According to the think tank Reform Scotland, the rule that children are only entitled to funded nursery provision the term after they turn three, means that those born in some autumn or winter months receive fewer hours than children born in the summer. The same rule applies to children in England.
For example, a child born in August receives a full two years (1,200 hours) of free childcare. In comparison a child with a September birthday will receive only 18 months (1,000 hours), while a child born in January will receive just 15 months of free provision (800 hours).
Reform Scotland says that the ‘financial disadvantage’ for families using partnership nurseries means that a child born between September and December loses out by £700, while children born in January and February lose out by £1,400 per year, or £2,800 over two years.
It warns that the ‘scale of unfairness’ is set to climb further when the free entitlement is increased from 600 to 1,140 hours per year in Scotland by 2020.
Amendments to a Scottish Government bill that would have got rid of the anomaly were voted down in 2014.
Within its response to the Scottish Government’s consultation on the expansion of early learning and childcare in Scotland, which closed on Monday, the think tank calls for an end to the ‘system of institutionalised discrimination’ by giving all children a legal entitlement of two full years of free childcare provision starting in the August two years before a child is due to start school, irrespective of their age at the time. It says this would ‘harmonise’ early years education provision with the primary school system, where each child is entitled to seven years of education irrespective of their age when starting school.
Reform Scotland’s research director Alison Payne said, ‘With early years education playing such a vital role in a child’s educational development, it is unacceptable and unfair that there is such a wide variation in entitlement. 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.
‘Our view is that every child should have the same basic entitlement to pre-school provision – just as they do to primary school. This is why we think that pre-school education provision should start at a fixed point in the year, just as it does for school. It’s unfair that only half of children receive the full amount of the entitlement promised by government, and that unfairness is amplified for those vulnerable children entitled to nursery from the age of two.
‘Reform Scotland accepts that removing this anomaly would increase the number of children entitled to early years provision. However, the Scottish Government is seeking to expand provision anyway and is consulting on how this could be managed. Reform Scotland believes that addressing this discrimination should be the first step.’
The think tank’s call is being backed by the Scottish Conservative shadow education secretary Liz Smith.
She said, ‘For several years, we have urged the Scottish Government to address this discrimination, but our plea has been steadfastly refused at every turn.
‘If the SNP doesn’t want to listen to us, then it should at least pay attention to this warning from Reform Scotland.
‘It is wrong that a child loses out on hundreds of hours of nursery education purely because he or she was born in the ‘wrong’ month.
‘The discrimination also has a financial impact on families who are missing out on hundreds of pounds of free entitlement.
‘This would not be a complex thing to sort out, and the SNP should do so as a matter of urgency.’
A Scottish Government spokesman said, 'Our commitment to increase free early learning and childcare to 1,140 hours by 2020 is this government’s most transformative infrastructure project. Work has already started to plan for this expansion and we continue to work with our partners as we take forward our ambitious pledge.
'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.
'Our consultation on options to deliver our vision for early learning and childcare in Scotland closed this week. Responses to this were received from a diverse range of stakeholders, including parents. We are now analysing these responses and will publish our response in the spring.'