How will free early learning and childcare increase by 2021?

Nicola Sturgeon has described childcare expansion as, “one of the best investments any government can possibly make” (Scottish Government 2015a). The Scottish Government is committed to increasing the Early Learning and Childcare entitlement to 1,140 hours per year per child by 2021.

Currently, 27% of 2-year olds and all 3 and 4-year olds are entitled to 600 hours of free childcare per year.  In 2016 this means the delivery of around 82 million hours of childcare.  In five years this will have to nearly double to around 146 million hours.

Free childcare is also increasing in England where 40% of 2-year olds and all 3 and 4-year olds currently receive 570 hours per year.  From next year, working parents of 3 and 4-year olds will be entitled to an additional 570 hours per year.  Providing this in Scotland would equate to around 100 million hours of free childcare per year from 2017.

Total number of hours of free childcare per year, English policy and Scottish policy proposals, 2006-2021

Child care

Source: SPICe 

What has the Scottish Government done to prepare for this expansion?

Prior to the election, the Scottish Government consulted on setting up pilot projects (Scottish Government 2016a) and announced  £1m to fund up to 6 trials (Scottish Government 2016b).  It also established a Strategic Forum, a Workforce and Quality Group and a Project Board (Scottish Government 2015b).  

How much will it cost?

The Scottish Government has estimated that revenue costs of early learning and childcare will be around £880m (Scottish Government 2015a), compared to a revenue spend in 2014/15 of £332m (Scottish Government 2016c).   In 2014/15, local authorities spent £4,613 per pupil on primary school education and £3,276 on early learning and childcare.[1]  The estimated annual cost of £880m suggests that, by 2021, local authorities will be spending more per child per year on early learning and childcare (£6,533) than they are currently spending per child per year on primary school provision.[2]  Capital costs are difficult to estimate because there is uncertainty about the number of extra places required.  However, in its Infrastructure Investment Plan 2015, the Scottish Government has said that it will fully fund the capital costs and is working with the Scottish Futures Trust to identify what these would be (Scottish Government 2015c).  

How many extra places do we need?

The SNP manifesto said they would create 600 new early learning and childcare centres.  Doubling the number of state funded hours may not require twice the number of places to be created.  Expanding free provision may lead some people simply to switch from self-funded to state-funded childcare.  However, patterns of use are complex and demand for childcare may change if the availability of free childcare increases substantially.  Although most free provision is currently in nurseries, the Scottish Government has said that child-minders, “will be central to the delivery of the expanded provision” (Scottish Government 2015d).

The National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) has been concerned for some time that the price they are paid by local authorities to provide free places is too low to cover their costs.  Their annual survey found that only half of private nurseries would be likely to extend their funded hours (NDNA 2015).

 Flexibility and Choice

There is a statutory requirement for local authorities to ensure the provision of free nursery hours.  However, parents do not have a right to choose where those hours are provided.  Some parents cannot make use of the current free hours because they may only be available in a nursery and at a time that doesn’t fit with their existing childcare arrangements or working hours. For example, 53% of nurseries only provide part day sessions (Scottish Government 2015c).  Fair Funding for Our Kids have been campaigning on this issue.

The Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 requires local authorities to consult every two years on how it provides early learning and childcare.  They must also:

“have regard to the desirability of ensuring that the method by which it makes early learning and childcare available in pursuance of this Part is flexible enough to allow parents an appropriate degree of choice when deciding how to access the service.”

[1] Net revenue spend in 2014/15, expressed on per pupil basis from 2014 Summary School Statistics, showing 101,463 early learning and childcare ‘pupils’ and 385,212 primary school pupils (Scottish Government 2014).

[2] Based on £880m estimated spend and population projections for 2020.

Camilla Kidner


National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) (2015) NDNA National Nursery Survey – Scotland. Available at – [Accessed 27 April 2016]

Scottish Government (2014) Summary Statistics for Schools in Scotland, No 5: 2014 Edition. Available at – [Accessed 27 April 2016]

Scottish Government (2015a) Early learning and childcare funding to double, Newsroom. Available at – [Accessed 27 April 2016]

Scottish Government (2015b) Scottish Government Response to an Independent Review of the Scottish Early Learning and Childcare (ELC) and Out of School Care (OSC) Workforce, Responses to the Individual Recommendations. Available at – [Accessed 27 April 2016]

Scottish Government (2015c) Infrastructure Investment Plan 2015. Available at – [Accessed 27 April 2016]

Scottish Government (2015d) Childminders central to childcare ambitions, Newsroom. Available at – [Accessed 27 April 2016]

Scottish Government (2016a) Discussion Paper – Early Learning and Childcare 1140 hours expansion. Available at – [Accessed 27 April 2016]

Scottish Government (2016b) Poverty advisor report published, Newsroom. Available at – [Accessed 27 April 2016]

Scottish Government (2016c) Scottish Local Government Financial Statistics 2014-15 Annex A. Available at – [Accessed 27 April 2016]