Mr Barr said that the right nursery framework is already in place, but the challenge was to turn ideas into practice. "The curricular framework 3-5 is internationally regarded and practitioners in many countries would give a great deal for what we have as a model for early education, but we need to consolidate that in practice.
"Reggio taught us all kinds of important lessons, but we can't import Reggio, we must develop our own distinct approach."
Mr Barr praised publication of the Scottish Executive's cultural strategy, but serious limitations existed in local authorities, where hard choices had to be made by politicians. There was also a danger that while the arts are given their place in early education this impetus faded away.
"The Government's current enthusiasm for creativity is a valuabl opportunity to make the case that the arts provide a glorious opportunity for learners young and old to explore, discover and create. Only when we have these characteristics in all learning contexts will we really start to improve standards of attainment," Mr Barr said.
The dangers of concentrating too much on attainment and target-setting were voiced by Liz Rose, early years support officer in Falkirk. "A lot of early years' practitioners see a mismatch or an imbalance between the two agendas, one for raising attainment and the other for learning to achieve," she said. "They feel that by going down the road of target-setting, which is very much a quantitative method of assessment, we may lose sight of the whole child."
The two-day Strathclyde University conference, "Arts at the Crossroads", coincided with the Kelvingrove Museum's exhibition of work from nurseries in Reggio Emilia. Lella Gandini, of Massachusetts University, who has promoted the Reggio Emilia approach, said that teachers in Scotland wanted more professional development.
Schools here could learn from the high levels of participation by Italian parents.
Leader, page 20