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Jargon and formality harm under fives;Interview;Danny McCafferty

Danny McCafferty, convener in West Dunbartonshire, has strong views on pre-fives. He talked to David Henderson

The dominating influence of primary schools over pre-fives' work could "wreck" existing good practice in the rapidly developing sector, Danny McCafferty, education convener in West Dunbartonshire, has warned.

Too much emphasis has been placed on teachers at the expense of parents and nursery nurses, according to Mr McCafferty.

Moreover, the focus on nursery places for all four-year-olds and on links to formal teaching overlooks the vital learning already taking place.

The convener is the unique position of being head of Fasque Family Centre in the Drumchapel area of Glasgow as well as a qualified primary and nursery teacher.

Speaking to The TESS, Mr McCafferty urged authorities to consider the wider pre-five picture. He also wants the teacher's role in pre-five work redefined.

He said: "The teacher's role must be seen in a different context within the early years sector than as it is widely understood within education as a whole. Nursery education must not be seen as a watered down version of primary school.

"And it must not be regarded as simply providing social skills to make children ready to learn when they eventually 'enter the education system'. Children are 'in the system' long before formal schooling is reached."

Mr McCafferty admits teachers have much to offer in assessment and teaching methodology.

But he springs to the defence of nursery nurses. "Too often nursery nurses are regarded as 'teacher helpers' rather than educators in their own right. 'Teaching' within nurseries is not confined to the nursery teacher and nursery nurse roles. It is carried out by significant people, young or old, in the child's life.

"This has to be accepted in more than a tokenistic way if professional elitism is to be avoided in the development of services for very young children."

Mr McCafferty added: "A second tendency is to shroud emerging services in mysticism through the creation of a what seems to be a 'professional' language and culture. Already there are unfortunate signs of this in early years services.

"Jargonisation and the concept that 'only a qualified teacher can teach' lead to exclusion of nonprofessionals from the education process."

Moreover, he thinks it would be a disaster if "developing services were to be shaped and channelled into a form tailored to meet the knowledge and skills of professionals, rather than the knowledge and skills of the child."

The convener points out children learn in nursery schools for only a fraction of their childhood.

On average children spend 7.5 hours a week in nursery - and that is without counting the high levels of absenteeism because of illness.

Even in an extended day nursery, the total hours in a year would amount to no more than 15 days of their lives.

"A nursery may have 40 children per session and only one nursery teacher post," he says. "Clearly, individual 'qualified teacher' attention for each child is impractical. If the nursery teacher postholder was the only person providing 'education', then each child's nursery education would be considerably less than the estimated 15 days life time equivalent."

He adds: "It is clear that given the level of contact time parents, not professionals, are the primary educators and biggest social influence in their children's early development. Only parents have children with them all of the time - at home, out shopping, in social and recreational circumstances, in happy as well as adverse and strained environments.

"Parents teach their children to walk, talk and play. They teach toileting, colours, number, names of objects, and so on."

Mr McCafferty wants the professional staff's role re-examined, along with the qualifications and skills required to provide high quality nursery education.

Education and social care should be combined and delivered through 'a whole team' approach, he maintains.

"Educational input in the early years must not be about status. It must be about providing the very best quality provision for those who matter - the children," he argues.

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