In a change to the way pre-school places are offered in partnership with PVI providers, nurseries have been asked to fix the price at which they can provide places for three years and put together a tender to bid for them.
The tender document on the council's website says, 'Renfrewshire Council is looking to purchase 1,100 per academic year pre-school education places in private and voluntary sector nurseries'.
The council said that it will make its decision about successful bidders by evaluating contracts on the basis of 30 per cent cost and 70 per cent quality, by considering each provider's Care Commission and HMIE reports, staff qualifications, and the organisation's approach to the curriculum.
The service specification for the tender identifies a place as 475 hours for the academic year, over 38 weeks, delivered as five 2.5hour sessions a week.
The owners of one Renfrewshire nursery, who preferred not to be named, said they feared the council would put cost above quality.
They said they have been told the tender must be no higher than last year's rate for the free entitlement places - which has not risen in three years - and that they must then maintain the same figure for the next three years.
'The council is now asking us to say what rate we expect to receive. It is about how cheaply we can do it, and how little money we are prepared to do it for,' they said.
'This will inevitably lead to an erosion of quality, as financial savings will have to be made to pay for any wage increases and inflationary costs over the time span of a fixed-price contract.'
Susan McGhee, commercial director of the Bertram Nursery Group, which runs 18 nurseries in Scotland, and has a 102-place nursery in Paisley, Renfrewshire, said, 'We are going to submit a tender. It's a very new procedure for nurseries to have to tender for places, and it looks like it may happen more often.
'From speaking to other local authorities I've heard that some are oversubscribed already for pre-school partners and some have nurseries on the waiting list for funding.'
The council said it currently works with 39 providers, and a number of new organisations want to provide pre-school places.
A Renfrewshire Council spokesperson said, 'We are the first local authority in Scotland to tender pre-school education places. It's expected that other councils will go down this route. Our main aim is to provide a choice of high quality, pre-school education places for children and families in Renfrewshire.
'This process also provides a clear way of monitoring the services that are purchased.
'While local authorities have to account for every penny they spend and have to be able to demonstrate they are getting the best possible value for money, the quality of the service provided is the key to these tenders.'
Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association, said, 'It is essential that any tendering process does not compromise a setting's ability to provide a high-quality service for children and families, especially if more local authorities start to tender for pre-school places.'
She added that having a well-qualified workforce including a Level 9 leader had cost implications, and nurseries would need to ensure that they properly determine the cost of services to avoid threats to sustainability.
The process should support parental choice by ensuring that parents could choose their pre-school provider 'rather than one that has been awarded a contract to deliver places,' she added. 'As part of this, the council may need to look at enabling more nurseries in the private and voluntary sectors to deliver sessions.'