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The future of early years

The issue of childcare and services for the under-5s has emerged as a major theme of the referendum debate, and something of a key policy battleground for Scotland's two main political parties.

Electoral ploys aside, the importance of children's pre-5 experiences as a foundation for future success is well evidenced. But the broad-brush approach of politicians does not necessarily take account of the important nuances that a comprehensive range of pre-5 services must embrace. For example, great stress is currently being laid on expanding entitlements to childcare in order to facilitate the entry of more parents, primarily women, into the workplace. This is, of course, important, but childcare is not the same as education.

Government statements about the expansion from 400 to 600 hours' entitlement reveal a move away from talk of nursery education to a broader term of early learning. The expansion is welcome but what lies behind the language change?

The EIS teaching union, not surprisingly, believes it is essential to preserve and protect the education aspects of pre-5 services, especially around the right to nursery education provided by a teacher.

Curriculum for Excellence was conceived and designed as a 3-18 experience. It is based on an understanding of children's learning being a social activity, which applies across all phases. The importance of teaching, and the teacher, is central to its coherent curriculum, pedagogy and assessment approaches.

And yet we continue to see the role of the teacher in nursery education being marginalised. More often than not, this is a budget-driven decision rather than evidence-based policy. It is clear that qualified teachers working in nursery settings raise standards and provide children with stronger foundations for primary. The Department for Education's Effective Provision of Pre-School Education project found that a high-quality nursery experience boosted pupil performance throughout their primary years.

In a recent spat over the maintenance of teacher numbers, the EIS challenged the Scottish government over a drop in the headline figure. Part of the response was to say that the number was misleading as it included a drop in teachers working in nurseries, and as this wasn't a statutory provision those teachers didn't count, literally (I paraphrase only slightly).

The fact is that about a third of nursery teachers do not expect to be teaching in five years' time. How will they be replaced? Will they be replaced?

Teachers working in nurseries are qualified primary teachers who choose to specialise in pre-5 education. Difficulties already exist in getting meaningful placement opportunities as part of initial teacher education, and with career opportunities and prospects surrounded by political machination, the future does not appear to beckon brightly.

Larry Flanagan is general secretary of the EIS teaching union

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