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Pre-school education

This information applies to Scotland only

What is pre-school education

Pre-school education aims to encourage children aged between two and five years old to learn, play and develop. It should build on the learning that takes place in a child's home and should also prepare the child for primary school. Pre-school children may be entitled to free early learning and childcare.

Entitlement to free pre-school education

All children aged three and four years old are eligible for a free part-time pre-school place depending on the date of the child’s birthday. Local authorities have a duty to ensure that enough places are available for all three and four year olds whose parents want them to attend. Children whose birthdays are on or between 1 March and 31 August are eligible for a place in the autumn term. Children whose birthdays are on or between 1 September and 31 December are eligible for a place in the spring term. Children whose birthdays are on or between 1 January and the last day of February are eligible for a place in the summer term. The entitlement starts from the beginning of the school term immediately following the child's third birthday and continues until the end of the school term before they are eligible to start primary school.

Some two year olds are eligible to free early learning and childcare.

How much free pre-school education are children entitled to

Children are entitled to 600 hours of funded pre-school education over the school year. This usually means that a child is offered five sessions of pre-school education a week, throughout the school year.

Do children have to have pre-school education

Children do not have to have pre-school education and as a parent you can decide whether you think your child will benefit or not. It is generally thought that children find it easier to go to primary school and do better when they get there if they have had pre-school education, but this may not be the case for all children. You can discuss these matters with your local nursery, your local authority or with other advisory bodies (see Further information).

Types of pre-school provision

Local authorities provide pre-school education in the form of nursery classes in primary schools and nursery schools. However local authorities have also made arrangements with private and voluntary centres to make sure that there are enough places available to meet the demand. This means that there are a variety of different types of pre-school providers:

  • local authority nursery schools and classes
  • nursery classes in independent schools
  • child and family centres run by social work departments
  • community childcare centres
  • private day nurseries
  • college, university or workplace nurseries
  • playgroups.

To find out more about what is available in your area, you could contact your local education authority or Scottish Families, a website, which gives information about pre-school providers throughout the UK (see Further information).

How to choose a pre-school place

If you are finding it hard to choose a pre-school education provider you may find it helpful to visit nurseries or playgroups in your area. Phone to make an appointment before visiting so that staff have time to talk to you and answer your questions. You could also ask to see the pre-school centre's most recent inspection report (see Registration and inspection of pre-school centres).

Demand for places at some pre-school centres may be high. You should check with the pre-school centre you have chosen about how to enrol your child. You may wish to put your child's name on the pre-school centre's waiting list once they reach their second birthday.

What do children do at pre-school

Children at pre-school are encouraged to learn through play. The staff at any pre-school centre will arrange activities to help the children learn and develop. All pre-school education providers have to follow the early stage of the Curriculum for Excellence. Information about the early stage of the Curriculum for Excellence can be found at the Education Scotland website.

Staff at pre-school centres monitor children's progress. This progress will be discussed with parents as well as used to plan the next steps in a child's learning. Local authorities encourage pre-school centres to share information about children's progress with the primary schools the children are due to move on to at the end of their pre-school education.

Children with additional support needs

If your child has additional needs, you should contact the local authority to discuss this. Your child will be given priority in the allocation of a pre-school place. The child may also be able to stay on at pre-school after their fifth birthday if this would be helpful.

For details of organisations giving information and advice about additional support needs, see Education: organisations which give information and advice.

Registration and inspection of pre-school centres

All pre-school centres have to register with the Care Inspectorate. It inspects pre-school education centres on an annual basis to ensure that they meet the national care standards for early education and childcare, and Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education (HMIE) inspects the educational aspect of pre-school centres. Inspection reports of pre-school centres are available on the websites of both organisations (see Further information for contact details for the Care Inspectorate and HMIE).

How to complain about a pre-school centre

All pre-school education centres must have a complaints procedure and should make this information available to parents. Complaints should be made to the pre-school provider in the first place. Depending on the management structure of the pre-school, complaints should then be taken to the next appropriate body, such as the pre-school's management committee or the local authority. For example, if a parent wants to complain about a child and family centre run by the local authority social work department, they could complain to the local authority if they are not satisfied with the response from the centre itself.

Complaints can also be made to the Care Inspectorate. It alerts Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education (HMIE) to any education issues arising from complaints. See Further information for contact details for the Care Inspectorate.

Provision of childcare for 3 and 4 year olds

You may need to access both childcare and pre-school education for your child. Some pre-school centres provide childcare services. This is often the case with pre-school centres run by private or voluntary organisations. You can find out about provision in your area from your local authority or from the Scottish Family Information Service (see Further information).

If you use childcare services at a centre which also provides pre-school education to your child, you will need to pay for the hours of childcare provided on top of the free pre-school provision. Charges vary from centre to centre. You may be able to get help with childcare costs by claiming the childcare element of working tax credit.

For more information about working tax credit, see Benefits and tax credits for people in work.

Provision for 2 year olds

Some children who are 2 years old are eligible for 600 hours of free pre-school early learning and childcare per school year by the local authority. Funded early learning and childcare will be offered if you:

More information about free childcare is available from your local education authority.

Further information

Scottish Family Information Service

The Scottish Family Information Service website at provides free, impartial information on childcare and pre-school education services throughout Scotland. This includes information about childcare availability in local areas.


Education Scotland (see next paragraph) has a section of its website called Parentzone. This provides a wide range of information for parents of preschool and school age children. Documents such as the curriculum framework for children aged between three and five years can be downloaded from this site.


Education Scotland

Education Scotland has a helpful website about early years care and education. The site has information about learning strategies, details of events and workshops, links to resources and publications and information about the Curriculum for Excellence.


The Care Inspectorate

The Care Inspectorate is an independent body that is responsible for regulating care services, including childcare services. It can be contacted at:-

The Care Inspectorate
Compass House
11 Riverside Drive
Tel: 0345 600 9527

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education

Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education is responsible for inspecting and assessing the quality of educational provision at pre-school centres. The Inspectorate is part of Education Scotland.


Scottish Government

There is information on the provision of early learning and childcare, including the qualifying benefits where relevant, on the Scottish Government website at  

Statutory guidance

The Scottish Government has published statutory guidance on the provision of early learning and childcare. It is available on the Scottish Government website at PDF .