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.

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