By Alison Payne, Research Director, Reform Scotland

THIS week thousands of children across Scotland will be starting school for the first time. It is a big day for them and often an even bigger day, as well as an emotional rollercoaster, for parents. At the other end of the educational journey, last week students were receiving their exam results.

So much can happen between these two points, which is why the Scottish Government has several policies in place focused on this time and designed to help meet its target of closing the poverty-related attainment gap between our most and least advantaged children. Unfortunately, its early years policy is, however unintended, actually contributing to the attainment gap before this school journey has even begun.

Good quality early years education and childcare play a hugely important role in the development of a child, helping them develop skills and confidence which they carry into their schooling. The Scottish Government recognises this and has expanded the provision it funds: first from 475 hours a year to 650 in 2014, and is now committed to nearly doubling the current offering to 1,140 hours by 2020. This is an admirable progressive policy and one which Reform Scotland has consistently supported.

However, while all children, regardless of age, start school at the same time, ensuring all are guaranteed to receive seven years of primary schooling, the same cannot be said for early years. Children do not have an equal entitlement to early years provision as it is based entirely on a child’s birth month, with entitlement beginning the term after a child turns three. This means that children born between March and August are guaranteed two full years of provision, while children born in other months can end up receiving significantly less.

While all children are different and will develop at their own speed, having a huge inequality in access to such an important provision can have a huge impact. Some children will be receiving early years education through partnership providers which will mean that they will have access to early years education, but only because their parents are paying for it, and paying more than the parents their older peers. The parents of younger children will receive less money towards the costs of their partnership provider due to the entitlement difference.

The Government’s expansion in provision is undoubtedly to be welcomed, but this also increases the scale of the birthday discrimination. For example, a child born in December and starting school aged four would now have a legal entitlement to roughly 380 hours less than someone born in May, yet they would be starting school at the same time. Potentially, due to the availability of spaces in the middle of the school year, it may be that the younger child ends up receiving only a year of early years education. A child born in January or February and starting school at the age of four would be entitled to about 760 hours less than their older peers.

However, there is a simple solution. There should be a single start date for early years provision, just as there is for primary school. This would ensure that every child had access to the same basic provision before starting school. Such a policy decision would increase the number of children entitled to government-funded early years and childcare and increase demand on providers.

However, the Scottish Government is seeking to expand provision anyway. Reform Scotland believes that correcting this anomaly has to be taken into account as part of that expansion. This birthday discrimination must end so we can ensure that, as far as government-funded provision goes, all children are entitled to the same amount of early years provision.