Echoing the policy that led the former Strathclyde Region into repeated clashes with the unions, Eric Wilkinson, head of the education department at Glasgow University, said the distinction between teachers and nurses should go in favour of "a generic course for all professionals working with children from 0-8".
He was backed by Brian Cavanagh, chairman of the social work committee in Edinburgh, who said professionals were "too precious about qualifications". Mr Cavanagh supported the view that care and education were inseparable and added: "If that is the case, how much more difficult it is to distinguish between qualifications in this sector."
Linda Kinney, head of children's services in Stirling Council, said professional self-interest was one of the major barriers that limited the delivery of services to children and families. "In my experience, there is fear on the part of some individuals of a loss of status or identity," Ms Kinney added.
Dr Wilkinson called for the Stirling model of a children's or family department to be extended to other local authorities. It was time for education and social work departments to "give up some of their empires and have their heads banged together", he said. "It is only when we change structures that we change attitudes."
The conference was the second to have taken place in the wake of the 1989 Children Act, which came into force five years ago. The Act only partially applies to Scotland, its main section 19 provision being for local authorities to review education, day care and childminding for children under eight at least every three years.
Parents are supposed to be consulted in the process of these section 19 reviews, but a newly published study of last year's practice in the 12 former regional and island councils found that parents were centrally involved in only one of the local authority working groups preparing reports on the reviews. Parental consultation over the inspection standards used in evaluating the various services was also lacking, the study states.
Margy Whalley, who heads the pioneering Pen Green Centre in Corby, Northamptonshire, insisted that the needs of families have to be addressed as well as those of the children.
Ms Whalley added: "My experience during 24 years as an early years educator is that parents are rarely consulted and certainly have very limited choice over the provision that is available."
Parents brought their own valuable insights into assessing quality in early years provision, Ms Whalley commented. They valued warm and responsive relationships with educators, consistency of care, challenging and stimulating environments, flexible hours and well qualified staff.
The section 19 study also identified trained staff, parental choice, affordable care and flexible hours as the hallmarks of quality as defined by parents.
The study suggested, however, that funding and access to staff training remain major barriers. But Chris McIlroy, HMI, pointed out that income from the pre-school voucher scheme could be used to invest in training.
Four national development officers had been appointed to help provide materials and organise courses, particularly for the voluntary and private sectors.