Jack Barnett told the union's annual meeting in Dundee yesterday (Thursday) that one of the greatest challenges faced by Scottish education was the defence of quality nursery education.
"It is simply not good enough for the Scottish Executive Education Department to stand idly by - as they have also done over management restructuring in the secondary sector outwith the national agreement - and protest that it has nothing to do with them," Mr Barnett said.
He also accused education authorities of cynically taking advantage of the abolition of the 1956 Schools Code to replace nursery teachers with less well-trained, less well-qualified and less well-paid early years workers.
Mr Barnett cited evidence from research studies, HMIE reports and official statements which made clear that "the employment of highly trained and qualified nursery teachers provides added value to the educational experience of Scottish three and four-year-old children and gives them the best start in life - in particular for children from disadvantaged backgrounds who are most at risk of missing out as the attainment gap between rich and poor widens".
He also warned that delivery of the vision in A Curriculum for Excellence of a more individualised approach to teaching and learning, with a far greater emphasis on personal learning planning and quality dialogue between teacher and individual pupil, was at risk unless class sizes were cut.
The EIS conference will be asked to vote on whether to take strike action on reducing class sizes, depending on the outcome of the ministerial working group on the issue. Mr Barnett none the less made his views clear:
"With the best will in the world, how can teachers provide that level of individual attention with class sizes of up to 33 pupils?"
The latest OECD figures for average class sizes in primary schools showed that Scotland lay 19th in a league table of 32 European countries, with only Ireland and England having a higher average, he said.
Mr Barnett added: "If we are to progress farther on the journey to international excellence, then reducing class sizes so that pupils can receive the individual attention modern teaching methods demand must be a key priority shared by all with a genuine interest in improving Scottish education."
Mr Barnett went on to criticise "overly negative" reporting by sections of the media of the recent Audit Scotland report into the national teachers'