Calls to end nursery age 'discrimination'
The Scottish government is facing fresh calls to end a "birthday discrimination rule" which sees some children lose 400 hours of free nursery education.
The anomaly means children born in August receive two years of free provision, but a child born in January gets just 15 months.
Amendments to a Scottish government bill that would have closed the loophole were voted down in 2014.
The Tories have now urged ministers to act "as a matter or urgency".
The anomaly exists because most children are not eligible for free childcare until the start of the term after their third birthday.
But the Scottish government said local authorities can and do start children earlier where they have capacity to do so, which is for the councils to fund and manage.
A report by think tank Reform Scotland has calculated that the loophole can cost some parents up to £2,800 in additional child care costs.
The report said that:
- A child born in August receives a full two years, or 1,200 hours of government-funded provision before starting school
- But a child born in September will receive only 18 months, or 1,000 hours
- And a child born in January will receive only 15 months, or 800 hours.
It said the Scottish government could use its planned expansion of free childcare to address the situation once and for all.
And it called for a system where all children are offered a full two years of government-funded nursery provision regardless of when their birthday falls.
This would mean all free nursery provision starting at a fixed point in the year - most likely August - two years before the child is due to start school.
The report forms part of the think tank's submission to a Scottish government consultation on early-years learning and childcare, which closes this week.
Reform Scotland's research director, Alison Payne, said the wide variation in entitlement was "unacceptable and unfair".
She added: "The Scottish government has set a goal of closing the attainment gap. However, many children start school already at a disadvantage and playing catch up simply because they have not been given the same access to pre-school education.
"While many factors contribute towards the attainment gap, it is unacceptable that one of those is as a result of the Scottish government's birthday discrimination which could be so easily resolved."
Scottish Conservative education spokeswoman Liz Smith argued that the issue was "not a complex thing to sort out", and should be done "as a matter of urgency".
She added: "For several years, we have urged the Scottish government to address this discrimination, but our plea has been steadfastly refused at every turn.
"It is plainly wrong that a child loses out on hundreds of hours of nursery education purely because he or she was born in the 'wrong' month.
"This is not the mark of a government which claims to promote social justice. The discrimination also has a financial impact on families who are missing out on hundreds of pounds of free entitlement."
A spokesman for the Scottish government said work was already under way to increase free early learning and childcare to 1,140 hours by 2020.
He added: "The starting dates for three-year-olds are set out in legislation, however local authorities can and do start children earlier where they have capacity to do so, and this is for them to fund and manage.
"Children who start their entitlement in April can have an extra year of funded early learning and childcare if parents choose and children who start their entitlement in January are eligible for an extra year at the local authority's discretion."
He said the government will analyse all of the submissions to its early learning and childcare consultation, with its response to be published in the spring.
Scottish Labour MSP Daniel Johnson said: "A child's birthday shouldn't change how much early learning and care a child receives, especially when we know how important high-quality childcare can be to one's future life chances.
"As the government looks to expand early learning and childcare, it should look again at the birthday rule to see whether the system can be made fairer for all families."