Nursery Vouchers – Alison Payne


The following article about Nursery vouchers was written by Alison Payne based on Reform Scotland’s work in this area for a chapter in the Scottish Conservatives booklet on education.  Contributions to the book came from outwidth the Tory Party to help encourage debate on the future direction of Scottish education.


Pre-school provision is an important issue which can too often be sidelined as a “women’s issue”, as if somehow it is only of concern to mums, not dads.

Numerous studies have highlighted the importance of nursery education in helping the development of youngsters, but wider childcare issues are also important for parents and the country as a whole, not just in terms of helping people re-enter, or maintain, a position in the work-place; but a lack of affordable childcare can deter some people from having additional, or indeed any, children.  Considering Scotland’s ageing population, this could have consequences for the economy and for public services in years to come.

The Scottish Government has recognised the importance of childcare and made a number of pledges, if Scotland becomes independent, to radically increase the amount of government-funded nursery and child-care provision available by the end of an independent Scotland’s first parliament.  Although the commitment no longer stands because Scotland voted ‘No’ on September 18th, childcare and education are devolved areas of competence and, therefore, Scotland can still look to improve and simplify the existing system.  (As an aside, I believe the Scottish Parliament should be responsible for raising what it spends, which would allow for greater discussion and debate over tax raising and spending priorities, as opposed to just focusing on spending).



Although there had been historical provision for some three and four year olds to attend nursery in Scotland, provision varied from area to area.  As a result, politicians at a Scotland-wide level tried to improve access for all which led to a few big policy ideas which have had a major impact on the debate on how nurseries are provided in Scotland – arguably, the main areas are old-style nursery vouchers and The Standards in Scotland’s Schools Etc Act 2000 (which placed a legal duty on local authorities to offer nursery provision and enabled them to use external providers to meet demand).

In 1995, the then Conservative Government proposed the introduction of a nursery voucher scheme with the intention of ensuring that all four year olds were able to access a year of nursery provision.  Parents would receive a physical voucher for £1,100 a year which they could use to purchase nursery education. The voucher could be used to buy services from their local authority or from the private or third sector.  Pilot schemes were undertaken in 1996/7 in parts of North Ayrshire, East Renfrewshire, Argyll & Bute and Highland local authority areas.[1]   Critics of the scheme complained of the bureaucracy of the system and, following the 1997/8 school session, the new Labour Government scrapped the vouchers.[2]  A study was carried out by Stirling University into the scheme and Sally Brown, Stirling’s then deputy principal, told the TES:

Parents are largely indifferent to the vouchers and some think they are an extra bureaucratic task. They are delighted with the provision that is free, provides them with guaranteed places and in some areas provides them with some choice.”

This suggested that the idea of increased provision and some element of choice were popular, though the method by which it was delivered was seen as bureaucratic.

However, it was not until the enactment of The Standards in Scotland’s Schools Etc Act 2000 that a duty was placed on local authorities to provide pre-school education to all three and four-year olds and set a minimum entitlement of the number of hours of pre-school education per year a child should be able to receive, if their parents wanted it.  Section 35 of the Act also gave authorities express power to secure provision through suppliers other than themselves.  It is up to each local authority who it commissions care from and, therefore, not all privately-run nurseries will necessarily be partnership providers.  The ease of gaining partnership status will vary from council to council with some local authorities granting partnership status to a nursery, while others will only fund a certain number of places at a partnership nursery.

While the operation of the system varies from council to council, in many ways in some areas the Act re-introduced the nursery voucher scheme and choice of provision that the Conservatives tried to implement in the nineties, but adapted it for the 21st Century.   For example, depending on where they live, some parents using a partnership nursery more or less get a virtual voucher with a discount applied to their bill to take account of the cost of providing the 600 hours in their area.

The Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 also increased the entitlement so that currently all three and four-year olds are now entitled to 600 hours of government-funded nursery provision as well as vulnerable two–year olds.



Despite the growth in nursery provision, there remain some variations in the ability of parents to secure government-funded nursery provision for their children.


Birthday discrimination:
Unlike school provision where all children start together in the autumn term normally in the calendar year they turn five, with nursery provision the entitlement only begins in the term after a child’s third birthday.  As a result, children born before the start of the autumn term will be able to receive two years of nursery education, but those born after this point will receive less.  Children who are born in January and February and plan to start school when they are four and a half may end up only receiving a year of nursery education.  This can result in a year’s difference in nursery provision based purely on when a child’s birthday falls and is illustrated in Table 1 below:

Table 1: Birthday discrimination in entitlement to government-funded nursery provision

Child’s birthday Entitlement to government funded nursery provision begins Total nursery entitlement before beginning school Approximate entitlement in hours, based on 600 hours per year[3] Approximate financial entitlement for partnership provision under 600 hours[4] Number   and percentage of births registered in 2012– provision starts in 2015[5] Number and percentage of births registered in 2011– provision starts in 2014[6]
1 Mar to 31 Aug August/ Autumn Term 2 years 1,200 hours £4,200 28,98050.0% 29,37450.1%
1 Sept to 31 Dec January/ Spring Term 18 months 1,000 hours £3,500 18,62732.2% 18,56031.7%
1 Jan to 28 Feb(Assuming child starts school at 4) April/Summer Term 15 months 800 hours £2,820 10,30017.8% 10,65818.2%


Table 1 illustrates that only 50 per cent of children are guaranteed the legal entitlement to two full years of government-funded nursery provision. [7]

Scottish Conservative MSP Elizabeth Smith put down amendments to correct this anomaly during the passing of the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act, which would have ensured that all children were entitled to a basic 2 years of government-funded nursery provision.  The amendments were supported by Labour and the Liberal Democrats, but were unfortunately voted down by the SNP.

The Scottish Government suggested[8] that the current system takes “proper account” of a child’s development.  However, the current practice of using the term after a child turns three is simply an arbitrary point in the year, as it takes no account of a child’s development and no qualifications, such as a child being fully toilet trained, must be met.  In addition, there is a wide variation in the age that a child’s entitlement begins – a child born at the end of August starts nursery when they are 2 years 11 months, while a child born in early March starts nursery when they are 3 years 5 months.  Reform Scotland wants one arbitrary point in time replaced by another, but our point will see all children treated equally and, more importantly, all children will be entitled to the same basic 2 years of government-funded nursery provision.


There is a more fundamental problem, a problem that seems to be growing, and that is the attitude in certain areas to the use of the private sector in delivering government-funded nursery provision.

Partnership nurseries are private sector businesses which are paid to provide a public service.  In this case, local authorities pay the partnership nurseries to delivery government-funded nursery entitlement.  There seems to be a huge misunderstanding by some politicians that this means that parents are actively choosing private sector provision over the public sector and, arguably, as a result councils such as Glasgow, East Dunbartonshire and East Lothian have restricted the number of places that they will fund in partnership nurseries.  Councils have suggested that parents can move their child to an alternative nursery either a council-run one or a different partnership one, as if the child was an object that could be taken out of one environment that they were secure and happy in and placed in another without consequence every time the council changed its mind about which nurseries they would give partnership places to.

However, this attitude also ignores the fact that in reality the public and private sector are offering very different provision.  The majority of state nurseries, though this will vary from council to council, offer around 3 hours a day, for 5 days a week during the school year – which makes up the 600 hours funded by the Scottish Government. Some councils may allow hours to be bundled so that more than one session is taken in one day, others will not.  Some may allow only part of a provision to be taken up, others will not.   And these policies may change over time.  There are no catchment areas for council nurseries, including nurseries attached to schools, so there is no guarantee of a place in a nursery at a convenient location (especially important if parents are also organising the drop-off and pick-up of other children at school or nursery.)

Therefore, for many working parents it is almost impossible to take up a place at a council nursery under those circumstances, unless you have some sort of wrap-around system in place through family, friends, or another nursery.

Councils are supposed to consult with parents and try to be more flexible.  However, I have been present at meetings where this discussion veers towards a situation which suggests there is a potential conflict between a child’s best interest and their parents’ interest when it comes to childcare.  Of course, it is vital that the childcare being provided should be of a high standard and provides an environment within which a child feels happy and secure.  However, there is danger of pitching interests against each which could lead to the suggestion that a parent, normally a mother, should not work because it is not in the interests of her child to be in childcare for too long.  After all you cannot have more women working without more children using childcare, and using childcare for more than the 3 hours 10 minutes-a-day government provision.  I also find it insulting to suggest that parents wouldn’t try their best to ensure their child’s best interests were met.  Surely they are the best judge of their own child’s interest, as opposed to any politicians or committee trying to second guess them?


At this juncture I should also declare a personal interest in this subject.  I am a part-time working mum.  Both my children began attending a partnership nursery in Edinburgh when they were about 10 months old, attending three days a week.  Having children was my choice, as was returning to work.  When my children turned 3, I was unable to take a position for either of my children at a local authority nursery.  This was not a choice to avoid the public sector – my son has started at a state primary and my daughter will follow him there next year – it was simply a matter of practicality.  If I wanted to carry on working, I would need to use a partnership nursery.  However, thankfully because of the way the system works in Edinburgh, I received a virtual voucher towards the cost of my children’s nursery provision via a monthly discount on my fees.

I don’t regret sending my children to nursery and nor am I ashamed of it.  I think this was the best decision for me and my family and I would argue with anyone who tried to tell me having my children attend the nursery they do, for the length of time they do was not in their interest.  In saying that, I also acknowledge that this is also largely down to the excellent care they receive and it is important that, as a society, we place greater value on childcare workers.  I have also been particularly fortunate in that my choice of nursery has responded to parental demand and extended its wrap-around cover to include the state school my son started in August.  This means that I know that during the holiday and outside school hours, my son is in a secure environment he loves.


Nursery vouchers

I don’t claim to have all the answers regarding childcare, but I strongly believe that we need to embrace the partnership sector, which includes private and third sector nurseries.  Local authority provision is simply inadequate to allow parents to work or study as well as ensuring their children receive nursery education.     And once a child starts school, it is often the case that breakfast and after school clubs offered by some schools don’t have enough places for all the children at the school.  Local authority nurseries generally don’t have the capacity to cater for school children out of school, but the partnership sector does.

Since we published our report in January 2013, a number of parents have contacted us, outlining really difficult situations they have faced trying to juggle working and accessing council nurseries.  Too often I have heard stories from mothers, for it has normally been mothers who have contacted us, who have had to use private nurseries in order to carry on working, but being criticised for doing so with the inference that they must be well off to afford it and therefore shouldn’t receive government funding – ignoring the plain truth that they have no alternative.  Indeed, some people who got in touch told us how their children received no government-provision, because they could not access the provision the local authority made available, either due to location or hours offered, so they had no alternative but to use a private nursery and pay the full price themselves.

Reform Scotland believes that as long as a nursery meets necessary standards set by both Education Scotland, which is responsible for inspection of the education side of the nursery, and the Care Inspectorate, which is responsible for inspection of the care side, parents should be able to take up their entitlement with that provider.   This will offer far greater flexibility as parents can then access their child’s entitlement in a way which better complements their family life.   This would mean that a virtual nursery voucher scheme would be in place, where the funding follows the child and parents are able to choose the nursery which suits them best, rather than have their choice restricted by the council.

It is our hope that a premium could be added to the nursery entitlement scheme to help children from more disadvantaged backgrounds or those with special needs.

What Reform Scotland is calling for is not new, and works to a lesser or greater degree across Scotland at present, but is fully dependent on the attitude of the different local authorities.

Whilst I believe in greater decentralisation and greater local decision making, if a policy, such as nursery education for three and four year olds, is set centrally, as it currently is, then it is the Scottish Government’s responsibility to ensure that the policy is actually delivered.   It is unfair on both parents and children for the Scottish Government to set a policy, but allow local authorities to restrict the ability of parents to access that vital provision.   It is not an excuse to argue that you have provided enough places in local authority nurseries, if parents are unable to access those places because the hours or location on offer make it impossible to access.  All political parties argue they want to help get people into employment, training or education, so policies in other areas, such as nursery provision, need to reflect that and I believe that nursery vouchers would be a step in the right direction.

[1] Local Government Chronicle, “£3m Scots Nursery Vouchers Pilot Scheme Announced”, 4/3/1996</>
[2] Hansard, 17/6/1997

[3] We have approximated the hours based on an each of the three terms being equal, therefore 200 hours per term

[4] Edinburgh Council has yet to update its funding leaflet ( that Reform Scotland used under the 475 hours regime, therefore I have based this on the roughly £2,100 per year I receive as an Edinburgh parent. This would give costs of £3.50 per hour/ £700 per term

[5] Taken from the weekly birth registrations from the National Records of Scotland

[6] Taken from the weekly birth registrations from the National Records of Scotland

[7] According to the Growing up in Scotland research, Early Experiences of Primary School, published in 2012, just under 50 per cent of children born in January or February deferred entry for starting school in 2009.  If the deferral rate remained the same, only 59 per cent of children born in 2011 and 2012 would in practice receive the full two years, or 1,200 hours provision.

[8] Scotsman, 7/1/14 –