THERE has been no mistaking the main theme of the Holyrood election campaign so far. With the constitutional question on hold, and little money to give away in austere times, the main parties have rightly focussed on education.

Labour will today promise to protect education spending in real terms in the next parliament and give primaries £1000 for every disadvantaged pupil to help close the attainment gap. The LibDems have proposed a 1p rise on income tax to invest £475m in education. While the Tories want to put £60m into more college places.

The SNP are also set on closing the attainment gap between rich and poor pupils. But the government’s biggest, most impressive, but still arguably haziest pledge has been to double free childcare for all three and four year olds and vulnerable two-year-olds from 15 to 30 hours a week.

It is a hugely ambitious project intended to help parents into work, boost the economy, and make early years education as important and inspiring as school. For that the SNP deserves to be applauded.

However, the scale of the change is daunting. Providing an extra 45,000 nursery places by 2020 could require more than 1000 new nurseries and more than 10,000 new staff.

The costs are eye-watering too: initial capital investment of around £800m and annual revenue spending of £880m, though this would be partially offset by higher income tax receipts.

On top of which, the current system is already creaking, with a patchwork of standards, a lack of full-day places, and councils diverting funding to other services.

Doubling childcare provision will therefore be far harder in practice than it sounds in theory. So today’s Common Weal report on how to achieve the change is to be welcomed.

Its plan for a National Childcare Service to oversee the transition to a new regime and then ensure universal standards, opening hours and decent pay for staff is a sound one. Critically, according to the authors, it is also affordable within the government’s own budget.

If a future SNP government does go down this route, it will need to do so with tact. The creation of a new quango to oversee childcare is exactly the kind of centralisation which infuriates Scotland’s councils, who want democratic local control over local services.

As we also report today, local authorities are in no mood for what they would regard as another assault on their autonomy and an implicit criticism of their abilities. Rory Mair, the outgoing chief executive of the council umbrella body Cosla, says the relationship between central and local government is already dangerously close to collapse.

A National Childcare Service could prove the final straw - if clumsily introduced. But the status quo isn’t delivering and radical, visionary change is surely required. Common Weal appears to have a found the pathway for the SNP to move forward on its brave ambitions. The government should listen.