COVID-19 has had a huge impact on the education of children under 5: only around half of children attended early years settings (such as school-based nurseries or private and voluntary day care) in the first week of January 2021. Getting 2-4 year olds into early education is a key priority for both central and local government, given its impact on children’s educational, cognitive, behavioural and social development.
One of the ways HMG encourages parents to put their children in early education is through the free early education entitlement for two-year-olds (also known as the two year old offer), which gives low income parents and parents of children with special educational needs up to 15 hours of free childcare a week. Before the pandemic, 69% of eligible parents in England took up this offer. With parents worried about the safety of early years settings in the wake of the pandemic, local authorities across the country are looking for ways to reassure parents and encourage them to take up the offer.
We worked with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) to test what messages work best to encourage parents to take up the two year old offer during the pandemic. We ran an online experiment with 1,500 parents in England in November 2020 to find out. We tested three versions of a letter that local authorities send out to parents informing them about the offer:
- Simple: One sentence notifying parents that “childcare providers in [local authority] are open for all children during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
- Operational transparency: Simple letter with the addition of the steps that early years settings have taken to prevent COVID-19 transmission.
- Social norms: Simple letter with the addition of a sentence that “thousands of children in [local authority]” are in childcare this term and a testimonial from a parent.
We found that the simple and social norms letters were equally effective in increasing uptake of the offer, but that the letter using operational transparency was the most effective at reducing parents’ worry about COVID-19 and making them feel more comfortable sending their children to childcare.
What did we learn?
1. Keep it simple.
The simple letter only included one line stating that early years providers were open during the pandemic. This letter was one of the most effective at encouraging parents to take the offer; it did as well as the letter that included a social norm and testimonial from a parent. We find time and time again that keeping texts short and using plain language is an effective way to boost take-up. Using the simple letter has the added advantage of being easier for localities to roll out, as it doesn’t require additional effort such as collecting testimonials or updating data on uptake.
2. Show what is going on behind-the-scenes to increase confidence and reduce worry.
One of the letters we tested gave parents an overview of the steps that early years settings have taken to prevent COVID-19 transmission. This strategy is known as operational transparency, and has been found to increase trust in public services. This ‘operational transparency’ letter did not do as well as the other letters we tested in encouraging parents to want to take up the offer of free childcare. But, somewhat paradoxically, it performed best in reducing worry about COVID-19 and increasing confidence among parents. We therefore recommend that local authorities start with the simple message and use operational transparency as part of follow-up communications with parents, such as leaflets, postcards, or talking points for childcare staff and health visitors. Based on our study, GMCA sent a follow-up postcard with this operational transparency message (after the initial, simple message) to all eligible parents in the region.
Follow-up postcard sent to eligible parents in Greater Manchester in January 2021
3. Devolution creates locally-led, scalable solutions.
Officers from both GMCA and the ten local authorities in Greater Manchester drove the design of this project. They determined what questions we wanted to ask, shaped the content of the messages, and decided how to scale the findings. And our findings ended up being relevant and scalable to many local authorities across the country. We think this is one of the unique advantages of working with devolved administrations and regional bodies. They are small enough to ensure projects and solutions are grounded in local realities and respond to local challenges. But they involve working with multiple councils, so they are also much more likely to be scalable, because the different contexts, details of delivery and quirks of multiple places are part of the discussion from day one.
The pandemic has disproportionately impacted the lives of lower income families across the UK. Helping parents who are eligible for the two year old offer feel confident about sending their children to childcare is one way local authorities can continue making progress in closing the attainment gap. We are sharing this scalable approach for increasing parent confidence to help localities across the country navigate the transition out of lockdown over the coming months.
BIT is working with GMCA and the ten local authorities in the region on a second project focused on developing tailored approaches for groups with historically low take up of the two year old offer. We are keen to continue sharing the best practices we identify in our ongoing research. If you work for a local authority and are interested in our findings, please get in touch!