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Editorial: Let's go full speed ahead on nursery reforms

It's the rush that you dread when you go back to work after maternity leave. The rush to feed and clothe and drop off in the morning; the rush to pick up, feed and declothe in the evening.

We should not forget that it's a privilege to have the chance to spend so much time with your baby and then step back into your career, with the right to ask for more flexible hours if you feel the need. Working women in previous generations, of course, never had such luxury.

But although much has improved, one thing remains in the Dark Ages: access to preschool education. As of August, my eldest child was entitled to a place at our local nursery but he has never darkened its door. What use are a few hours of nursery in the morning or afternoon to parents in full-time jobs?

To make it work in our household would have required a near-impossible effort, military-style planning and, of course, more rushing, as our son would have had to attend two nurseries more than a mile apart at different times of the day.

Even more bizarrely, had we girded our loins, got our heads down and sprinted across the city with buggies and bairns to bring this extraordinary arrangement off, it would have ended up costing us more.

Currently, we benefit from the 600 hours of free nursery time available to Scottish three- to five-year-olds introduced last year. This makes us pretty lucky because, as recent newspaper reports show, many families are struggling to get even this far given the lack of places in some councils. Our problem arose because my son's current nursery won't allow you to pay for half a day, only a full one.

So even if my son spent half the day at the local nursery, we would still have had to pay for a full day at the other preschool to cover the remaining hours. Uncouth as it may be to talk about money, as a young family with two children in childcare, cost is impossible to ignore.

Clearly this is our personal plight, but with 79 per cent of Scottish parents in employment, according to the 2011 census, the impossibility of accessing your local nursery is a problem that many families face.

Ahead of free nursery hours being extended from 475 to 600 in August, I attended a meeting of resistant nursery teachers who were concerned that more time with the children would mean less time for preparation and cleaning.

They also questioned how their charges, already tired after the morning or afternoon session, would cope with the extra half hour tacked on to their day. Nurseries need their staff to cope when new demands are introduced, but many children are - rightly or wrongly - already spending 10 hours a day at nursery, five days a week.

We need to make better use of our nursery schools, and give our children better access to the expertise of the teachers within their walls. Much as I hate rushing, an improved system is long overdue.

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