Entitlement can vary by up to 317 hours – or £1,033 towards the cost – depending on when a child is born.
Half of children were born outside the “August term” entitlement window of March to August in the past two years,, which means they lose out on maximum provision, according to the Reform Scotland think-tank.
Children born from September to December are not entitled to government-funded nursery provision until the annual January window, meaning they have a maximum entitlement of just 18 months before they start school. Those born in January or February begin entitlement in April and have a maximum entitlement of just 15 months if they start school at four years old.
Pressure is now growing for nursery terms to start at the same time as schools in August to end the disparity. But it is feared changes in the law, to be discussed today by MSPs, could see the entitlement variation widen to 400 hours or £1,305.
The Scottish Government says it is to provide an extra £50 million to councils in 2014-15 for more “free and flexible” nursery care. But Alison Payne, research director with Reform Scotland, called for “fair and equal access to nursery provision and an end to birthday discrimination”.
She added: “These new figures will come as a shock to many people and the cause of the unfairness can be easily remedied. Parliament can right this wrong.
“The solution is simple – just as all children are entitled to seven years of primary education irrespective of their date of birth, they should be entitled to a basic two years of government-funded nursery provision.
“To achieve this, Reform Scotland believes that nursery provision should start at a fixed point in the year, probably in August, just as it does for school.”
Only half of Scottish youngsters were born between March and August in the past two years, the period most closely aligned with the school year. This means they are entitled to the maximum two years’ nursery – 950 hours – or a financial entitlement of £3,916.
This compares with 18 per cent born in January and February who start school at four and are only entitled to 15 months – 633 hours – or £2,067. The remaining 32 per cent were born between September and December meaning they get 18 months’ provision or £3,263 in support.
The SNP government says the Children and Young People Bill will save parents of three and four-year-olds and the most vulnerable two-year-olds up to £700 a year, by providing more free time in nursery.
Children’s minister Aileen Campbell said: “We are working hard to help families and this will save parents up to £700 per child per year while the UK government takes away from families, cutting their benefits by on average £700.”
But Tory spokeswoman Liz Smith said: “By allowing this birthday discrimination to continue, the SNP is playing fast and loose with the future of half of Scotland’s children.”