Think tank Reform Scotland said the current system, which sees children begin nursery at the age of three, meant those born later started school at a disadvantage, having had less pre-school education.
A report published today, An Equal Start: Fair Access to Nursery Provision, calls for nursery education to begin at a fixed point in the year, rather than when a child turns three.
Currently, children aged three or over are entitled to a free part-time nursery place in either a council-run facility or private provider working in partnership with the local authority.
Reform Scotland said its research had shown that while some children were entitled to two years of government-funded nursery provision, others receive as little as 15 months and in practice may receive even less. It said the “anomaly” could lead to a gap in learning for the child, and a gap in funding for some families who use partnership nurseries, of over £1,000.
Alison Payne, Reform Scotland’s research director, said: “This is a question of equality. It cannot be deemed to be fair that children and hard-pressed families are offered such widely divergent ?periods of funded nursery provision purely because of when the child’s birthday falls.”
Charity Children in Scotland said the report highlighted the “existing inequalities” and “fragmented approach” within the current system.
Tory education spokeswoman Liz Smith added: “There is overwhelming evidence to prove that the earliest years matter most when it comes to later educational achievement and therefore there is a very obvious disadvantage to children who are not receiving the same entitlement as others.”
Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie said: “I do not want Scotland’s children to fall behind. This report is part of a growing consensus that we need to invest in education before the age of three if we are to make a difference.
“It is crucial for parents that ministers consider seriously our calls to extend free nursery education.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said:“Our Children and Young People Bill aims to provide more high quality early learning and childcare for children than ever before, providing children in Scotland with the best start in life.
“The Bill also aims to provide greater flexibility of provision.”