Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, has spelt out plans to offer pre-school places to all four-year-olds by next autumn and pledged to extend schemes to three-year-olds as quickly as money becomes available.
A Scottish Office consultation paper, "Education in early childhood: the pre-school years", hands the lead role for organising pre-school services to local authorities, which will be expected to work closely with the voluntary and private sectors. The Scottish Office admits there is still "a significant shortfall" in places, particularly in rural areas.
The paper sets out a skeleton for more integrated early years services, linking education to daycare and other provision for children and parents, and calls for partnerships among local providers.
Funds are likely to be distributed to authorities via specific grants. In the longer-term, provision may become statutory.
For the first time, the Government acknowledges that some of the voluntary and private providers can offer both daycare and good quality pre-school education to rival that in local authority nurseries. More than 1,000 voluntary and private centres have passed HMI scrutiny.
Mr Wilson said: "This is the first such consultation paper in Scotland on universal pre-school provision and I want it to be as comprehensive as possible. It will be open to everyone to have their say. There is a clear drive for integration but no-one pretends this is simple."
In 1996, 53 per cent of four-year-olds and 20 per cent of three -year-olds attended nurseries but numbers have risen in the past year.