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Early learning and childcare

Early Learning and Childcare Entitlement

The Scottish Government is committed to improving and increasing high quality, flexible early learning and childcare which is accessible and affordable for all children and families. Our priorities are to –

  • improve outcomes for children, especially those who are more vulnerable or disadvantaged

  • support parents to work, train or study, especially those who need routes into sustainable employment and out of poverty.

The Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 introduced new early learning and childcare entitlements to replace the funded 12.5 hours/ week during term time of pre-school education for 3 and 4 year olds. Early learning and childcare is education and care for young children delivered in a caring and nurturing setting. It's being implemented by local authorities, in consultation with local communities.

Since August 2014, the following children are eligible for 600 hours/ year (the equivalent of around 16 hours/ week during term time) early learning and childcare:

  • 3 and 4 year olds, starting from around the first term after their third birthday

  • 2 year olds from the point that they are looked after, under a kinship care order, or with a parent appointed guardian.

  • 2 year olds, starting from the first term after their second birthday, (where their 2nd birthday falls on or after 1 March 2014) with a parent in receipt of qualifying benefits; or, the first term after their parent starts receiving qualifying benefits.

Those benefits are:

      1. Income support

      2. Jobseekers allowance (income based)

      3. Employment and Support Allowance (income based)

      4. Incapacity or Severe Disablement Allowance

      5. State Pension Credit

From August 2015, the following children are also eligible for 600 hours/ year of early learning and childcare:

  • 2 year olds, starting from the first term after their second birthday, (where their 2nd birthday falls on or after 1 March 2015) with a parent in receipt of qualifying benefits; or, the first term after their parent starts receiving qualifying benefits.

Those benefits are:

      1.  Child Tax Credit, but not Working Tax Credit, and your income is less than £16,105*

      2.  Both maximum Child Tax Credit and maximum Working Tax Credit and your income is under £6420*

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

      4.  Universal Credit

*The income thresholds for Child Tax Credit and Working Tax Credit can vary annually
More information on two year olds

Once a child becomes entitled to early learning and childcare, they will stay entitled even if their parent becomes employed, or their situation with a parent or carers changes.

Children will stop being entitled to early learning and childcare at the start of the autumn term in August in the same year that they become 5 when they would normally start school. Children who become 5 in January or February can have an additional year of early learning and childcare if their parent or carer wants their child to start school at 5 ½ rather than 4 ½.

Summary of start and stop dates

Where a child's birthday falls on or between the following dates:

The child will become eligible from the school terms set out below:

Total number of terms for 3 and 4 year olds

Child starts school at:

1 March - 31 August

August (autumn term) occurring in that year

6 terms

5 years and 0 – 6 months

1 September - 31 December

January (spring term) following their birthday

5 terms


(plus parents can request an additional 3 terms during a deferred year, at discretion of local authority)

4 years and 8 – 11 months; or,


5 years and 8 – 11 months if deferred

1 January - last day February

March/ April (summer term) following their birthday

4 terms


(plus parents are entitled to an additional 3 terms during a deferred year if requested)


4 years and 6 – 7 months; or,


5 years and 6 - 7 months if deferred

Early Learning and Childcare will be arranged by local authorities, and is a legal entitlement.

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. Local authorities 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

Local authorities must have plans to show how they are offering places and improving flexibility year on year, based on consultation with local communities.

Local authorities, and other providers in the private and third sector can provide additional hours and charge for those hours where parents need additional early learning and childcare.

It is estimated that around 20,000 2 year olds will be eligible for the entitlement from August 2015; and, 120,000 3 and 4 year olds will benefit from the increased hours and flexibility in Scotland.

For further information contact your local authority or Family Information Service.


Some parents and carers will also need early learning and childcare which is additional to the funded entitlement.

Parents and carers are eligible for additional support for costs through Tax Credits or Childcare Vouchers.

Tax Credits

Tax credits are payments from the UK Government. If you're responsible for at least one child or young person who normally lives with you, you may qualify for Child Tax Credit. If you work, but earn low wages, you may qualify for the childcare element of the Working Tax Credit.

Families eligible for Working Tax Credit and working at least 16 hours per week each (for a couple) will receive childcare costs support up to 70% of costs applicable on spend up to a maximum of £175/week per child or £300/week for two or more children. This equates to maximum tax credits of £122.50 per week for one child and £210 per week for 2 or more children.    

Once Universal Credit comes in next year and replaces Working Tax Credit, the 16 working hours rule will be removed (but parents will still have to be working) and the threshold will rise to 85% of costs, rather than 70% - although the maximum weekly spend to which tax credits will apply will remain at  £175/child and £300 for two or more children.

Announcements made in the Summer Budget 2015 will affect eligibility for and claims made under Working Tax Credit from April 2016 and its successor, Universal Credit.

These changes will also affect eligibility and awards for support with childcare costs under Working Tax Credit from next April.

Childcare Vouchers

Childcare vouchers allow employers to support their staff with the costs of childcare. Since 2005 the UK Government has allowed income tax and National Insurance (NI) exemptions for participating employees (up to a maximum of £1196 a year per parent) and NI exemptions for employers (up to £370 a year per participating employee), provided certain conditions are met.  Childcare vouchers may affect the amount of tax credits you get; and, there is an HMRC calculator that helps you to decide if you would be better off taking childcare vouchers or not, if your employer offers this scheme.

Tax-Free Childcare

The UK Government will introduce the Tax Free Childcare scheme to support families with the costs of childcare where parents are working and earning less than £150,000 each, with up to £2,000 a year from early 2017. The scheme is only open to families not claiming tax credits, or its successor, Universal Credit. Under the scheme, parents will receive a 20% rebate, per child, on their childcare spending up to a maximum annual spend of £10,000 a year. In addition, anyone working part-time and earning more than £50 a week, parents on maternity, paternity and adoption leave and those starting their own business but below the earnings threshold will be entitled to support in the first year.
More information about tax-free childcare

According to the Treasury, to get tax credits or be able to use vouchers, the childcare provider must be:
  • registered with the Care Inspectorate

  • a childcare club that is registered with the Care Inspectorate to provide childcare outside of school hours

  • an approved foster carer - but the care must be for a child who is not the carer's foster child

  • a person from a registered childcare agency, sitter service or nanny agency providing childcare in your child's home

    Your local Childcare/Family Information Service will be able to inform you of all childcare services registered by the Care Inspectorate.

Who qualifies for the childcare element of the working tax credit and vouchers?
  • to find out if you qualify for tax credits, please visit www.hmrc.gov.uk or contact HMRC on 0845 300 3900.

  • to find out if your employer offers childcare vouchers please contact your Human Resources department.

    Get more advice by calling +44 (0)300 244 4000 or +44 (0)131 244 4000.