Drastic action on the scale of a wartime emergency measure would have to be taken before the Government could expand education for children under five years old, two London University academics said this week, writes Linda Blackburne.
Britain lacked the expertise to fulfil John Major's "cast-iron" commitment to provide a nursery place for every four-year-old, said Vicky Hurst and Geva Blenkin, lecturers in early childhood education at Goldsmiths' College. Their warning is based on the preliminary findings of research on improving the quality of children's early learning and their own knowledge of the current state of training for early years staff.
The research, which is based on data collected last year from 600 state and private nurseries, playgroups and primary schools, shows that two-thirds of qualified teachers had received no specific initial training for working with pre-school children.
Only a quarter of qualified teachers were initially trained for the three to eight age range. A further 9.3 per cent of teachers had a form of initial training which included some work with the under-fives.
Ms Hurst, who is vice-president of the National Campaign for Nursery Education, commenting on the dismantling of the initial teacher-training sectors and of nursery-nurse training in further education, said: "If the Government wants to produce the people, they will have to look at the mess they have created . . . It will have to be a wartime emergency measure."
And Ms Blenkin, director of the research project, who like many early years academics is appalled at the demise of the study of child development in training colleges, said: "The whole training issue has been completely undermined. Initial and in-service training is now off the agenda. It seems to me to be lunacy to admit large numbers of four-year-olds into reception classes without training the practitioners."
Heads of schools and other institutions with children under eight told the researchers that knowledge of child development ranked as the single most influential factor in improving the skills of early-years staff. By contrast, knowledge about school subjects was placed relatively low.
Most practitioners said a high quality curriculum required professionally-trained workers. Yet, in practice, training tended to be taken only if it was required for the job and not for its own sake, the researchers found.
The researchers are also concerned about the qualifications of the heads of the institutions in the sample. Forty-two per cent were qualified through a Certificate of Education, of which a quarter were qualified before 1960 with a two-year certificate. Nearly 38 per cent had first degrees, usually in education. However, a significant number of the heads did not have a teaching background. Just under a third (28.4 per cent) had playgroup qualifications accredited by the Pre-School Playgroups Association and just under a fifth (18.3 per cent) were qualified by the National Nursery Examination Board (NNEB) or City and Guilds' courses.
Practitioners working directly with children had lower qualifications than the heads. The largest group (20.9 per cent) were qualified by the NNEB and City and Guilds' courses. Only 19.3 per cent of all practitioners had a first degree, again usually in education. More than 10 per cent of them held no qualifications at all.
In addition, staff qualifications and staff development and in-service training ranked low in the priorities of all the heads except those in the independent preparatory schools.
Ms Blenkin, who called the findings "depressing", said the care and education of the under-eights was "a million miles away from being a graduate profession". There had been "a revolution" in the understanding of young children since many practitioners had last trained, she said. But she added that the gender issue played an important part in the findings - most of the practitioners were women with family responsibilities.