A LEADING think tank has told Scottish ministers to introduce a 'virtual voucher' to ensure parents' rights to unrestricted access to Government-funded pre-school early learning places.

Reform Scotland says that while the Scottish Government has a policy of offering all three- and four-year-olds 600 hours of funded nursery provision per year, many children are missing out as many working parents cannot find council nurseries which offer suitable hours.

Increasingly, figures show a postcode lottery of unrestricted access to Government-funded pre-school early learning places as councils, who hold the purse strings, feel the pinch of budgetary constraints.

Now Reform Scotland has told the Scottish Government that parents should be handed the right to be able to choose which private nursery they want their child to be in, as long as it is properly regulated and it has spaces.

National Day Nurseries Association Scotland have been fighting without success to ensure that parental choice is enshrined in law in Scotland and that pre-school education funding follows the child directly, rather than going to councils.

The free nursery education programme is paid for through a Government allocation to local authorities and is offered at council-accredited day nurseries, private nursery schools, pre-schools, playgroups and primary school reception classes.

In 2011,The Herald revealed East Dunbartonshire Council was the first local authority to limit 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 a local authority nursery. But at the time local authority nurseries did not provide the wrap-around care most working parents required.

Other councils have since admitted introducing restrictions, either by capping the number of places available, setting deadlines, or only accepting or prioritising local children.

The NDNA last year said its members were reporting average losses of £1,032 per child, per year on funded three and four-year-old places as they struggle to cope with the financial gap between the amount received from the local authority and the actual cost of providing the place.

The lowest rate recorded in an NDNA survey in Scotland was £2.80 an hour which it described as a "pocket money price" rather than funding for high quality childcare.

The Reform Scotland proposal if adopted would bring to an end, the councils' control on which nurseries can be used and the number of places available.

Reform Scotland accused those councils who limit places of putting political ideology ahead of children's needs.

Reform Scotland's research director Alison Payne said: "This is not about the private sector versus the public sector, but acknowledging that most council nurseries do not provide the full-time care that working parents need, and therefore, for all children to be guaranteed to receive government-funded nursery provision, the money must follow the child.

"We have a simple suggestion - if an independent nursery meets the Education Scotland and Care Inspectorate standards, parents should by right be able to take their full government-funded entitlement there as a 'virtual voucher'.

"This is not radical and already happens in some areas in Scotland. However, Reform Scotland believes that this should extend to all working families in Scotland.

"We accept and commend the work many politicians are doing to try to help parents remain in, or get back into, work. However, this means that policies with regard to nursery provision need to reflect this goal, and that requires enabling parents to take up their child's nursery entitlement at an establishment which fits in with their working pattern."

A study by the Family and Childcare Trust in February said 15% of local authorities in Scotland had enough childcare for parents who worked full-time.

That was down from 23% when the survey was carried out in 2013.

And in August, last year a survey by campaigning parents from Glasgow showed that hundreds of children are unable to secure fully funded places at the private nurseries they currently attend.

The poll, which secured responses from 65 partnership nurseries, found they had 1805 eligible children on their books, but only 1222 funded places - a shortfall of 583. The council argues sufficient places are available in other nurseries.

A spokeswoman for councils representative body, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities said: "Local authorities are committed to ensuring that all eligible children receive quality early learning and childcare.

"To deliver a sufficient number of quality places, local authorities are also committed to working with partner providers in the private and voluntary sectors.

"It is a concern to us that a completely market driven approach to determine pre-school places, as is being advocated, would make it harder for local authorities to ensure that the quality of learning and care continues to improve."

A Scottish government spokesman said: "The Children and Young People Act set out to significantly expand free childcare provision and increase flexibility, year on year.

"Local authorities are now required to consult with groups of parents at least once every two years on patterns of childcare provision that would best meet their needs, which will introduce a greater level of flexibility and choice to the system as we work with local government to further develop and expand provision."

Scottish Conservative young people spokeswoman Liz Smith said: "It is abundantly clear that many state funded nurseries are not able to provide parents with sufficient flexibility when it comes to nursery place provision.

"We have seen several parents groups across Scotland expressing very considerable concern about this situation and about the ongoing concern that children whose birthdays fall in the "wrong" time of year do not get the same provision as others. This discrimination needs to stop.

"Reform Scotland is absolutely correct to say that the best way of making the radical changes required is the use of vouchers which mean that the money follows the child. Parents want that choice and they should have it."