Early learning and childcare

This advice applies to Scotland. See advice for See advice for England, See advice for Northern Ireland, See advice for Wales

What is early learning and childcare 

Early learning and childcare covers the childcare and education of children from birth to starting school. The 2 terms 'early learning' and 'childcare' were combined by the Scottish government to emphasise that the care and education of very young children are not 2 separate things. 

For that reason early learning and childcare covers a broad range of services, from private nurseries and childminders to funded school nurseries and playgroups amongst other options. 

Early Learning Payment

If you're the parent or carer of a child aged between 2 and 3 and a half, you might be able to get a one off payment of £250. This is a Scottish benefit that is meant to help with the costs of early learning, such as toys, books and outings, but you can spend the money how you want. You'll usually need to be getting certain benefits to be eligible.

The payment is called the Best Start Grant Early Learning Payment. You don't have to actually send your child to any type of early learning or childcare to get the payment. Read more about the Best Start Grant.

Help with early learning and childcare costs for working parents

A number of schemes are available to help with the costs of childcare when parents are working. Some help may be available in the form of tax credits. Other assistance is available as a tax free childcare assistance from the UK government through:

  • childcare vouchers through your employer (this scheme ended in September 2018 for new applications but continues for those in the scheme), or

  • an online account that the government will add £2 to for every £8 paid in by the working parent. 

More information about what schemes are available and how to apply is on the Scottish government website.

Some working parents on a childcare voucher scheme may be better off staying on that option. Some information about which scheme may be best for you is available on the Edenred website.

Check entitlement to free early learning and childcare

Children aged 3 and 4 years old

All children aged 3 and 4 years old are eligible for free part-time early learning and childcare depending on the date of the child’s birthday. Local authorities have a duty to ensure that enough places are available for all 3 and 4 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

  • on or between 1 September and 31 December are eligible for a place in the spring term

  • 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.

Children aged 2 years old

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

  • care for a child who is 'looked after' by the local authority, or

  • are a kinship carer, or

  • are a guardian, or

  • get a qualifying benefit. 

If a child is at risk of becoming a 'looked after' child or has a parent who was in care, then the local authority can decide to offer them free early learning and childcare.

You can read more about funded early learning and childcare on mygov.scot.

How much free early learning and childcare are eligible children entitled to

Children who are eligible for free early learning and childcare are entitled to 1140 hours of funded early learning and childcare over the school year. This usually means that a child is offered 30 hours of early learning and childcare a week during term time, throughout the school year.

The amount of free early learning and childcare that eligible children are entitled to increased from 600 hours to 1140 hours on 1 August 2021. The increase in hours was rolled out gradually and was available in some places before 1 August 2021.

There is more information about early learning and childcare on the Parent Club website.

Deferring a child's entry into primary school and their entitlement to early learning and childcare

Children born between March and the beginning of the school year in August typically start primary school at the age of 5. 

Children born between the beginning of the school year and February typically start primary school at the age of 4. 

If your child is 4 years old at the beginning of the school year, you can defer their entry for a year. 

From August 2023, all children who defer entry into primary school can automatically access funded early learning and childcare.

Do children have to go to early learning and childcare

Children do not have to have pre-school early learning and childcare and as a parent you can decide whether you think your child will benefit or not. It is generally thought that children do better in primary school if they have had pre-school early learning and childcare, 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.

Types of early learning and childcare provision

Local councils provide early learning and childcare in nursery classes in primary schools and nursery schools. They also make arrangements with private and voluntary providers to make sure that there are enough places available to meet the demand. This means that there are a variety of different types of early learning and childcare providers:

  • local council nursery schools

  • nursery classes in primary schools

  • local council or private day nurseries

  • nursery classes in independent schools

  • playgroups

  • childminders

  • child and family centres run by social work departments

  • community childcare centres

  • college, university or workplace nurseries.

Not all childcare services offer funded early learning and childcare places. Local councils are in charge of commissioning places and providers must work in partnership with them.

To find out more about what is available in your area, check your local council website. Find your local council on mygov.scot.

How to choose an early learning and childcare place

If you're finding it hard to choose an early learning and childcare provider you might find it helpful to visit providers 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 provider's most recent inspection report.

How to apply for a place

You should check with your local council or the provider you have chosen about how to apply for a place for your child. Demand for places with some early learning and childcare providers might be high. You might need to put your child's name on the provider's waiting list. You can find your local council on mygov.scot.

What do children do with early learning and childcare providers

Children in early learning and childcare settings are encouraged to learn through play. The staff in an early learning and childcare setting will arrange activities to help the children learn and develop. All early learning and childcare 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 on the Education Scotland website.

Staff in an early learning and childcare setting will 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 early learning and childcare providers 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 an early learning and childcare place. The child may also be able to stay on at pre-school early learning and childcare after their fifth birthday if this would be helpful.

Registration and inspection of early learning and childcare providers

All early learning and childcare providers have to register with the Care Inspectorate. The Care Inspectorate looks at how early learning and childcare services support the health and wellbeing of children. Education Scotland is responsible for inspecting the quality of educational provision. 

Inspection reports of early learning and childcare providers are available on the websites of both the Care Inspectorate and Education Scotland.

How to complain about an early learning and childcare provider

All early learning and childcare providers must have a complaints procedure and should make this information available to parents. Complaints should be made to the early learning and childcare provider in the first place. Depending on the management structure of the early learning and childcare provider, complaints should then be taken to the next appropriate body, such as the centre'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 Education Scotland to any education issues arising from complaints.

Further information


Education Scotland (see next paragraph) has a section of its website called Parentzone. This provides a wide range of information for parents of pre-school and school age children. Documents such as the curriculum framework for children aged between 3 and 5 years can be downloaded from the Education Scotland website.

Education Scotland

Education Scotland is responsible for inspecting and assessing the quality of educational provision at early learning and childcare centres. There is information about early years care and education on the Education Scotland website. 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 (Monday to Friday 9am to 4pm)

Email: enquiries@careinspectorate.com

Website: www.careinspectorate.com