THE SNP promise to double free childcare provision by 2020 cannot be delivered under the current “creaking and fragmentary” system and must be coordinated by a radical new national body, a leading Scots thinktank says today.

In a report titled An Equal Start, the Common Weal group warns council and private nurseries will be “unable to cope” with demand when free childcare rises from 15 to 30 hours a week.

Only a “radical restructuring of the sector” will meet the “enormous” challenge of increasing provision while making early years education as important as school, it says.

It recommends creating a National Childcare Service to oversee the huge investment needed in facilities and staff and to ensure common standards in every public nursery across Scotland.

Key improvements would be universal 8am to 6pm opening and full-day care, not just the half-days currently offered by most state nurseries.

Children's minister Aileen Campbell is due to meet with Common Weal next month to discuss the idea, which is within the government’s own cost estimates.

A government spokesman last night welcomed the group’s “thoughtful contribution”.

Under the current system, all three and four year-olds and vulnerable two-year-olds should get 15 free hours of childcare a week during the school term, or 600 hours a year.

However patchwork council services and limited access mean this does not always happen in practice, and councils often divert government money for childcare to other services.

With childcare in Scotland the second most expensive in Europe, the SNP has promised to double free hours to 30 a week, or 1140 a year, in order to help parents into work, boosting the economy and tax receipts.

Nicola Sturgeon has called as “the great infrastructure project of the next parliament” and set up a project board to oversee the expansion.

However the Common Weal report warns that simply trying to scale up what is a “fragmented, haphazard and unequal” system is the wrong approach.

The report warns an extra 45,000 places will be needed across Scotland by 2020, requiring 1125 new childcare centres (a 45 per cent increase) and 10,970 new staff (up 89 per cent).

“Local authorities will not be capable of shouldering the increased capacity burden,” it says.

The report estimates the new centres - some of which would be acquired through buying out private nurseries - will cost £844m.

Training 50 per cent of staff to degree level by 2020 would cost another £159m a year.

Wage costs would be £600m a year by 2020, with staff paid the same as teachers to attract new recruits into the profession and underline the importance of early years education.

The report says the project board is not the right vehicle to shake-up the status quo.

Instead, it says funding should be routed through a National Childcare Service to ensure joined-up change, with councils paid to recruit staff and run facilities on the ground.

The report also says children should get Swedish-style “creative and environmentally-based concepts of learning… play, music and other creative arts ... a healthy diet, energetic lifestyle, physical exercise and outdoor activity”, with as much fresh and healthy food as possible.

In the longer term, it says a National College of Childhood Practice should be created; opening hours should be extended to 7am to 7pm; nurseries should offer free care over school holidays, not just the 38 weeks of term; and all two year olds should be provided for by 2025.

Lead author John Davis, Professor of Childhood Inclusion at the University of Edinburgh, said: “This report for the first time charts out a pathway to a universal early learning and childcare service that will meet parents’ requirements, provide excellent creative learning opportunities for children and reward staff for the tremendous effort they have put into raising standards."

Ben Wray, Head of Policy at Common Weal, added: "Thirty free hours of free childcare by 2020 is an ambitious target; but for it to be a success the Scottish Government needs an equally ambitious plan for reform to tackle the inequalities in the Scottish childcare system.”

However council umbrella group Cosla said: “We do not think there is any case to be made to diminish local authority influence over the delivery of early learning and childcare.

“Successive local and national administrations have spent over a decade creating a coherent 3-18 curriculum, so the last thing we need is go back to the drawing board.”

A government spokesperson said: “We welcome Common Weal’s thoughtful contribution to the debate on how we can build a high quality, flexible and affordable early learning and childcare system which meets the needs of children and their families. The Minister for Children will meet with representatives of Common Weal soon to discuss its key findings.”

'An Equal Start: A plan for equality in early learning and care in Scotland' is available from