Chapter Three: Formal and Informal Childcare
3.1 An important and common distinction between childcare providers is that of formal versus informal childcare. In the current research, formal childcare was defined as registered childminders, nurseries or playgroups, before-school care, after-school care and holiday clubs. Informal childcare was defined as parents' friends, relatives or grandparents, and other arrangements such as non-registered childminders, baby-sitters, and au-pairs. The two previous parental demand surveys both found that informal childcare was more commonly used than formal childcare due to affordability and trust issues. In fact, grandparents were the most commonly used provider. However, recent statistics indicate that formal childcare increased by 7% between 2003 and 2004 8.
3.2 The use of formal versus informal childcare has important implications in terms of the costs involved in childcare and the uptake of working families' tax credit. Recent statistics also indicated that 28,500 families were in receipt of the childcare element of working tax credit (average = £46.12 a week). However, this benefit is awarded to help pay for formal childcare only.
3.3 The proportion of children in receipt of formal childcare only, informal childcare only, and a mixture of both formal and informal childcare broken down by various demographic characteristics is displayed in Table 5 of Appendix 2. Overall, 14% of children who received any childcare received both informal and formal childcare, 28% received formal childcare only and 58% received informal childcare only.
Predictors of children receiving informal childcare only
3.4 A number of demographic factors were significant in terms of predicting whether children receiving childcare would receive informal childcare only; area of residence, ethnicity, household working status, household income, age of child, number of dependent children and reasons for using childcare. Details of this analysis can be found in Table 3 of Appendix 2 and the results are summarised and discussed overleaf.
Table 3.1: Profile of children and households receiving only informal childcare
Children most likely to receive informal childcare only
Children less likely to receive informal childcare only
Any other ethnic background
Household working status
Non-working single adults
Single working adult
Lower income households ( e.g. £10,001 - £15,000 pa)
Higher income households ( i.e. over £40,000 pa )
Age of child
Children aged 12-16
Children aged 1-4
Number of dependent children
Households with greater number of children
Households with one child
Reasons for using childcare
To give more time to go other things
To enable self/partner to work
For child's development
To study/study more
Source: SHS 2003/2004
3.5 The findings indicate that there were differences between areas in Scotland as to whether children were more or less likely to receive informal childcare only. In particular, children living in North Lanarkshire were more likely than children elsewhere to receive informal childcare only; 74% of children receiving any type of childcare in North Lanarkshire received informal childcare only compared with 50% in Glasgow and 53% in Edinburgh. This may indicate a greater supply of childcare in these areas, and so parents have more options for sending their children to formal childcare. The Scottish Executive Childcare Statistics for 2005 9 showed that in Edinburgh there were 472 childcare centres serving an estimated 8,167 children aged 3 - 4, while in North Lanarkshire there were 211 for an estimated population of 7,408 children in this age group.
3.6 There were also differences by ethnicity; 84% of children from ethnic minority backgrounds who received childcare received informal childcare only. This result is as expected, as previous research has indicated that parents from minority ethnic groups experience language and cultural difficulties when considering formal childcare options such as nurseries and playgroups. However, there was also a difference between 'White - Scottish and 'White - other' in that 59% of families who classified themselves as 'White Scottish' used informal childcare only compared with 50% of those with a 'White-other' classification. This could be that the latter group have moved to Scotland and do not have the informal support of family to share in childcare.
3.7 There was a general trend that as household income increased it was less likely that children would be in receipt of informal childcare only. For example, children from households with an income of between £10,001 and £15,000 were the most likely to receive only informal childcare; 66% as compared with 50% of children from families with an annual household income of over £40,000.
3.8 Previous research has indicated that the age of the child differentiates whether parents use formal or informal childcare. For example, for 0-4 year olds, informal childcare (particularly grandparents) was used most frequently, although this trend appeared to be on the decrease (55% in 2000 to 32% in 2003). For 5-11 year olds, babysitters were the most common providers in 2003 (perhaps reflecting the time of day that childcare is most needed) and for 12-14 year olds, again grandparents were the most common 10.
3.9 Findings from the current analyses show that older children were more likely than younger children to receive informal childcare only. Almost all (92%) of the children aged between 12 and 16 who received any childcare received informal childcare only. This finding supports previous evidence that the use of formal childcare among older children is very limited. The results also reveal that informal childcare was very common among the 5 to11 age group; 66% of children in this age group received informal childcare only. Younger children were less likely to receive informal childcare only; only around a third (34%) of children aged between 1 and 4 years old received informal childcare only. This may be due to the high proportion of younger children attending pre-school education, and the fact that younger children receive more and different types of childcare than older children.
3.10 In general, the more children in the household, the more likely it was that these children received informal childcare only. For example, 70% of children from households with four children received informal childcare only compared with 52% of children from one child households.
3.11 Children receiving informal childcare only were more likely to have parents using childcare to give them time to do other things. This would be as expected, as parents may utilise informal childcare options (such as babysitters) to give them some time to socialise etc. Children receiving informal childcare only were less likely to have parents using childcare for work reasons, to enable them to study/study more and, particularly, using childcare for the child's development.
3.12 Children from single working adult households were less likely to receive informal childcare only; 57% of children from single working adult households compared with 68% of children from non-working single adult households. This may be as these households have a greater need for childcare (due to a lack of a partner to share childcare duties) and so have to utilise both formal and informal options.
Predictors of children receiving formal childcare only
3.13 As was found with children receiving informal childcare only, several demographic factors were significant predictors of whether children who received childcare received this through formal childcare only. These were area, family type and age of child. For this type of childcare, the reasons that parents gave for using childcare were are also a predictor. The findings are summarised and discussed below and the detailed results can be found in Table 4 in Appendix 2.
Table 3.2: Profile of children and households receiving only formal childcare
Children most likely to receive formal childcare only
Children least likely to receive formal childcare only
Single parent family
Couple with 1-2 children
Couple with 3+ children
Age of child
Children aged 1-4 years old
Children aged 12-16 years old
Reasons for using childcare
For child's development
To give more time to do other things
Source: SHS 2003/2004
3.14 As with all other types of childcare, the age of the child was a strong predictor of whether a child received formal childcare. Given the existence of pre-school education and the consistent findings that parents of younger children utilise more and varied types of childcare, the results are as expected and indicate that almost half (45%) of the children aged 1-4 years old who received any type of childcare received formal childcare only. Children aged 12-16 years old were least likely to receive formal childcare only (5% of children from this age group).
3.15 Children living in Edinburgh and Glasgow were most likely to receive formal childcare only (31% and 38% respectively) compared with 19% in Fife and 17% in North Lanarkshire.
3.16 In terms of family type, there was no great difference between children from couple households with 1 or 2 children and children from single parent families in whether they received formal childcare only (30% and 28% respectively). However, a lower proportion (22%) of children from larger families received this type of childcare.
3.17 Children whose parents reported that they used childcare for their child's development were also more likely to be receiving formal childcare only. This was related to the use of pre-school education and parents utilising formal childcare for its educational properties. In contrast, children whose parents were using childcare to give them time to do other things were less likely to be receiving formal childcare only. This may be as parents used a mixture of childcare in order to meet this objective.
Children receiving both formal and informal childcare
3.18 Overall, 14% of children receiving childcare received both formal and informal childcare. Younger children were more likely to receive a mixture of childcare, with 21% of children aged between 1 and 4 years old receiving both formal and informal childcare. In contrast, only 12% of children aged 5-11 and 3% of children aged 12-16 received a mixture of childcare. The proportion of children receiving both types of childcare decreased as the number of children in the household increased; 16% of children in households with one child compared with 8% of children in households with four or more children. There was a similar trend in terms of income, with a greater proportion of higher than lower income households using both formal and informal childcare; 18% in households with an annual income of over £40,000 compared with 10% of households with an annual income of £6,000 - £10,000. These results seem to be linked to the higher proportion of higher income households with younger children using formal as well as informal childcare.
Comparing formal and informal childcare
3.19 Formal childcare was more common than informal childcare among younger children, with this pattern reversing among older children. For example, among 1-4 year olds receiving childcare, 45% of children received formal childcare only and 34% received informal childcare only, with 21% receiving both. However, there was a trend towards informal childcare among older children. For example, only 5% of children receiving childcare and aged between 12 and 16 years old received formal childcare whereas 92% of these children received some form of informal childcare.
3.20 Informal childcare was more common that formal childcare and this pattern was even more evident in households with more children. For example, the proportion of formal versus informal childcare was 32% compared with 52% for children in households with one child, and 22% compared with 70% for children in households with four children.
3.21 The single most common form of childcare used was informal care in the form of care by a relative. The most common form of formal childcare was nursery or playgroup. The use of individual types of childcare is discussed in more detail in the next chapter.
3.22 Although informal childcare was more common across all household types and in a proportion of cases a mixture of formal and informal childcare was used, it is still possible to identify some key patterns of use of formal and informal childcare by some key household characteristics.
- Age of children: formal childcare was more common among younger children.
- Working status: use of formal as opposed to informal care was more common in households where one or more adults were in paid employment.
- Family type: households with a greater number of children tended to rely more on informal than formal childcare.
- Income: this is linked with working status, as households where both parents are working tend to have higher incomes, and a greater need for childcare. The propensity to use formal as opposed to informal childcare increased with income, presumably as the majority of formal childcare has to be paid for.
3.23 Demographic factors which were not found to be predictors of the use of formal or informal childcare were household type, socio-economic status of the highest income householder, gender of the head of household, car access, and whether the family lived in an urban or rural area.