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MSPs backed on nurseries

The Scottish Parliament's much criticised early years report has one high-profile defender, reports David Henderson

Professor Kathy Sylva, one of Britain's most eminent early childhood researchers, has sprung to the defence of MSPs after stringent criticism of their report on the early years, published last week.

The report, highlighting the importance of teachers in pre-fives education, was savaged this week by Children in Scotland, the national campaigning agency, for its "limited aspirations" and for "its failure to support comprehensive and universal pre-school services".

Other academics have weighed in behind the criticism, however, and in an article in next week's TES Scotland, Peter Lee and Jackie Henry of Strathclyde University slam MSPs for ducking key issues on co-ordinated approaches to pre-fives services. They accuse MSPs of assuming that quality comes only when teachers are involved. It is an "insult" to the many dedicated non-teachers who are the majority of staff in the early years sector, they say.

Professor Sylva, an Oxford University researcher and adviser to the MSPs on the Holyrood education committee and to parliamentarians at Westminster and Cardiff, hit back by dismissing the Children in Scotland critique.

"I think the MSPs have done a very good job and I was very impressed with the seriousness of the Scottish committee, the time it took and the personal commitment of members to read reams of papers. They took evidence from Scottish practitioners and researchers as well as government officials and visited two other Europeans countries.

"I would commend their hard work and fairness, and they came up with recommendations which are realistic," the professor said.

Professor Sylva said moves towards Scandinavian-style models of a pre-fives service, as advocated by Children in Scotland, would be "enormously expensive". The MSPs instead had produced "cost-effective" solutions for Scotland.

But Bronwen Cohen, chief executive of Children in Scotland, claims MSPs missed a chance to argue for "a simpler structure of properly funded and well-staffed services" which would provide greater continuity for children and parents.

"If we do not aim higher, we will never reach the kind of services available as a matter of entitlement to all pre-school children in countries such as Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland," Dr Cohen said.

She said MSPs continued to separate child care and education services when children and parents wanted services which were indivisible. "Partly as a result of these conceptual divisions, Scotland has one of the most fragmented structures of pre-school services in Europe," she said.

She cites the problems of one part-time working parent with two children.

Her three-year-old son can only attend nursery school for five mornings and has to go to a private nursery in the afternoons. Meanwhile, her 13-month-old son goes to a different local authority nursery because her older child's nursery does not take children under two. "My younger son's nursery does not provide funded places because of the paperwork involved.

Maybe I should give up work?" says the parent.

On a different tack, the Educational Institute of Scotland welcomed the MSPs' report and called on local authorities to back the role of teachers.

Ronnie Smith, EIS general secretary, said: "It is Scotland's shame that 43 per cent of our pre-school education centres have not a single GTC-registered teacher and overall, only 17 per cent of staff in the sector are GTC-registered. Why should our three and four-year-olds be denied the right to a quality education, led by qualified teachers, which is accorded to their five-year-old siblings?"

Mr Smith attacked Glasgow City Council for removing teachers from nursery, and said children from disadvantaged backgrounds would be the ones who suffered most.

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