Teachers could disappear from nursery education unless the Scottish government changes the law, a leading early years academic has claimed.
Nursery education in Scotland is being "eroded by stealth", said Professor Aline-Wendy Dunlop, a vice-president of the British Association for Early Childhood Education. The closure of council-run nursery schools was harming Scotland's most vulnerable children and was "the worst sort of short-term thinking", she added. And unless action was taken, teachers would no longer have a presence in preschool education.
"I value early childhood practitioners, but all the research shows that when it comes to pedagogical leadership, it's the teachers that offer that - and why not? That's the focus of all their training," she said. "We need both early years practitioners and teachers in our nurseries."
Professor Dunlop's comments echoed the EIS teaching union's recent call for the government to change the law in order to ensure that it fulfils its pledge for every nursery child to have access to a teacher.
The plea from the EIS came after it lost a legal battle last week against Glasgow City Council to overturn the appointment of non-teachers as nursery school leaders. The court found that although, for the best part of 50 years, nursery school leaders in Scotland had to be registered teachers, regulations introduced in 2003 "removed the requirement".
The ruling placed teacher involvement in preschool education under "very serious threat", said Larry Flanagan, EIS general secretary.
"This case highlights a clear absence of enforceable legislation to ensure that the Scottish government's promise of 'access to a nursery teacher' for all pre-5 children is delivered," he added. "Without any legal basis or regulation, the Scottish government's commitment is essentially meaningless and will allow local authorities to cut teachers out of nurseries in order to reduce costs and with little regard for quality of education provision."
The government's 2007 manifesto pledge would not be realised without either legislation or ring-fenced funding, said Greg Dempster, general secretary of the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland.
"We are supportive of the government commitment in this area to access to a nursery teacher, but the figures show that it is not being delivered. There needs to be a mechanism introduced to make it happen," he explained.
The number of nursery teachers working in Scottish schools has dropped 14 per cent in just three years from 1,504 in 2010 to 1,288 in 2013, according to government figures published in December. The number of children attending nurseries has risen over the same period from 92,030 to 102,871. Across Scotland, more than a quarter of nursery children have no access to a teacher. However, in some authorities the figures are far worse: in the Western Isles and Moray, approximately two-thirds of nursery children have no contact with a teacher, and in Glasgow and Stirling about half have no contact.
The Scottish government has acknowledged that there is "a significant body of evidence" to suggest that the presence of preschool teachers has an impact on both the quality of centres and child outcomes, but no minimum threshold for access to a teacher has been set.
In guidance on preschool teacher deployment issued in 2009, the government said: "The research evidence from studies undertaken in preschool settings is not conclusive on the question of how much of a teacher's time is required to improve children's outcomes. There would, therefore, be no basis for setting a minimum threshold for what counts as access."
Responding to the call for legislation on access to a nursery teacher, a government spokesman said: "We appreciate the important role played by teachers as part of the wider team in early years settings and the positive impact they make.
"That's why we are investing #163;460,000 over this financial year and the next to support additional postgraduate places for primary teachers wishing to specialise in early years, and additional places for the childhood practice degree, as well as supporting mentoring for childhood practitioners. It is for local authorities to develop appropriate models that make the best use of teachers' skills and experience as part of the wider team."
Number of nursery teachers working in Scotland