600 Hours per year free nursery… but not for all

At half past eight on the evening of Wednesday 19th February, the Scottish Parliament passed The Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill by 103 votes to nil, with 15 abstentions, and it will shortly become law. One of the many things it includes is a right to 600 hours of free nursery provision each year for 3 and 4 year olds.

Great, so that’s 1,200 hours of high-quality, teacher-led, nursery provision to set my little darlings up for school then?

Not so much.

Because, like school starting age, it’s subject to the birth-month lottery.

Here are some numbers. In a typical Scottish council – let’s call it Livingstonshire – there are 81 days in the autumn term, 63 days in the winter term and 46 days in the spring term. That gives a school year of 190 days.

600 hours into 190 days gives you about 3 hours and 10 minutes of free nursery provision per day.

That’s great, and a significant increase on what went before. But your child has to fit in those nursery years between their third birthday and starting school, and for many that will be much less than two years.

In that typical Scottish council children can start nursery at the start of the term following their third birthday if they were born January to August, or on their third birthday, if they were born September to December.

So here are three examples.

1.        A child born on 1 March 2011 will be able to start nursery in August 2014, aged 3 years and 5 months. They will get two full years of nursery before starting school aged 5 years and 5 months.

2.        A child born on 25 December 2011 (hallelujah) will be able to start nursery in January 2015, aged 3 years and a couple of weeks. They will get one year and two terms in nursery before starting school aged 4 years and 7 months.

3.        A child born on 28 February 2012 will be able to start nursery after Easter in 2015, aged 3 years and a month or two. They will get one year and one term in nursery before starting school aged 4 years and 5 months. HOWEVER… parents of children born in January and February have an automatic right to defer their child, and get an additional funded year in nursery.

Here’s a table showing it all:

Birth date

Guaranteed hours of free nursery

School starting age

01 March 2011


5yrs, 5mnths

25 December 2011


4yrs, 7mnths

28 February 2012

745/ 1,345*

4/5yrs, 5mnths

* Children born in January and February have a right to deferral and another funded year in nursery.

So the real issue is about those children born September to December. Their parents can apply for an additional year in nursery, but this is at the council’s discretion and there’s been firm movement against deferrals recently among local authorities.

There’s a question of how fair all of this is on the children. There’s evidence from England that says the youngest children in each year group have lower exam results, and plenty of other evidence finding similarly lower outcomes on other measures. Does it make this situation worse, or not make any difference, that these children will now start school with hundreds of hours less nursery care?

Reform Scotland have written about this and suggested that the solution is to provide two full years to each child, starting from two years before the date they would normally start school.

Reform Scotland’s figures are somewhat inaccurate, because they make a mistake in assuming all three terms in the year are equal, when in fact the big differences in them actually make the differences in entitlement even worse. You have to come to the Taking Parents Serious blog for that sort of attention to detail. But they are right to talk of “birthday discrimination”.

And in putting a monetary value on the differences in childcare, Reform Scotland rather miss the point. The parents don’t have more unfunded childcare because of these differences; all parents will still have three years of unfunded childcare. The differences are manifested in the children going to school younger.

Liz Smith MSP tabled an amendment to implement Reform Scotland’s suggestion, which was defeated by 65 votes to 52. You can read the debate here – do a search (Ctrl+F) for “amendment 51” to find the relevant part.

Are they right to suggest the solution is that all children can start nursery in the August two years before they expect to start school though? This would lead to children starting council nurseries aged from just 2 years and 5 months, and would change the nature of pre-school education. Children at that age are toddlers with higher needs than local authority nurseries are typically geared up to deliver. Certainly, there would be a huge difference between the youngest children and the oldest, who would start aged 3 years and 5 months.

Also, those who get an additional year of free nursery education – which is a right for children born in January and February – would end up getting 1,800 hours of free nursery care. That’s both expensive and of questionable fairness.

There are many issues to consider, and the solutions aren’t simple. What’s clear though is that the 600 hours policy will be arbitrarily beneficial to parents and children, and that doesn’t feel right. During the debate the Minister said that some of this could be addressed in secondary legislation, so this blog will be watching closely to see what comes next.


2 thoughts on “600 Hours per year free nursery… but not for all

  1. Claire Gill

    You are absolutely correct! And the related issue I am currently challenging is the availability of these places to working parents. My 3 year old (January birthday) is happily settled at a partnership nursery and the council is refusing to fund her place. Their policy on nursery places just does not work. I’m currently trying to get views from parents across west Lothian on the provision of nursery education. Hoping to use it to build a head of steam and show the council what parents need. Survey here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/S7ZT8H8

  2. Catherine

    The way Scottish Borders is worded the free 600 hours is as nursery education and childcare – this means that is largely will be delivered by nursery nurses (at best) with a nursery teacher over seeing a group of nurseries. Also there is a possibility that the 600 hours will eventually (probably from 2016) be delivered outside school terms.


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