6 Conclusions and recommendations
6.1 Estimates provided by the local authority staff interviewed suggest uptake could be higher than indicated by the annual census taken in September 2015; and data capture needs to be improved to reflect changes in policy and to better meet user needs.
6.2 Notwithstanding issues relating to data, there is undoubtedly scope to increase uptake further and the research with parents suggests that it is lack of awareness that is the major barrier - rather than opposition to the concept, problems with the application process or dissatisfaction with the nature of the provision.
6.3 Our recommendations on improving the data, increasing awareness and effectively promoting the provision are discussed below.
Improving the data on eligibility, uptake and attendance
6.4 The research has confirmed the need to address data issues which would also enable more effective evaluations of what works, and what does not work, to increase uptake.
6.5 There is also a lack of data on whether uptake of the provision is sustained. Providers currently collect attendance data and this could be used to monitor attendance and discontinuation rates among eligible 2 year olds and assess the extent to which that is a problem.
Sharing data on eligibility
6.6 It was clear that the single biggest barrier for professionals in increasing uptake was not knowing who was eligible for the provision and not, therefore, being able to target their promotion of it as effectively as they could. We therefore recommend that, as a priority, the Scottish Government should work with DWP (and HMRC if required  ) to allow data on eligibilty to be shared with local authorities.
6.7 Local authorities do have data on who receives housing benefit so, as an interim or alternative measure, the extent to which receipt of housing benefit correlates with eligibilty for free ELC could be assessed. If there is a high correlation, receipt of housing benefit could be used as a proxy and parents could be targetted accordingly.
6.8 Short of sharing data on eligibility, an alternative would be for DWP to send information to eligible parents on behalf of the Scottish Government or local authorties. However, given the importance of personal contact in encouraging uptake (discussed below), this is likely to be much less effective than data sharing.
Promotion through personal contact and relationships
6.9 The research with both parents and professionals identified that personal contact and relationships - with health visitors and other professionals, and with friends who used free ELC - was key to promoting the provision and encouraging uptake.
6.10 Local authorities should therefore continue to focus their efforts on raising awareness among professionals likely to have contact with eligible families and supporting them to promote the provision effectively.
6.11 Health visitors are in the best position to promote the provision to eligible families. Although the timing of visits in the new universal pathway for health visiting is not absolutely ideal for this purpose, there is merit in 'planting the seed' well in advance about the availability and benefits of free ELC at the 13-15 month review.  The 27-30 month review is somewhat too late, but could be used to catch parents who had not yet taken up the provision and give them and their children the opportunity to benefit from a few more months of free ELC. Other families will, of course, have more contact with health visitors and so there will be visits closer to 24 months at which to discuss the provision.
6.12 Other professionals and services who will have contact with eligible families and could be used to promote free ELC for 2 year olds include:
- early years workers
- children and families social workers
- nursery staff and primary staff (for those with older children)
- play initiative staff
- local groups/services (e.g. Bookbug and Play, Talk, Read)
- local DWP offices.
6.13 In addition, parents who have taken up the offer can be effective ambassadors for it. Nursery staff could encourage them to let other parents know (through word of mouth and through social media) about the provision and how their 2 year old has benefited.
6.14 Professionals emphasised the need for positive, non-stigmatising language in the promotion of free ELC: avoiding terms such as 'vulnerable' or 'disadvantaged'.
6.15 The research with parents suggested that two key aspects to focus on were the learning and developmental benefits for 2 year olds (particularly language development and the social aspects such as 'learning to share') and providing reassurances that 2 is not too young for ELC. Promotion materials could include case studies with parents talking about their experiences and saying, for example, 'I thought two was too young but…'.
6.16 However, there is a balance to be struck between normalising the provision and promoting the benefits while at the same time making the eligibility criteria clear.
6.17 It is also worth clarifying to parents that they are not required to work and that they will not lose their entitlement if their circumstances change (e.g. if there income increases).
6.18 Finally, although the current number of hours was not generally thought to be too much for 2 year olds, it may become an issue when the entitlement increases to 1,140 hours a year - and at that stage it will be worth clarifying that it is not necessary to take up the full entitlement.