The Scottish Government announced the flagship policy, aimed at allowing families to get back into work, in the last parliamentary term but its implementation was delayed by Covid-19 until the start of the 2021-22 school term.
The scheme would increase the amount of free early learning and childcare to 1,140 hours per year for children not yet in school.
But private and voluntary nursery owners said in a letter to the First Minister on Tuesday they were not receiving their fair share of funding, among other issues, and the scheme was at risk of “collapse” as a result.
The letter claimed local authorities are paying public sector nurseries up to £4 per hour more than their private alternatives, which has contributed to a “staffing crisis”, which has seen long serving staff moving into the public sector because of increased wages.
The group, made up of more than 200 facilities across the country, called for an urgent meeting with Ms Sturgeon, as well as an undertaking that funding should be split equally between eligible children, along with a base hourly rate for staff.
“The statutory requirement to provide 1,140 hours of funded Early Learning and Childcare (ELC) in Scotland has been a welcomed initiative and the benefits to Scotland’s children and families is apparent,” the letter said.
“We thank you and your Government on behalf of the children in our care for making a real difference by supporting the childcare sector to offer better opportunities, not only for now, but for life-long learning.
“However, there are serious flaws in the delivery of this policy, which the sector has been raising with ministers on a regular basis.”
It added: “The Blueprint for 2020 (and further guidance) was to support the local authorities to roll out 1,140 hours and ensure that the Private, Voluntary and Independent (PVI) sector was given a sustainable rate across Scotland.
“Unfortunately, this has created a two-tier funding system. In some instances, local authorities are paying their staff in the region of 30-50% more than the PVI sector.
“You will be aware that this has led to a mass exodus – up to 60% in some nurseries – of trained and long-serving staff leaving our settings.
The letter concluded: “We feel that without a dramatic shift, this important flagship policy will collapse entirely and, therefore, respectfully request that you meet with a small group of us to find a workable and equitable solution for all Scotland’s children.”
Scottish Tory education spokeswoman, Meghan Gallacher, said the letter should be a “wake-up call” for the Government.
“Nurseries are warning they may go out of business unless ministers engage and work with them.
“Parents will be rightly furious if private nurseries are forced to reduce the hours they open, or shut completely, because the Government failed to act.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said more than £1 billion was being spent in early learning and childcare in 2021-22.
“A funding agreement between the Scottish Government and Cosla (the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities) allows local authorities to pay sustainable rates to private nurseries who provide free early learning and childcare places,” the spokesman said.