, endorsed by Glasgow's Poverty Leadership Panel and Challenge Child Poverty Partnership Group, tested a collaboration between Glasgow Health and Social Care Partnership and Glasgow City Council Early Learning and Childcare to identify poverty-related barriers to learning and participation in nurseries, and to develop practical ways to overcome them. The project was delivered in 2019 and complements Child Poverty Action Group's Cost of the School Day project.

The project engaged with parents and carers to understand their lived experience of how Early Learning and Childcare (ELC) policies and practices can affect low income households, and with ELC staff to explore the role of the nursery in mitigating the effects of poverty on families. Generally speaking, parents valued the support provided by nurseries but they had a limited understanding of the powers available to them to help mitigate family financial costs. The project report recommends potential modifications in Early Learning and Childcare policies and practices to help reduce financial burdens on families.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Scottish Government decided (in April 2020) to delay the statutory expansion of 1,140 funded childcare hours per year for all 3 and 4 year olds, and some 2 year olds. Despite this, from August 2020 Glasgow City Council introduced the 1,140 hours expansion wherever possible within the constraints of public health guidance, and its impact on capacity and operations. The Scottish Government will re-introduce the new statutory entitlement at some point in the future. The project findings and report recommendations reflect the situation in 2019 thus the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on delivering Early Learning and Childcare services, and on the resilience of family finances, should be borne in mind.

The big picture: child poverty and learning

Over 34% of children in Glasgow were living in poverty before the COVID-19 pandemic, and pre pandemic forecasts indicated that without any additional intervention (locally or nationally) this would increase to 50,000 children (42%) by 2021 due to economic and welfare changes. The pandemic has increased the number of families at risk of experiencing poverty with nearly half of households with children reporting they are in financial stress.

Children growing up in low income households are less likely to do as well as their peers in meeting a range of learning and educational outcomes, and this is already evident upon entry to Primary 1. Scottish Attainment Challenge and Pupil Equity Funding is focused on closing inequalities in educational outcomes but this resource has not routinely included the ELC setting. At the same time, there has been limited action to develop understanding of the impact of poverty in nurseries, and the responses available to support low income families accessing childcare.

The everyday barriers to learning and participation in nursery: parent experiences

“The nursery has just started introducing polo shirts and hoodies. It’s £8 for a polo shirt and £10 for a hoodie; I can buy a polo top in Tesco for £4. People would rather get into debt than ask the nursery for help with uniforms.”

Nursery experiences are made up of everyday details, many of which may pose financial challenges for low income households: paying the bus fare to nursery; matching work patterns to funded / affordable childcare hours whilst adhering to nursery drop-off and pick-up times; figuring out which new items of clothing or (embroidered) uniform you can afford to buy; remembering your regular toy fund donation to help fund nursery resources and experiences; paying for additional childcare hours, snacks and lunches; budgeting for frequent fun days, outings and fundraising activities; deciding if you can find money to order nursery photographs of your child.

“Nursery photographs are really expensive; you can pay up to £50.”

The policies and practices which nurseries employ to deliver childcare can inadvertently place a financial burden on low-income families if they involve costs which can’t be met. Similarly, children may miss out, or their parents may choose to exclude them, from positive nursery experiences which incur costs and this can induce feelings of stigma. Beyond struggling to afford everyday costs, parents in financial hardship may end up experiencing the stress of the arrears system for overdue childcare payments and there is poor awareness of discretionary fee waivers, which may be applied in exceptional circumstances.

“Event days put additional pressure on families, we would often say what’s next? There is always something we are asked to contribute to in the nursery.”

Taking action

This approach of listening to the experiences of parents, carers and ELC staff helps to identify potential changes to policies and practices, at a system and individual nursery level, to minimise barriers to participation and learning for children in low income households, thus improving life chances.

Read the full Cost of the Nursery Day report here