A good start is preparation for life

Aline-Wendy Dunlop is professor of childhood and primary studies in Strathclyde University's education faculty

Early childhood education and care has become an arena of change, political debate and aspiration in Scotland. The forces driving considerable government investment in many countries include a recognition that access here offers children a good start.

Other currents run underneath this - combating disadvantage, meeting children's rights, bringing more women into the labour market, maintaining prosperity through sustaining employment, bringing families out of poverty.

The Starting Strong publications (2001 and 2006) from the OECD address these themes, promoting early childhood as being valid in itself and offering a positive preparation for life.

Economists, such as the Nobel laureate James Heckman, right, support the view that investment in early childhood makes a difference. However, this is an area that has not always been taken seriously, and carries with it ambiguities. While there has been considerable government investment in providing two years of part-time pre-school education for all children, low wages reflect the status of early childhood workers.

Scotland has a proud tradition of early childhood education and care. Rapid expansion has brought a recognition that early childhood pedagogies are valid alternatives to more formalised teaching approaches, focusing on active learning and more cohesion between pre-school and primary.

The Scottish Parliament's early years inquiry recommended that teachers should be an essential element of the drive to combat poverty and disadvantage; of a workforce of 12,544 staff providing pre-school education, 16.5 per cent are registered teachers. In future, a new kind of worker will emerge, in keeping with a commendable government agenda to develop a fully qualified workforce and to improve the level of qualifications held; increasing numbers of staff will qualify to level 9 (ordinary degree equivalent) and leadership will be included in that training.

Traditionally, early childhood has been seen as a separate sector, but teachers in Scotland are uniquely trained to work with children aged three to 12; they may work in pre-school and early primary education. They have the potential to implement A Curriculum for Excellence effectively in both, so schools are more ready for children and children are more ready for school.

The role of the teacher in early childhood continues to be essential.

Evidence shows that pedagogical knowledge, social interaction, development of emotional well-being, cognitive development and leadership are best served by highly qualified staff.

Scotland fares badly in child poverty figures, as recent reports attest: this demands a coherent view of childhood from birth to seven or eight years old. Strong guidance contributes to our Scottish early years agenda - Birth to Three: Supporting our Youngest Children (2003), self-evaluation materials for early childhood education and care about to be published as Child at the Centre 2, guidance on the new early level of Building the Curriculum 2 (2007) and the regulation of early childhood education by HMIE and the Care Commission.

The focus on well-being in the recent UNICEF report supports the view that cognitive development cannot stand in isolation from social and emotional well-being and engagement with others. Emotionally healthy children in emotionally healthy families are Scotland's future.

Educational research here, and in Australia and the United States, makes this link between high-quality early childhood provision and later school success. With proper investment, early childhood education and care are a public good.

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