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Free Early Learning and Childcare: The Basics

Free Early Learning and Childcare: The Basics

Since April 2002, Local Authorities have had a duty to secure a funded part-time early learning and childcare place for every 3 and 4 year old whose parents wish it. The Scottish Government wants to ensure that all children can experience the benefits that a quality pre-school experience can offer to children. From August 2014 there will be a number of significant changes to early learning and childcare. Click here to read the latest


  • Funded early learning and childcare will give your child the chance to learn and play with friends
  • Research has shown that good quality early learning and childcare helps children's development
  • You can arrange childcare to fit around your free part-time place

You are entitled to a funded part-time place for your child, broadly speaking, from the beginning of the school term starting after their third birthday. Ask your local Childcare or Family Information Service (www.scottishfamilies.gov.uk) where your child can access a place locally.

Early learning and childcare can be provided by:

  • A local authority nursery school
  • A nursery class in a primary school
  • A local authority or private day nursery
  • An independent school nursery
  • A playgroup
  • A registered childminder

Do all childcare services offer funded early learning and childcare places?

No. Local authorities are in charge of commissioning places and centres must be working in partnership with them. You can check which services provide part-time places with your local Childcare or Family Information Service or you can ask your childcare provider. You may need to look at what is available in your area and decide what service might best suit your child’s needs. In some parts of the country early learning and childcare will be available in Gaelic.

If your childcare provider provides funded places, they will receive funding from the Local Authority enabling them to offer you a free part-time place. Your early education provider or Childcare or Family Information Service should be able to give you more information about fees which may be charged for childcare before or after this free place.

What does registration and inspection mean for centres providing early learning and childcare?

Centres providing early learning and childcare places must be registered with the Care Inspectorate and receive a regular joint inspection by the Care Inspectorate and HM Inspectorate of Education. The staff will follow Curriculum for Excellence, which encourages learning through play, and the service must meet the National Care Standards for Early Education and Childcare up to the age of 16, laid down by the Scottish Government.

You can ask to see the provider's latest inspection reports, or check the following websites:
Care Inspectorate
Education Scotland

Numbers of staff vary in the different services, as there are different Care Inspectorate requirements on staff: child ratios depending on the age of the children e.g. the staff: child ratio for under 2s is 1:3, while the ratio for 3s and over is 1:8.

What Time will the Part-Time Place be Available?

The entitlement is for 600 hours per year, from August 2014. As well as offering an increased number of hours of early learning and childcare, the hours must be offered in a way that allows parents some choice and flexibility over what pattern of hours they can get. 2 ½ hours a day, at a set time of the day, might not help parents with working, training or studying patterns. In the first year of this new system, local authorities may just offer one new model; but, they will increase the range of patterns and models year on year based on feedback to their consultations.

Local authorities may offer -

  • places at nurseries, nursery classes in schools, playgroups, or child-minders through their own services or through partners in the private or third sector
  • a range of hours a day, from 2 ½ hours to 8 hours maximum, up to around 16 hours a week
  • hours or days that are not always in school-term times

Ask your local Childcare or Family Information Service for more information (www.scottishfamilies.gov.uk). They will help you find out about your local options and they will also help you if you need extra childcare to match your working hours.

Information is also usually available through local authority websites.

Starting school

Children become eligible to start primary school in the August when they will be between 4 ½ and 5 ½ years old. Parents have the right to defer their child’s entry to primary school provided that the child is still 5 years old when he or she starts school. Parents of children with birthdays in January or February, who choose to defer their child’s entry to primary school, are entitled to continue to receive a free, part-time pre-school place for an additional year. The children will start school the August after their fifth birthday. However, children with September to December birthdays will only be able to access an extra year of free early learning and childcare at the discretion of their local authorities. If you wish to defer your child’s entry to primary school you should discuss this with your local authority’s education department. Further information on entitlement to early learning and childcare and starting school are available on the Parentzone website (www.ltscotland.org.uk/parentzone).

Finding out more

Ask your local Childcare or Family Information Service if you need to know:

  • About funded early learning and childcare places for your three or four year old
  • Which services are registered to provide free places
  • Advice on combining services to benefit your child and match your working hours