Scotland is falling behind parts of England in efforts to maximise the take-up of free childcare among disadvantaged two-year-olds, the Liberal Democrats have claimed.

The party said analysis showed more than half of eligible youngsters are still not benefitting even though the measure was introduced several years ago.

It has also called for a “nursery premium”, which would be similar to the pupil equity fund, to support deprived children in the early years of life.

According to Lib Dem figures, 7,157 two-year-olds had taken up the funded childcare offer as of April this year. Party bosses said this compared poorly with a Scottish Government estimate that 14,500 individuals are eligible.

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They claim that, with uptake increasing by just 953 (6.6 per cent) in 12 months, another five years will be needed before catch-up is achieved with the 83% rate recorded in 2019 by England's north-west region.

Ministers have stressed that 121,101 children were accessing funded early learning and childcare (ELC) at the end of April. They said 97% of these youngsters were accessing more than 600 hours and that 87% were accessing the full 1,140 hours.

But Willie Rennie, Scottish Lib Dem education spokesman, accused the SNP-led government of "neglect", adding: “Ensuring that everyone achieves their potential is the great liberal goal. It’s good for our young people and good for our economy too. 

“On results day it was again clear that Scots from poorer backgrounds are still more likely to exit education with lower qualifications than their richer classmates. 

“Scottish Liberal Democrats have already persuaded the Scottish Government to expand nursery provision and introduce a pupil premium for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.  

“This policy, rebadged as pupil equity funding, is one of the few concrete steps the government has taken to try to close the gap.

“While this is a step in the right direction, extensive academic research has identified that, though the gap widens throughout school years, it actually starts well before formal schooling begins. 

“A nursery premium - funding that follows the child and is managed by providers – would make sure pre-school children from poorer backgrounds are better equipped when they start school.”

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Mr Rennie added: “There shouldn’t be an attainment gap in 21st century Scotland.

"That’s why Scottish Liberal Democrats are determined to provide the fresh thinking that cuts through years of SNP neglect and disinterest and makes Scottish education the best in the world once again.” 

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We want Scotland to be the best place to grow up, which is why we are investing over £1 billion each year in delivering 1,140 hours of high quality ELC to all three- and four-year-olds and eligible two-year-olds. This will improve children’s outcomes and help close the poverty-related outcomes gap.

“This investment includes £18 million of funding to local authorities to employ graduate-level equity and excellence leads in ELC settings in the most deprived areas of Scotland.

“Our wider support for children and families includes the Scottish Child Payment, which will be increased to £25 per eligible child per week when we extend it to under-16s by the end of the year. With its increase to £20 in April, this represents a 150 per cent rise within nine months.”