Childcare in Scotland - a parents' guide

Childcare in Scotland

We published a our second report on early learning and childcare in March 2020, which looks at how effectively the Scottish Government and councils are working together to plan the increase in hours of funded early learning and childcare (ELC) to 1,140 hours a year from August 2020.

We've updated this guide for parents and carers to answer some frequently asked questions about funded ELC and how to get a place, and we suggest some ways you can get more information and help. The guide also covers how we carried out our audit and what we found.


A guide for parents and carers

Our guide below answers some frequently asked questions about funded early learning and childcare and how to get a place. It also looks at how we carried out our audit and what we found.

  • early learning and childcare What is funded early learning and childcare?

    Funded early learning and childcare used to be called pre-school education, that is, education that children receive before they go to school.

    But it's very difficult to separate learning from care for young children as they both happen at the same time. This change in name tries to reflect this.

    The government and councils now use the term 'funded early learning and childcare' for where this type of care is paid for by councils. This is offered to some two-year-olds and three, four and five-year-olds.

    Where are funded places available?

    Funded early learning and childcare places are available in:

    school nurseries

    early years centres

    private nurseries

    nurseries run by a charity or a  voluntary organisation

    playgroups

    childminders

    Sometimes you may have to pay for this care first and then your local council, or the place where your child has a funded early learning and childcare place, will refund the money to you. From August 2020, funded ELC should be free at the point of use. This means you should no longer have to pay in advance for any funded hours your child receives. See 'How do you apply for a funded place?' below for more information.

    How many hours are available?

    From August 2014, the number of funded hours increased from 475 to 600 hours a year. Six hundred hours of funded early learning and childcare is the same as around 16 hours a week of funded early learning and childcare during school term-time. A school term is around 38 weeks a year.

    If your child has a funded early learning and childcare place for 600 hours, this may be a part-time place each day during school term-time. Other options, such as longer places for fewer days, or places during school holidays are also available. These options vary by council.

    From August 2020, the number of funded hours will increase from 600 to 1,140 hours per year for children with a funded place - find out if your child qualifies. This is the same as around 30 hours each week during school term-time.

    In the run-up to August 2020, councils are starting to phase in the extra hours for some children. This means that some children will already be getting more than 600 hours of funded ELC.

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  • early learning and childcare What are the benefits of early learning and childcare?

    Research has found high quality early learning and childcare can have benefits for children's social, emotional and educational skills. Health Scotland reviewed the research on the different parts of early learning and childcare that can contribute to these benefits. You can find more information in their report. Parents that we spoke to as part of our 2018 audit were very positive about the benefits of early learning and childcare to their child - see our report for more information on this (PDF 799Kb).

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  • early learning and childcare Does your child qualify for funded early learning and childcare?

    How do you know if your child can get a funded place?

    Working out when your child can get a funded place can be complicated, and different councils have different rules.

    This will depend on the month they were born and which council you want to use funded early learning and childcare in. Exhibit 8 below from our 2018 report sets out when children should be able to start their funded place depending on their birthday, as a minimum. But some councils provide places earlier than this.

    Statutory guidance on eligibility for funded ELC

    Exhibit 8 Statutory guidance on eligibility for funded early learning and childcare

    Start of eligibility depends on the child's birthday

    If child's birthday is 1 March to 31 August, eligible from Autumn term (August)

    If child's birthday is 1 September to 31 December, eligible from Spring term (January)

    If child's birthday is 1 January to 29 February, eligible from Summer term (March/April)

    Source: Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014, Early Learning and Childcare, Statutory Guidance, Scottish Government, August 2014

    For the most up-to-date information it's best to check directly with your council. Councils might include this information on their website: the Scottish Government's Parent Club website allows you to find links to the relevant parts of your local council's website. Or you can call your council's main switchboard and ask to be put through to the right service.

    Can your two-year-old get a funded place?

    Your child can get funded early learning and childcare when they are two if their parent or carer receives one, or more, of the following:

    Income Support

    Job Seeker's Allowance (income-based)

    Any income related element of Employment and Support Allowance

    Child Tax Credit but not Working Tax Credit (up to an income of £16,105. This figure is reviewed each year, so make sure you check with your local council).

    Both maximum Working Tax Credit and maximum Child Tax Credit (up to an income of £7,320. This figure is reviewed each year, so make sure you check with your local council).

    Incapacity Benefit or Severe Disablement Allowance.

    State Pension Credit.

    Support under Part VI of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999.

    Universal Credit with household take-home pay of £610 a month or less.

    Your child can still continue to get a funded place if you receive one of these benefits and then your circumstances change. For example, if you were receiving Job Seekers Allowance and you started a new job, so stopped receiving Job Seekers Allowance, your child would still keep their funded place.

    If parents don't live together and one parent receives one of these benefits, but the other doesn't, your local council will decide if your child can get a funded place.

    Two-year-olds can also get a funded early learning and childcare place if they are (or ever have been since turning two):

    Looked after. This is where a child is placed in the care of their local council, through a voluntary agreement with their parents or a compulsory process such as a children’s hearing or the court service.

    Under a kinship care order. This is where a child is living full-time, or most of the time, with a relative or family friend because they are not able to live with their birth parents. The arrangement is made by:
    - social work,
    - the court or children’s panel (or both).
    The kinship carer will have some or all parental responsibilities, but the child is not looked after.

    Under a guardianship order. This is where a child's parent has died and had made arrangements in their will or other written documents for another adult to become the child's guardian.

    From August 2020, two-year-olds with a care experienced parent will also be able to get a funded early learning and childcare place.

    The date two-year-olds can start a funded place depends on their birthday and their local council. Exhibit 8 from our 2018 report below sets out when children should be able to start their funded place depending on their birthday, as a minimum. But some councils provide places earlier than this.

    Statutory guidance on eligibility for funded ELC

    Exhibit 8 Statutory guidance on eligibility for funded early learning and childcare

    Start of eligibility depends on the child's birthday

    If child's birthday is 1 March to 31 August, eligible from Autumn term (August)

    If child's birthday is 1 September to 31 December, eligible from Spring term (January)

    If child's birthday is 1 January to 29 February, eligible from Summer term (March/April)

    Source: Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014, Early Learning and Childcare, Statutory Guidance, Scottish Government, August 2014

    For the most up-to-date information it's best to check directly with your council. Councils might include this information on their website: the Scottish Government's Parent Club website allows you to find links to the relevant parts of your local council's website. Or you can call your council's main switchboard and ask to be put through to the right service.

    If your two-year-old gets a funded place, they will continue to be able to have a funded place until they are able to start school (see 'Can your five-year-old get a funded place?' for more information).  However, this might not always be a place in the same setting, as some councils offer different services for two-year-olds and three and four-year-olds.  See our question on 'Can you choose where your child goes?' below for more information.

    Can your three-year-old get a funded place?

    All three-year-olds can get a funded early learning and childcare place. When children start their funded place depends on their birthday and your local council. Exhibit 8 from our 2018 report below sets out when children should be able to start their funded place depending on their birthday, as a minimum.  But some councils provide places earlier than this.

    Statutory guidance on eligibility for funded ELC

    Exhibit 8 Statutory guidance on eligibility for funded early learning and childcare

    Start of eligibility depends on the child's birthday

    If child's birthday is 1 March to 31 August, eligible from Autumn term (August)

    If child's birthday is 1 September to 31 December, eligible from Spring term (January)

    If child's birthday is 1 January to 29 February, eligible from Summer term (March/April)

    Source: Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014, Early Learning and Childcare, Statutory Guidance, Scottish Government, August 2014

    For the most up-to-date information it's best to check directly with your council. Councils might include this information on their website: the Scottish Government's Parent Club website allows you to find links to the relevant parts of your local council's website. Or you can call your council's main switchboard and ask to be put through to the right service.

    Can your four-year-old get a funded place?

    All four-year-olds should be able to get a funded early learning and childcare place. Once your child is at an age when they can start primary school they won't automatically get a funded early learning and childcare place. If you decide to defer your child's school start date, for example, because of the date of their birthday, you'll need to talk to your council. Some children in these circumstances are able to get an extra year's funded place. The table on options for starting school gives you more information - see 'Can your five-year-old get a funded place?'.

    The rules around deferring starting school and getting a funded early learning and childcare place are changing. For the most up-to-date information, contact your local council.

    Can your five-year-old get a funded place?

    Most children stop being eligible for a funded early learning and childcare place when they start school. The age that children start school depends on when their birthday falls in the year. The table below shows you the options for children starting school and how that affects their funded early learning and childcare place, depending on their birthday.

    The rules around deferring starting school and getting a funded early learning and childcare place are changing. For the most up-to-date information, contact your local council.

    Options for children starting school
    Child's birthday Start at school
    1 March - 31 August Start of autumn term (sometime in August) in the year they turn five.
    1 September - 31 December Start of autumn term (sometime in August) in the year they turn five.
    You can choose to defer your child from starting school until the following August. If you do this, your child will not normally get an extra year of funded early learning and childcare. Some councils may choose to offer this in some circumstances.
    1 January - 29 February Start of the autumn term (sometime in August) in the year before they turn five.
    You can choose to defer your child from starting school until the following August. Your child automatically gets an extra year of funded early learning and childcare.

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  • early learning and childcare How does funded early learning and childcare work?

    What can you expect your child to receive?

    Our guide outlines when your child can get a funded place.

    If your child can get a funded place, they can receive 600 hours of funded early learning and childcare each year. This works out at around 16 hours a week in school term-time. But the way in which local councils offer these 600 hours varies by area.

    Click on the image below to find out some of the ways in which 600 hours is offered where you live.

    Models of funded ELC available in 2016/17

    The options available vary across the country but may include:

    part-day places in a morning or afternoon

    full-day places

    places split across more than one setting, for example a school nursery and a private nursery, and other different options.

    Councils are continuing to change the way in which services work. So it's always best to check with your local council for the most up-to-date information.

    Councils might include this information on their website: the Scottish Government's Parent Club website allows you to find links to the relevant parts of your local council's website. Or you can call your council's main switchboard and ask to be put through to the right service.

    From August 2020, the number of hours you child can receive will increase to 1,140 hours per year. This is the same as around 30 hours a week in school term-time. Councils are already bringing in extra hours of funded early learning and childcare for some children before the deadline for the increase to 1,140 hours by August 2020.

    Your local council will also be able to give you the most up-to-date information on the different ways in which 1,140 will be available locally.  For example, whether this includes short days sessions for five days a week, or longer sessions over fewer days.

    What if you don't want to send your child?

    Unlike school, funded early learning and childcare places are not compulsory, so you don't need to send your child if you don't want to.

    What if you don't want to use all the hours?

    Unlike school, funded early learning and childcare is not compulsory so you can choose to send your child for fewer than 600 hours (or 1,140 hours from August 2020).

    In 2018, we found that some councils gave different priority to children who were applying for fewer hours when making decisions about places. Contact your local council to find out more about how it works in your area. Some councils list this information on their website: the Scottish Government's Parent Club website allows you to find links to the relevant parts of your local council's website. Or you can call the main switchboard and ask to be put through to the right service.

    What if you want more than the funded hours the council offers?

    Some places that offer funded early learning and childcare will let you buy extra hours of early learning and childcare beyond your funded place. Sometimes this is called wraparound care.

    For example, if your child has a place two days a week, some settings might let you buy a place for another day of the week.

    The nursery or other early learning and childcare setting, for example a childminder or playgroup, you're considering will be able to give you more information on whether they provide this service.

    You can contact your local council to find out how it works in your area. Some councils list this information on their website: the Scottish Government's Parent Club website allows you to find links to the relevant parts of your local council's website. Or you can call the main switchboard and ask to be put through to the right service.

    What if you want your child to get their early learning and childcare in a different council to where you live?

    Councils can arrange with other neighbouring councils to offer funded early learning and childcare places to children who live in a different council area. For example, some parents who work in a different council area to where they live prefer their child to have a funded early learning and childcare place near their work.

    Contact your council to find out more about how this works in your area. Some councils list this information on their website: the Scottish Government's Parent Club website allows you to find links to the relevant parts of your local council's website. Or you can call the main switchboard and ask to be put through to the right service.

    Does an early learning and childcare place cost anything?

    This depends on local arrangements. For example, if you have a place in a council nursery you'll only be asked to pay for any additional hours that you use over the 600 hours (or 1,140 hours from August 2020), if these are available and you're using this service. Some council nurseries also make a small charge for the costs of snacks provided to children.

    If you have a funded place in another setting - for example, a private nursery, a nursery run by a charity or voluntary group or a playgroup - you might have to pay additional fees, for example for snacks, outings or lunches, depending on local arrangements.

    Your local council, or the particular funded early learning and childcare setting you're considering, will be able to give you more information on this.

    From August 2020, every child attending a session of funded ELC should be able to receive a meal, a healthy snack and milk for free as part of their session.

    In some councils, playgroups, private nurseries or nurseries run by charities or voluntary groups, you may need to pay for your early learning and childcare place upfront (including your 600 funded hours). But you then get a refund for your funded hours from the council or the funded early learning and childcare setting later on. From August 2020, funded early learning and childcare places should be free at the point of access, which means there should be no need to pay in advance and wait for a refund.

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  • early learning and childcare How do you apply for a funded early learning and childcare place?

    How do you apply?

    The process for applying for places is different in each council. But most councils either ask you to:

    apply directly to the place where you want your child to go, or

    list the places you would prefer on one application form in the order you prefer.

    Your local council can give you more information on which system it uses.

    Some councils include this information on their website: the Scottish Government's Parent Club website allows you to find links to the relevant parts of your local council's website. Or you can call your council's main switchboard and ask to be put through to the right service.

    Can you choose where your child goes?

    You should get some choice over where your child is offered a place, but you don't have a right to choose exactly where the council offers your child a place. Councils should consider your preferences when deciding where to offer your child a place. However, this doesn't guarantee you'll get the place you want.

    Councils are expected to offer funded places with a range of providers and with different session times to reflect local needs, but you are still not guaranteed to get exactly the place you want in a specific setting.

    You can choose to apply for a funded early learning and childcare place for your child in different types of places. These vary by council, but can include:

    council-run nurseries (sometimes these are part of a primary school)

    private nurseries or nurseries run by voluntary groups or charities

    playgroups

    childminders

    There may be some differences in places you can choose from, depending on the age of your child. For example, not all council nurseries take eligible two-year-olds and some councils offer places for two-year-olds with childminders, but not places for older children.

    You might want to consider which type of funded early learning and childcare would best suit you and your child when you're thinking about applying.

    How do you decide where to apply for a place?

    Your local council should be able to provide you with information on the options in your local area. Some councils list this information on their website: the Scottish Government's Parent Club website allows you to find links to the relevant parts of your local council's website. Or you can call the main switchboard and ask to be put through to the right service.

    The Scottish Families Information Service has information about some of the options available in local areas. The Scottish Government's Parent Club website also has more information on choosing a place for your child.

    You might also want to consider the following when you're deciding where to apply.

    The Care Inspectorate and Education Scotland report on the quality of early learning and childcare in different settings. So you might want to look at these reports for places you're interested in applying to.

    You may find it helpful to visit the places you're considering. This gives you the chance to find out what the facilities are like and meet the staff. Try to make an appointment before you go to make sure staff have enough time to talk to you.

    Speaking to other parents in your neighbourhood to find out about the different options available to you.

    Different places may have different opening times and lengths of session. It might be helpful to think about what you need and consider this when you're deciding where to apply.

    Where your child might go to primary school. If there's a nursery attached to your child's future school, you may want to consider applying for a place there.

    Your current childcare arrangements. If you're already using childcare, and your current provider offers funded places, you may want to consider whether you want to change this, or whether you'd prefer to keep things the same as they are now.

    When do you need to apply?

    This varies by council and when your child's birthday is. To find out the most up-to-date information on this, contact your local council.

    Some councils list this information on their website: the Scottish Government's Parent Club website allows you to find links to the relevant parts of your local council's website. Or you can call the main switchboard and ask to be put through to the right service.

    When will you find out about your application?

    This varies by council and when you submit your form. To find out the most up-to-date information on this contact your local council. Some councils list this information on their website: the Scottish Government's Parent Club website allows you to find links to the relevant parts of your local council's website. Or you can call the main switchboard and ask to be put through to the right service.

    Who decides where your child gets a place?

    This varies by area. In some councils a central admissions team decides; in others the local nursery or other early learning and childcare setting, for example a playgroup, decides.

    Contact your local council to find out more about how it works in your area. Some councils list this information on their website: the Scottish Government's Parent Club website allows you to find links to the relevant parts of your local council's website. Or you can call the main switchboard and ask to be put through to the right service.

    What if you're not happy about the decision?

    Normally there's not an appeals process for funded early learning and childcare places, unlike applications for school. If you're unhappy with the decision, you should contact your council.

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  • early learning and childcare How can you let your council know your thoughts on this?

    Councils regularly consult with parents on funded early learning and childcare and what they and their children need. This should help councils decide how to plan their services.

    They often use online surveys, but sometimes hold focus groups or meetings with parents. Your local council will be able to give you more information on any planned consultation in your area.

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  • early learning and childcare When does your child get 1,140 hours?

    When will 1,140 hours be available?

    From August 2020, the number of hours your child can receive will increase to 1,140 hours per year. This is the same as around 30 hours a week in school term-time. Some councils are already bringing in extra hours of funded early learning and childcare for some children before the deadline for the increase to 1,140 hours.

    Your local council will be able to give you the most up-to-date information on when 1,140 hours will be available in your area. This should be August 2020 at the latest.

    Some councils list this information on their website: the Scottish Government's Parent Club website allows you to find links to the relevant parts of your local council's website. Or you can call the main switchboard and ask to be put through to the right service.

    Who can get 1,140 hours?

    Three-year-olds, four-year-olds and some two-year-olds will be able to get 1,140 hours of funded early learning and childcare from August 2020. See our questions above on whether your child qualifies.

    Apart from more hours available, what else will change by 2020?

    The Scottish Government has developed a new national standard for funded early learning and childcare. This includes criteria on lots of aspects of funded early learning and childcare, for example around staffing, the physical environment and how settings involve parents. From August 2020, all settings need to meet the range of criteria set out in the national standard to be able to offer funded early learning and childcare.

    From August 2020, all children in funded early learning and childcare will be able to get free lunches, a healthy snack and milk as part of their 1,140 hours of funded early learning and childcare.

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  • early learning and childcare How we carried out our audit and what we found

    About Audit Scotland

    We're independent of the Scottish Government. We check that public organisations such as local councils and the Scottish Government spend their money properly and effectively. To do this, we audit them and publish reports on what we find.

    The Scottish Parliament or the Accounts Commission - or both - consider our reports. We make recommendations to the organisations we audit to help them improve.

    Find out more about what we do here on our website.

    About our audit of early learning and childcare in Scotland

    This audit was our second report on early learning and childcare. Our first audit was published in February 2018. This second audit looked at the following:

    How well the Scottish Government and councils are progressing planning to make sure there is enough staff and places available for the increase in the number of hours of funded early learning and childcare to 1,140 hours a year by August 2020. 1,140 hours of funded early learning and childcare is the same as around 30 hours a week of funded early learning and childcare during school term-time. A school term is around 38 weeks a year.  We explain funded early learning and childcare here.

    What progress the Scottish Government has made in planning how they will measure whether the increase in hours has achieved what they hope that it will.

    How did we collect our information?

    During our audit we gathered information from many sources including:

    interviews with staff in the Scottish Government, Care Inspectorate, Scotland Excel, National Day Nurseries Association, Early Years Scotland, Scottish Childminding Association, Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and other national bodies

    focus group with council staff involved in planning for the increase in hours

    information from councils on progress with the increase in hours

    reviewing documents produced by councils on plans for the increase in hours

    reviewing documents from national groups involved with plans for the increase in hours

    What did our audit find?

    The Scottish Government and councils are making progress broadly in line with their plans for how to increase the hours. But the plans they have still mean there's lots to do in a short space of time, particularly over the summer months. There are risks around being able to get enough people and buildings in place to deliver the increase in hours. It's likely that by the time the increase in hours is brought in in August 2020, some parts of the policy, such as the flexibility and choice available to families, will not be in place as much as the Scottish Government want, and this will increase after August 2020.

    There's lots of work going on to plan for the increase in hours and the organisations involved are working well together nationally. However, some of the guidance was delayed and this meant there was more uncertainty for providers of ELC (like private nurseries, playgroups or childminders) about how they might be involved in delivering the increase in hours.

    There are still lots of important challenges around getting the staff in place. Councils still need to find around half of the extra staff they need for their nurseries.  Other providers of early learning and childcare (like private nurseries, playgroups or childminders) are saying they have problems with employing and keeping staff that may make it hard for them to keep their business going.

    There are also risks to getting enough building work done in the time left.  Lots of this work is due to finish just before August 2020. If there are any hold ups to this then it will affect families planning to use these services. Councils have started to make back-up plans to prepare for this.

    The Scottish Government's plans for measuring whether the increase in hours has achieved what they hope that it will are moving on.  They've started to measure some of the things they've said they need to, so they can understand what's happening before the increase in hours.  There are still some problems that need to be fixed. For example, the Scottish Government still needs to work out how they'll measure some of the things that they think will be affected by the increase in funded early learning and childcare.

    You can get more detailed information on our findings in our full audit report (PDF 799Kb)

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  • early learning and childcare If you have other questions, how can you find out more?

    The Scottish Families Information Service has advice for families including information on early learning and childcare for the whole of Scotland, as well as how services work locally.

    Parent Club has advice on early learning and childcare and links to local council websites.

    The Scottish Government publishes information about how early learning and childcare works nationally and future changes to 1,140 hours.

    Your local council can give you information on how services work in your area. Some councils list this information on their website: try searching for 'early learning', 'childcare' or 'education'. Or you can call the main switchboard and ask to be put through to the right service.

    mygov.scot has a guide on help paying for childcare that includes information on funded early learning and childcare and links to local council websites.

    The Scottish Childminding Association has advice for parents on choosing a childminder and has a helpline for parents with childminding queries.

    The National Day Nurseries Association has information for parents, including a fact sheet on choosing a nursery in Scotland.

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