Spending on nursery education in Scotland has been dramatically cut by up to 40 per cent in some local authorities in just one year, according to controversial new figures.
The statistics, published on an official website to allow for comparisons of council services, show that average spending on pre-school education has been cut by 8 per cent across the country.
But according to the Scottish Local Government Benchmarking site, spending on nursery education in West Lothian fell by 40 per cent per child; in Falkirk by 32 per cent and in Perth and Kinross by 25 per cent.
The move has been branded short-sighted and disappointing by early years advocates and comes in spite of government pledges to invest in early childhood. Scottish ministers have said they want the country to be the best place in the world to grow up.
But the figures show that on average local authorities spent pound;269 less per pre-school child last year than during 2010-11 - a cut of 8 per cent.
John Carnochan, the detective chief superintendent who in 2005 set up Scotland's Violence Reduction Unit and who has long argued for more investment in the early years, criticised the cuts.
"Despite a national recognition of the importance of the early years, we seem to be going for the short-term thing, which is to remove investment," Mr Carnochan said. "This won't affect every child because plenty of kids come from strong families, but for the families that are struggling, their kids will suffer."
Jackie Brock, chief executive of charity Children in Scotland, said she was also concerned about any drop in spending, but said she had been encouraged by an increase in the number of early years places.
"Whilst we appreciate that local authorities will be seeking to balance affordability with quality of care, we would urge for reassurance that the combination of lower costs and an increase in the number of places has not come at the cost of any loss of quality," she said.
But local councils have disputed the figures, with West Lothian and Perth and Kinross arguing that early years remained a key priority and that the apparent reduction in spending was because of changes in how figures are recorded.
A Perth and Kinross council spokeswoman denied that spending had dropped from pound;3,554 to pound;2,676 per child. "From 2011-12, a significant part of our early years expenditure is accounted for within the overall primary schools budget," she said.
But the benchmarking website has been produced by the Improvement Service, a partnership between council umbrella body Cosla and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives.
Mark McAteer, director of governance and performance management at the service, insisted that the figures were consistent and could be used to compare council performance in different years.
"We have pulled upon data already in the public system, which goes through a quality assurance process to make sure it's consistent across the piece," he said.
"I can't explain the drop - we don't have sufficient information to do that at the moment - but the whole point of this exercise is to get that dialogue going."
The figures flag Angus council as the least generous authority in pre- school spending. It invested pound;2,105 per pre-school place last year. Glasgow City Council, meanwhile, was the biggest spender. It spent pound;4,769 per pre-school place, although it too reduced its spending, this time by 5 per cent, between 2010-11 and 2011-12.
Last year, on average, Scotland spent pound;6,321 per secondary pupil; pound;4,792 per primary pupil; and pound;3,091 per pre-school pupil. The per-pupil spend in primary and secondary in Scotland fell between 2010-11 and 2011-12, the figures show, but by a less stark 1.6 per cent.
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Original headline: Nursery funding cut by up to 40%, new figures show