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It's the welcome and the range of services

John Cairney visits South Lanarkshire as a major study of pre-school education in Britain finds that local authority nurseries have the best provision

Tracy Cippolini noticed an immediate difference when her daughter Kiara transferred from a private nursery to a local authority centre. "She enjoyed it more, made more friends and was more communicative and confident," she said. The council's pre-school provision was more welcoming towards parents and did not have any no-go areas.

Kiara's new destination was the Early Learning Unit in Hamilton, one of South Lanarkshire's 80 early years establishments, serving more than 200 mainstream and special needs children, including babies and toddlers.

Carol Wright, the acting head, is a trained nursery nurse. She says that the unit's high quality of services is made possible by the experience and commitment of the 29 staff, backed by visiting speech and occupational therapists and a physiotherapist. Extensive resources are backed by professional development opportunities open to all staff.

An extra pound;30,000 over the past year has boosted facilities for babies and toddlers with complex difficulties, following an application to the Scottish Executive's changing children's services fund.

Another key factor, according to Ms Wright, who is currently studying for a BA in early childhood studies, is the application of The Child at the Centre, the Scottish Executive's self-evaluation tool which covers all aspects of best practice, including teaching and learning and management.

On top of that is the council's own assessment package, Steps to Transition.

She said: "Evidence from local primary schools shows that we are sending children equipped to access the 5-14 curriculum and that primary staff are finding it easier to differentiate and plan the next stages of learning."

Agnes Green, one of two nursery teachers in the unit, is doing a postgraduate course in social and emotional behaviour through Birmingham University. She works with 3-5s who have special needs and says that the visiting therapists are "a key element".

Tracy Thomson, a nursery nurse undertaking a professional development award, identifies low teacher-pupil ratios as another factor. The special needs group for babies and toddlers has a ratio of 1:2, and the 3-5s 1:5.

Mainstream toddlers and 3-5s have ratios of 1:5 and 1:8 respectively.

Mother of two Honor Miller, whose son was identified as having special needs shortly after entering the unit as a two-year-old, said: "The measures put in place to deal with his needs included a split placement between the mainstream and the special needs groups, so he got the best of both worlds and is now thriving at primary school. I feel very privileged that my son was able to benefit from what is on offer at the unit."

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