Early learning and childcare expansion

Please note that the ELC expansion has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Please visit the Parent Club for the latest news and answers to some of the questions you might have.

Funded early learning and childcare (ELC) is available to all three and four year olds and eligible two year olds. From August 2021, the entitlement will increase to 1,140 hours a year (30 hours a week if taken term time).

The expansion of funded ELC, originally intended for August 2020, was paused in April to give local authorities the flexibility to focus on responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new date of August 2021 has now been agreed with local authority umbrella group COSLA. The Scottish Government will pass legislation in early 2021 so that this duty will come into force from August 2021. We published our joint implementation plan for funded early learning and childcare places for all children who defer their primary one start in December 2020.

The main aims of the expansion in ELC are to:

•    improve children’s outcomes and help close the poverty-related attainment gap
•    increase family resilience through improved health and wellbeing of children and parents
•    support parents into work, study or training

If you are a parent or carer you can get information on early learning and childcare on the Parent Club website.

Support for local authorities

Local authorities are responsible for ensuring that funded entitlement is available for all eligible children in their area. We are supporting them to build the capacity needed in their communities to phase in extended entitlement. We have a multi-year capital and revenue funding agreement in place with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) which is fully funding the expansion in funded entitlement.

This will see annual revenue investment increase by £567 million on 2016-17 levels by 2021-22. It includes funding to enable the payment of sustainable rates to funded providers delivering the funded entitlement – including funding to enable payment of at least the real Living Wage to all childcare workers delivering the funded entitlement. We have also provided councils with capital funding of £476 million to support associated building projects.

Support and guidance for ELC providers

To find out how to become a funded provider you can contact your local authority’s ELC team or visit their website to find out more.

We published a delivery support plan for providers in December 2018, outlining our support in four areas:

  • financial sustainability
  • partnership working
  • workforce recruitment and training
  • communications with parents and carers

ELC providers can also find out about support for their business by contacting their local Business Gateway office.  

We have worked with COSLA to set up an ELC Partnership Forum to promote joint working with and across the ELC sector.

Partnership Principles between COSLA and the ELC representative bodies

Funded providers can register an interest in joining the forum by emailing: elcpartnershipforum@gov.scot 

Progress of the ELC expansion programme

When the extent of the COVID-19 pandemic became clear, the Scottish Government took the difficult decision to suspend the statutory duty on local authorities to provide 1140 hours of early learning and childcare from this August. The increase to 1140 hours will now take place from August 2021 but from now until then, all eligible children across Scotland will be able to access at least 600 hours of funded ELC. Many authorities are already offering 1140 hours in advance of this statutory duty, to some or all eligible children. 

ELC for two year old children

We know that high quality early learning and childcare (ELC) can make a huge difference to children’s lives, particularly when they are growing up in more disadvantaged circumstances.

That is why we offer funded ELC to two year olds who are most likely to benefit from early access.

This includes all looked after children and children whose family receive a qualifying benefit, which is around a quarter of the two year old population.

Increasing uptake and awareness

We are working with local authorities and others to increase awareness and uptake of the two year old offer, and improving information available to parents and carers.

For example, we provide information and advice about ELC options on the Parent Club website and the Children and Young People Improvement Collaborative has been testing approaches to improve the uptake of funded ELC for eligible two year olds.

To inform our work in this area, we commissioned research on the drivers and barriers to uptake amongst two year olds.


Prior to 2014, three and four year olds were entitled to 475 hours per year of free pre-school education. The Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 extended provision to 600 hours for all three and four year olds and for two year olds who were looked after (including those in kinship care) and those whose parents were in receipt of out of work benefits.

From August 2015, we extended provision for two year olds further to those whose families meet the eligibility criteria for free school meals

National Standard for early learning and childcare

To ensure that all children experience the highest quality of early learning and childcare (ELC) the sector is working towards the full introduction of Funding Follows the Child in August 2021. 

Funding Follows the Child is ‘provider neutral’ and is underpinned by a National Standard that to be a funded provider – regardless of whether they are in the public, private or third sector, or childminders – settings will have to meet.

Funding follows the child will help increase choice and flexibility for parents and carers whilst ensuring children benefit from high quality provision.

It means that parents and carers – including those of eligible two years olds – will be able to choose to use their child’s entitlement at any ELC provider that:

  • meets the National Standard 
  • has a place available and
  • is willing to enter into a contract with the local authority

The National Standard sets out what children and families should expect from their early learning experience regardless of where they access their child’s funded hours.

The National Standard will be introduced in full from August 2021. In the meantime, it is expected that the majority of the National Standard should still be deliverable, although some flexibility will be required on certain aspects.

Further information is provided in the Interim Guidance on Funding Follows the Child and National Standard requirements for settings and local authorities

Helping ELC providers meet the National Standard

We have published operating guidance detailing how settings delivering the funded entitlement can meet the National Standard.

We have also published a frequently asked questions document for local authorities and funded providers.

Supporting technical guidance is also available covering business sustainability, sustainable rates and transition options guidance on contracting.

We developed Funding Follows the Child in partnership with COSLA and local authorities, through a Service Models Working Group, with the final approach informed by a consultation, and a supporting programme of engagement with stakeholders, in 2018.

ELC workforce

To create capacity for the increase in ELC workforce required to deliver the 1140 hours expansion, since 2017 we have increased training opportunities and routes into all parts of the sector, resulting in a record workforce of over 37,000.

To support this, we have run several bursts of a national recruitment campaign to attract people to a career in ELC, linked to our national childcare careers website, which has a Live Jobs Feed, as well as a range of information about routes into ELC and childminding, and career pathways. 

And we have worked with the Scottish Funding Council and Skills Development Scotland to create additional capacity in the college, university and work-based learning sectors to train the additional staff required for the ELC expansion.

As well as creating new employment opportunities, the expansion of funded ELC provides an opportunity to increase the diversity of the childcare workforce, including attracting more males and people from diverse ethnic communities into the sector.

Pay and conditions

We understand the importance of promoting fair work practices across the ELC sector, including ensuring that staff are fairly remunerated.

Public sector staff working in ELC already receive the Living Wage, and we want to see all childcare workers delivering the funded entitlement across all sectors paid at least this from 2020.

To support this we will provide local authorities with sufficient funding to allow them to agree sustainable rates with funded providers in the private and third sectors.

We will also provide targeted advice and support to providers on implementing Fair Work practices.   

Early learning support for deprived communities

We have been working with local authorities to ensure that nurseries in Scotland’s most deprived areas benefit from an equity and excellence lead (an additional graduate).

These are highly qualified posts, that can be either a teacher or early years graduate with or working towards, for example the BA in Childhood Practice. 

Equity and excellence lead role

The role of equity and excellence lead is primarily focused on leading support for the most disadvantaged children to close the attainment gap.

This involves working directly with children and does not focus on managerial responsibilities e.g. administration and payroll.

Another key role is to lead and support pedagogy in a setting, upskilling fellow practitioners.

Leads are not tied to the settings' adult-child ratios like other staff and therefore have greater flexibility and reflection time for this purpose. Local authorities have been given freedom to utilise leads depending on their local needs and the leads experience, therefore the roles focus may differ across settings.

Outdoor play and learning

Outdoor play and learning is an integral, every day, part of ELC in Scotland. 

We know the benefits of high quality outdoor play on children’s positive physical and mental development. It is our vision that children in Scotland’s ELC sector will soon spend as much time outdoors as they do indoors. 

To support this we will be working with practitioners to develop strong communities of practice, enabling these high quality experiences to become the norm.

During the COVID-19 pandemic we funded the charity Living Classrooms £159,000 to expand their Virtual Nature School. The programme trained ELC practitioners to deliver nature based play sessions, supporting children and families who were unable to attend their settings. 

To support local authorities with their use of outdoor play and learning, Scottish Government and the Children and Young People’s Improvement Collaborative (CYPIC) are running an Improvement Practicum from Autumn 2020.  Local Authorities will shortly be invited to apply for a place in the practicum which will use improvement methodology to develop the use of the outdoors in early learning and childcare settings.

In 2018-2020 we provided more than £860,000 of funding to the charity Inspiring Scotland, to work with local authorities and the ELC sector to expand outdoor learning spaces for children. Together with Inspiring Scotland, we published Scotland’s Coalition for Outdoor Play and Learning position statement which commits the signatories to embedding playing and learning outdoors as an everyday activity and to celebrate it as a fundamental part of growing up in Scotland.  

Guidance for ELC practitioners

We have produced a guide for ELC practitioners, Out to Play, which provides practical advice on setting up and delivering outdoor spaces. With the support of Inspiring Scotland, we will be updating this guidance in 2020 with additional materials to support the Out of School Care, Childminding and Additional Support Needs sectors. 

We have also published design guidance for the provision of high quality outdoor spaces for early learning and childcare and out of school care settings.

There is also a range of resources on Education Scotland’s National Improvement Hub to provide support for professional development in outdoor learning across the 3-18 curriculum. 

Back to top