EVERY three and four-year-old in Scotland will be entitled to an extra five weeks free nursery education from August under Scottish Executive plans to be announced today.

Fiona Hyslop, the Cabinet Secretary for Education, is expected to unveil the £15m initiative during a debate on education at the Scottish Parliament.

Under the plan - worth around £250 a year to a parent sending a child to a private nursery - the current entitlement of 12.5 hours a week for 33 weeks will be increased to cover a 38- week period - the length of the school year.

Although parents who send their offspring to state-run nurseries may already be given 38 weeks depending on the policy of individual councils, the move means local authorities will no longer have to find the money from other budgets. And, in what is seen as a clever political move to target the middle classes, the major beneficiary will be working parents who send their children to private nurseries, the vast majority of which only provide the entitlement over 33 weeks.

The executive also argues the policy creates a level playing field for the first time between differing types of provision which will allow future increases in free entitlement to be rolled out in the private and council-run sectors.

The ultimate goal of the executive is to deliver a 50% increase in free pre-school education for all three and four-year-olds.

There are currently about 90,000 three and four-year-old children in pre-school education in Scotland at some 4300 childcare centres. A quarter of nurseries are in the private sector.

The government will also use the debate to announce its intention to develop a wide ranging early years strategy for the next 10 years as well as setting out proposals to reduce class sizes and tackle the issue of newly qualified teachers who can't find jobs, first highlighted in The Herald in March.

Adam Ingram, Minister for Children and Early Years, said the announcement on free nursery education was a "significant step".

"Early intervention will be the hallmark of this government's policies for education and young people. That's why increasing free pre-school education is a key priority," he said.

"We know that an early start is the best start and that high-quality early years education helps to give children a head start in life."

Mr Ingram said some councils already provided an increased level of pre-school education for children, but in other cases parents had to pay for additional nursery hours themselves.

"By increasing the level of entitlement for every three and four-year-old in Scotland, we will ensure that there is a level playing field for families across the country," he added.

The government will also announce plans for a 10-year strategy in early years education which will examine ways to integrate education and care services for children up to the age of eight.

Previous strategies have stopped when children reach primary age.

The long-term goal is to deliver universal integrated early education and care services, similar to the Scandinavian model, giving every family access to affordable, high-quality childcare and support from the end of maternity leave.