NICOLA Sturgeon will struggle to deliver her signature pledge to double free childcare hours because of poor preparation and disputes over money, spending watchdogs have warned.

The First Minister used her first legislative programme, in November 2014, to promise hours would rise from 600 to 1140 for all three-and four-year-olds and vulnerable two-year-olds.

But in a scathing report, Audit Scotland said there were now “significant risks” around the policy, and it was “difficult to see” how the August 2020 deadline could be met.

Herald View: Policy on nursery care must be put right and quickly

It catalogued a series of problems with staffing, infrastructure work, such as land and new buildings, and disagreements with councils about how much it will cost.

It also criticised ministers for taking a year from announcing the policy to knuckling down to its delivery, saying they “should have started detailed planning earlier”.

Councils say they need £690m of capital funding to gear up for the change, £1bn of revenue funding each year to support it, and 12,000 extra staff to deliver it.

Ministers say they only need £400m capital, £840m revenue and 6000 to 8000 staff.

The government admitted the plan was “very ambitious” but insisted it remained on track.

However the opposition said there was a financial “black hole” at its heart.

HeraldScotland:

Audit Scotland also criticised the way the SNP government had introduced an earlier increase in free childcare, when hours were raised from 475 to 600 per year in 2014.

The aim was to improve the quality of early learning for children in their formative years, and help parents find work, study and contribute to the economy.

Around 100,000 children benefit and take-up among three and four-year-olds is around 100 per cent, although just 10 per cent for eligible two-year-olds when it should be 25 per cent.

But auditors found the government had sunk £650m into the policy over four years without considering evidence about how it would work, without setting specific goals, without considering alternatives, and without knowing how results would be measured.

It remains a mystery whether it was value for money.

The policy, although very popular with parents getting free care, has also failed to improve the quality of care, and had had a “limited” impact on helping people into work.

“There is no evidence that the additional investment has improved the quality of early learning and childcare,” they reported.

Auditors said the government appeared better prepared to measure the impact of the new increase in free hours, but was struggling to deliver them on time.

“It is difficult to see how all the challenges can be overcome in the time available,” they said.

Herald View: Policy on nursery care must be put right and quickly

They said councils had been told to develop plans before the government had supplied them with “significant pieces of information and guidance”.

The missing information included a definition of “quality” childcare, the funding method and the degree of flexibility on hours, generating uncertainty over staffing and cost requirements.

The report added: “Less than three years remain during which new infrastructure needs to be planned, funded, contracted, built and operational.

“There are risks to this being done on time, particularly as the multi-year funding settlement [for councils] has been delayed and councils are all working to similar timescales, creating an increased demand across the country for construction.”

Graham Sharp, chair of the Accounts Commission, said: “The scale of change needed over the next two years is considerable and there are significant risks that councils will be unable to deliver that change in the time available.

“There is now an urgent need for plans addressing increases in the childcare workforce and changes to premises to be finalised and put in place.”

Caroline Gardner, the auditor general for Scotland, said: “The Scottish Government was not clear enough about what the expansion of funded hours in 2014 was expected to achieve.”

Scottish Tory education spokeswoman Liz Smith said: “This Audit Scotland report is damning in term of exposing the failures of SNP policy on child care.

“It makes clear that there has been no attempt to evaluate different options in terms of delivering the additional hours of child care, or, just as importantly, the cost implications.

“This is a very serious wake-up call for the SNP. There are fundamental issues at stake which are impacting on the effectiveness of children’s care.”

Labour MSP Iain Gray added: “This is what happens when childcare policy is written to fit on an election leaflet, rather than to fit around the lives of Scottish families.”

Scottish LibDem spokesperson Sheila Thomson said: “The Scottish Government needs to attract thousands of new workers to deliver its childcare promises but these new figures show there is not enough juice in the tank to help local authorities deliver.

“Ministers need to offer assurances to local authorities as to how this gap will be bridged.”

Carol Ball of Unison, the biggest trade union representing childcare workers, said promises of free expansion must be accompanied by better buildings, more staff and quality training.

She said: “We need a radical overhaul of childcare provision to ensure that we provide high quality, affordable, safe and nurturing environment for children.”

Herald View: Policy on nursery care must be put right and quickly

Stephen McCabe of the council umbrella group Cosla said: “We are pleased that the quality of local authority provision is recognised in this report as is the continual growing of flexible provision within each council area. Now we will focus on delivering the expansion.”

Childcare and early years minister Maree Todd said: “Despite the scale of challenge, we remain on track to deliver 1,140 hours by 2020. It is not unusual, at this point in the life of a major project, for people to have different ideas as to the final cost. What is not in doubt is that the Scottish Government has pledged to fully fund this policy. That’s why we are working with councils to help them develop their expansion plans and have recently reached agreement with Cosla on the process of arriving at the multi-year funding needed.”