SCOTTISH children are being denied their parents' choice of private and community-run nursery for free pre-school education because of a rise in the number of councils imposing restrictions.
Increasingly, figures show a postcode lottery of unrestricted access to Government-funded pre-school early learning places for three and four-year-olds at private nurseries as councils feel the pinch of budgetary constraints.
It comes as the Scottish Government is considering increasing the number of funded early learning hours by at least a quarter.
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East Renfrewshire Council, which says it had to impose restrictions due to cuts to its budget, has told the Scottish Government it should "demonstrate its commitment" to its plans to expand free pre-school education. The authority said the Government should provide appropriate, sufficient funding in order that local authorities are able to deliver on the ambition within the agreed timescale.
The National Day Nurseries Association in Scotland, which is concerned about the increasing restrictions, is calling on the Scottish Government to ensure parental choice is enshrined in law and that pre-school education funding will follow the child more directly than at present.
Since April 2002, the free early learning provision brought in by the Government aimed to give children "the best start in life" and was a key focus of SNP election manifestos. For the 2007 ballot the party vowed to increase the provision of free nursery education for three and four-year-olds by 50%.
All three and four-year-olds are entitled to 12.5 hours a week of free nursery education – worth typically around £1500 a year to families. It is paid for through a Government allocation to local authorities and is to be offered at accredited day nurseries, private nursery schools, pre-schools, playgroups and primary school reception classes used by parents. But the money is not ringfenced.
Last year The Herald revealed East Dunbartonshire Council was the first local authority to restrict funding because the £1.3m it allocated in its budget for funding partners' nursery places had run out. It decided to refuse new funding requests for parental choice of private-sector nursery care after a July deadline and provide an alternative of 12.5 hours a week at a local authority nursery. Local authority nurseries do not provide the wrap-around care most working parents require. It is estimated dozens of families have been refused their choice of nursery for various reasons. This has led to concerns other local authorities, under pressure from restrictive budgets, would follow suit.
However, Glasgow and Edinburgh will not place restrictions on access.
Other councils have now admitted introducing restrictions, either by capping the number of places available, setting deadlines, or only accepting or prioritising local children.
West Lothian Council, which has introduced deadlines for pre-school funding applications, says it has turned down at least 27 families in their choice of partnership nursery so far in this financial year.
Stirling Council, which set a ceiling of 345 funded places this year, prioritises local children and has application deadlines.
It says it is unable to trace how many families have been turned down in their choice of nursery.
East Renfrewshire has prioritised local children and capped the number of places at 317 this year, a drop of 146 places from two years ago when places were unrestricted and prioritised local children.
Claire Schofield, director of membership, policy and communications at National Day Nurseries Association, said: "Funding for free early education places should follow the child, rather than local authorities deciding which childcare providers will be partners."