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Early years staff need proper qualifications;Platform;Opinion

Morag Wilson argues that FE training in child care and education ought to include appropriate placements

THE EARLY years have never been higher on the political agenda. There is a mood of anticipation and a renewed belief in the principles and practice that have for long identified investment in the early years as vital for society.

Why then does a sense of disquiet beleaguer the work of lecturers delivering child care and education, formerly nursery nursing, in FE? Indeed, what exactly should be our work and what are the factors at the source of our frustration?

FE lecturers delivering child care and education are specialists who teach and assess the skills and values appropriate to the under sevens workplace. Historically, the range of under sevens provision has been diverse.

A child care and education candidate might undertake practice in a nursery school, nursery class, primary school, children's centre, family centre, voluntary sector creche, playgroup or private nursery. Whatever placements are selected for students, judicious education and training institutions will ensure solid and sufficient practice across the early years age ranges.

It is the lecturer's role to ensure candidate competence and understanding in the workplace in collaboration with early years colleagues. Years of building relationships between FE colleges and the early years sector have produced an excellent working example of the now hackneyed concept of partnership.

Such consensus decision making can be laborious and irksome. But happily the resulting coherent framework which matches workplace requirements usually justifies the agony. National Certificate and Higher National Certificate child care and education qualifications have been produced in this way.

Recently the new Professional Development Award had to be written to close the gap in advanced provision for nursery nurses seeking to enhance their professional role. There was no real steer or technical support from the Scottish Qualifications Authority, which validates our qualifications but was preoccupied with Higher Still.

So a group of FE child care and education specialists from different colleges simply knuckled down and designed the PDA. At validation the award was commended for professionalism and appropriateness.

So far so good. The difficulty arises in making clear to candidates and employers where the award sits in relation to others.

Higher Still developments thus far have not been helpful. Lecturers expressed major concerns at the consultation stage, particularly as the proposed award made no provision for practical placement experience. The result of our protests was a new and more relevant framework, the Scottish Group Award (SGA) in early years care and education.

Perhaps we should be grateful for this response to consultation - even if a little dismayed by the mystery of how, when and by whom these changes were made.

Moreover, such a monumental change in the basic qualification ought to enjoy the confidence of those charged with its delivery. But my first "unofficial preview" of the proposed SGA resulted in dismay. There is still no mandatory practical placement. My concern is that we have a half baked framework which may open the door to marginal tampering in a specialist field. The SGA should be taught by qualified experts in appropriate child care and education settings.

It will be argued that the original SGA design ensured that young people with inappropriate preparation would, rightly, not undertake practical placement.

Perhaps a more critical point then is to ask what efforts the SQAHigher Still Development Unit are making to fill the gap between the new SGA, which does not require proper placements, and current training levels like the Higher National Certificate, which do?

As it stands, the SGA does not effectively precede the HNC. How are the first principles, concepts and skills required for job competence (NC level) to be properly addressed? Should we be rewriting the NC content?

Thankfully, it has been indicated that FE child care and education experts will now be given scope for further review of the SGA. Hopefully, additional consultation with the Scottish Office will produce content that takes more account of the experts' early years philosophy and curriculum.

A national strategy for child care is essential. Early years educationists are frequently reminded that we should recognise that education is only one element in our task. But we do not see education and care as divisible. And in our never ending efforts to convince society that teachers care, the significance of the educational perspective can be diminished.

Nick Pepin, a member of the Inspectorate, recently stressed the need to link care and education within a pre-school curriculum "that can deliver" if investment in the early years is ultimately to make a difference. It is this balance that lecturers in child care and education must achieve by identifying the appropriate occupational and fundamental knowledge, understanding and skills, through levels leading to professional growth, as in the PDA.

It is long past time to clarify registration requirements, linked to continuing professional development, so that potential and existing employees are seen to be "fit for practice".

We need a clear ladder of qualifications readily understood by employers and parents and with real currency in the job market.

Morag Wilson is head of the school of child care and education, James Watt College of Further and Higher Education, Greenock. She writes in a personal capacity.

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