Most local authorities want the Scottish government to ring-fence early years funding to allow them to cap the cost of childcare to parents, a Children in Scotland survey has found.
A clear majority of authorities also supports the idea of a statutory entitlement to education and care in the early years, as well as for school-age children.
The children's charity sent an online survey on early education and childcare to all 32 authorities' directors of education or children's services, and to early years managers. All but seven councils completed the survey.
The clear support for ring-fenced funding (77 per cent) appeared to fall away once the survey findings were presented at a Children in Europe conference in East Kilbride this week.
One supporter for the principle of ring-fencing was Helen Penn, the University of East London professor of early childhood who pioneered the integration of early years education and care at Strathclyde Regional Council in the 1980s.
In order to predict spending - and to work out how it was actually spent - "you can't have an open-ended budget", she said.
But Carol Kirk, North Ayrshire Council's education and skills director, was not convinced by the case for ring-fencing, as it could "stifle creativity" and lead to "lowest common denominator results".
"I don't think ring-fencing would be the right way to go," said Shirley Laing, deputy director of the Scottish government's early years and social services workforce division. There were no plans for the government to make any changes in this area, although she promised to examine the findings of the Children in Scotland survey. Ring-fenced funding was effectively abandoned in 2007 when the SNP came into government and struck its concordat with local government.
Delegates appeared more united in their support for the idea of introducing a legal entitlement to early years education and care, from the end of "adequately remunerated" maternity or paternity leave, and for extending this to school age.
There was at least one big stumbling block, however, flagged up by Glasgow education director Maureen McKenna: "I would love to provide all-day, every-day provision for every child, but I don't have the capacity." It would be a huge undertaking to adapt the available buildings, she stressed.
Scotland should look to Sweden and New Zealand in seeking to give children the entitlements they deserved, argued Peter Moss, emeritus professor of the University of London's Thomas Coram research unit.
Sweden provided universal entitlement to all children from the age of 12 months and took a pedagogical, graduate-based approach to the early years.
In New Zealand, education from the earliest stages was understood as "a broad holistic concept, concerned with all aspects of well-being and development"; delegates also heard about approaches in Finland and Portugal.
Carol Kirk was upbeat about the prospects, having seen an "increasing desire" among politicians to shift resources from other areas to the early years.
WHAT THEY SAID
Comments from the Children in Scotland survey report:
"I would like to return to work but the government is making it impossible for single mums to go to work."
Mother in a Save the Children focus group
"There are managers in partner-provider nurseries who now hold degree qualifications, who still only earn a little above the minimum wage."
"The range of services can cause confusion for parents."
Local authority early years manager
"Families from Poland have not been aware of their children's entitlement to funded places in pre-school."