The cost of child care is spiralling "almost out of control" and must be made a government priority, according to the leading children's campaigning group.
"This has got to be as important a priority for government as continuing to extend free places for pre-school education," Bronwen Cohen, chief executive of Children in Scotland, warned this week.
Dr Cohen was responding to the apparent admission by a Scottish Government official that the SNP would fail to deliver on its election promise to increase free nursery provision for three and four year olds.
Eric Wilkinson, professor of education at Glasgow University, described any such move as "most regrettable". He suggested that "other initiatives are being given precedence for short-term gain".
In its manifesto, the SNP pledged to increase the entitlement for the under-fives from 400 free hours a year to 600. However, writing on behalf of the Minister for Children and Early Years, Adam Ingram, an official admitted that the full 50 per cent increase would be "problematic as it would place a significant squeeze on planning and staff development time". The increase to date is 38 per cent.
Instead, the Government is considering changing the date a child becomes eligible. "The two main options are to change the date that children start pre-school to around the date of their third birthday, or to ensure that all children receive six terms of pre-school education," the letter stated.
Labour has accused the Government of making false promises and "bitterly disappointing" parents.
Dr Cohen branded the proposed changes "irrelevant" to parents. "In the Nordic countries, they don't offer free places, but they do provide them at a level that is income-related," she said. "This means that parents, on average, pay six times less for child care than in Scotland."
A survey published in January by Children in Scotland, in conjunction with the Daycare Trust, found that the cost of a nursery place had risen by 12 per cent over the past year, to pound;158 per week for under-twos and pound;143 for a child aged two or over.
Dr Cohen continued: "Cost is not the only problem. Life needs to be made simpler for pre-school children and their families by ensuring they are not having to purchase childcare while accessing other services for free. We need to have a system in which education is combined with care."
A Scottish Government spokesperson dismissed "entirely misleading" claims about its policy. The next increase to 570 free hours of nursery education would take place in August 2010, she said.
Meanwhile, how best to make progress towards a 50 per cent increase in pre-school entitlement was "set out in the concordat agreement" between local and central government.