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Early learning and childcare

This advice applies to Scotland

This information applies to Scotland.

Coronavirus – childcare and schools

The Scottish government has announced changes that affect schools and childcare. 

You can find out more about childcare and schools during coronavirus

Coronavirus advice for families

There's more advice for families on the Parent Club website.

What is early learning and childcare 

Early learning and childcare covers the childcare and education of children from birth to starting school. The two terms 'early learning' and 'childcare' were combined by the Scottish Government to emphasise that the care and education of very young children are not two 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 are the parent or carer of a child aged between two and three and a half, you might be able to get a one off payment of £250. This is a new 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 this payment on our Best Start Grant page.

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 is ending 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 three and four 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 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
  • 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 two 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:

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 600 hours of funded early learning and childcare over the school year. This usually means that a child is offered 16 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 is going to be increased. It was due to be increased throughout Scotland from August 2020 but this is no longer possible because of coronavirus.

The amount of free early learning and childcare will be increased to 1140 hours over the school year. This works out as about 30 hours a week during term time or about 22 hours a week throughout the year. This increase was being rolled out gradually and was already available in some places. Check with your local authority to see what is available in your area and when to apply. There is more information on the Scottish Government's Parent Club website.

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

A child born in January or February can have their entry into primary school deferred and the local authority has a duty to provide the child with an extra year of free early learning and childcare.

A child born between September and December can apply to have their entry into primary school deferred but they are not automatically entitled as the deferral will need to be approved by the local education authority. In this situation the local authority has discretion to provide an extra year of free early learning and childcare, which means they can refuse to offer a funded place. 

Do children have to take up an early learning and childcare place

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 find it easier to go to primary school and do better when they get there 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 authorities provide early learning and childcare in nursery classes in primary schools and nursery schools. However local authorities have also made 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 authority nursery schools
  • nursery classes in primary schools
  • local authority 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 authorities 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, you could contact your local education authority or the Scottish Family Information Service, a website which gives information about early learning and childcare providers throughout Scotland or ask your childcare provider.

How to choose an early learning and childcare place

If you are finding it hard to choose an early learning and childcare provider you may 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.

Demand for places with some early learning and childcare providers may be high. You should check with the early learning and childcare provider you have chosen about how to enrol your child. You may wish to put your child's name on the provider's waiting list.

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

Scottish Family Information Service

The Scottish Family Information Service website provides free, impartial information on early learning and childcare 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 pre-school and school age children. Documents such as the curriculum framework for children aged between three and five 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

Scottish Government

There is information on the provision of early learning and childcare, including the qualifying benefits where relevant, on the Scottish Government website. From 1 August 2017 if the qualifying benefit for free childcare is Universal Credit a new income threshold of £610 in the assessment period is being applied for single people or in the combined income of a couple.

Statutory guidance

There is statutory guidance on the provision of early learning and childcare on the Scottish Government website .

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