AMONG all the many and various Scottish Government initiatives, the policy of almost doubling free nursery places is certainly among the most ambitious. Increasing the amount of time provided from 600 to 1,140 hours is an admirable ideal, the scale of which surprised many people.

Unfortunately, ambition is one thing, provision another. The National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) Scotland has warned that the flagship policy is “at risk” because, while more cash is in the pipeline, private nurseries – much needed, given the scale of the scheme – are unable to cover their costs as things stand and could go under in the near future.

They have called for an “urgent injection of cash”, particularly if the requirement to pay staff the living wage is to be met. Cynics may roll their eyes, since every organisation involved in providing a service wants more cash. But this is coming from people working at the sharp end, who are already struggling before the scheme starts to roll out in full.

Many are running up levels of debt that will soon be unsustainable. Amidst such fears, it is hardly surprising, though extremely worrying, that the NDNA’s annual survey found that the number of private nursery providers likely to offer the expanded hours has fallen from 51 per cent last year to 30 per cent now.

For its part, the Scottish Government points out that it has agreed a £990 million funding package with Cosla, which will allow councils to fund private nurseries adequately. That’s the amount that will be spent by 2021. The 1,140-hour target is to be reached by August 2020. But the NDNA says many nurseries fear they will no longer be open by 2020. It’s not hard to see why that puts the whole policy at risk: to increase nursery provision, you need nurseries.

This isn’t the first time the viability of the ambitious project has come into question. Earlier this year, Audit Scotland warned of “significant risks”, partly brought about by not beginning detailed planning with councils earlier. The latest concerns doubtless stem from that same tardiness with regard to detail.

Many unknowns remain. Private nurseries currently don’t have enough money to provide what’s required. Funds are coming. But they don’t know how much they’ll be given per child. And they’re already running up debts.

Everyone wants this policy to work, but private frontline providers feel they are working in the dark. There is a need for adequate funding now and for clarity about the future. Government ambition is one thing, but the organisations tasked with actually fulfilling it need to be told the full details of funding and to be confident that they will be supported all the way – beginning now.