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Early years issues cannot wait till later

The Scottish government has come under fire again this week for problems with figures - this time in the primary sector, where a rise in P1-3 class sizes has led to criticism over broken promises.

Politicians can be quick to make bold pronouncements, particularly when they have little experience of power. So a 2007 manifesto pledge by the SNP to cut P1-3 class sizes to 18 soon shifted to legislation three years later to limit P1 classes to 25. Now the legislation may be extended to P2 and 3 (page 5).

It was a similarly rash promise in that same manifesto which committed the party to increasing free nursery provision for three- and four-year-olds by 50 per cent and providing a teacher for every pre-school centre. By the time of the next election, in 2011, there had been only a 20 per cent increase and the promise of a teacher for every centre was diluted to giving every child "access" to a pre-school teacher.

So how much access do these children have - and how important is it? These questions have been investigated by a recent report from Education Scotland, Making the Difference, which pulls together evidence from more than 300 pre-school centres, in an attempt to find out (News Focus, pages 12-15). And the answers are unlikely to please the teaching unions.

The most shocking finding is that no one really knows how much access they get; it varies so much from one local authority to another. As the economic recession digs in, some councils are converting standalone nurseries into large nursery classes in primary schools, and as nursery teachers move on they are replacing them with early years workers. This is something that needs to be monitored seriously.

But the presence of a teacher does not in itself prove beneficial, the inspectors find, unless that teacher has early years expertise - what really matters is how the pre-school teacher and the early years workers complement each other. And the more highly-qualified the workforce is, the greater the benefit for the children.

But these qualifications do not necessarily have to be in teaching, says the report. The new BA in Childhood Practice, which is one of the first work-based degrees where entry is based on Scottish Vocational Qualifications and experience working in the field, has already driven up the qualifications of the early years workforce and proved popular with those who have achieved it.

So where does that leave us? First, looking for improvements in early years training for teachers and, second, acknowledging the growing value of a more highly-educated early years workforce. Recognising too - as senior researcher Paul Bradshaw of the Growing Up in Scotland survey, does (page 16) - that this government is going in the right direction with early years.

Gillian Macdonald, Editor,

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