The earlier, the better

As more investment in the early years tops the agenda for the political parties, some authorities are ahead of the game

EARLY INTERVENTION is happening even earlier for some of the most vulnerable children in Scotland.

In Dundee, Glasgow, and North Ayrshire, free nursery provision is being offered to two-year-olds whose families have been identified as in need of additional help and support.

Liz Gillies, early years manager at Dundee City Council, where the two-year pilot programme has been running since December, is convinced the scheme has the potential to bring significant benefits to the children, first and foremost, but also to their families.

The pound;2 million pilot scheme, which was announced last summer, is being funded by the Scottish Executive, with a further pound;200,000 going towards the Glasgow project from Radio Clyde's Cash for Kids project.

However, in light of the prominence all political parties are now giving to early years education, the care and support for this age group is likely to become a regular feature of provision in future years.

When nursery education was extended to three-year-olds, it meant a change in practice for early years educators and workers to cope with a younger age group.

The inclusion of even younger children should not be a problem, according to Mrs Gillies. She points out that a lot of early years staff are already qualified to work with children aged from 0-8. Many early years practitioners and nursery nurses have taken further qualifications, giving them experience of working with the youngest infants.

"Nursery nurses, a long time ago, began in maternity wards or in children's homes catering for children under two, so the more mature nursery nurses already have experience of younger children," she said. "It is only more recently that they have worked predominantly with the three to five age group or early stages of primary."

Some 102 two-year-olds have been given free nursery sessions in Dundee - Park Place Nursery school, Fintry Nursery school, Frances Wright pre-school centre, and Mid Craigie Primary nursery. The most vulnerable receive four two-hour sessions per week.

Frances Wright pre-school centre cares for children with complex additional needs, while Fintry and Mid Craigie cater for youngsters from deprived backgrounds. Park Place has a large number of children whose home language is not English; it also serves families who are vulnerable in other ways, including immigrant families who feel isolated in their community.

Each school has a lead early years practitioner employed by the education department, who has a BA in early childhood studies or is in the process of studying for it. Overall management responsibility lies with the head of each school. The other members of the team are qualified workers or trainees.

Staff working on this pilot have been selected as much for their ability to speak to and support the two-year-olds' parents as for their skills with the children. They are there to work alongside the families to help them gain confidence in their own parenting, rather than to offer "didactic parenting".

Mrs Gillies sees a clear impact on the children's social skills and ability to integrate with other children. "When they go into nursery, they will be more confident in social groups, more able to relate to others and communicate more effectively. That inevitably has an impact on learning and well-being.

"The whole drive in Dundee is to raise attainment, and a huge number of children come into formal school with a lack of rich play experience and limited communication skills. We know the ability to communicate, listen and respond is fundamental on the journey to being able to work with the primary curriculum and, to a lesser extent, with the nursery curriculum.

This is giving these children an additional boost to ensure they are not disadvantaged."

Mrs Gillies would like to extend the programme to more children in difficult circumstances, very young parents or families who are isolated because of language and culture. But this would require additional funding, she says.

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