Renfrewshire council's SNP-led administration wants to remove all teachers from nursery classes and close its nursery schools - and claims the controversial move is backed by the Scottish Government.
Ronnie Smith, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, accused local authorities of "abusing" the greater autonomy provided under their concordat with the Government to "dilute the quality of nursery education". He called on the Government to take action so that all children were assured the same quality of nursery education, delivered by registered teachers.
A Government spokesman declined to criticise Renfrewshire's approach, saying only that ministers remained committed to a policy of universal access to nursery teachers but that "the model of delivery will not be prescribed by Government".
In a radical move which could redefine pre-five education if it is adopted across Scotland, the Renfrewshire plan would see six nursery heads' posts disappear and 25 nursery teachers replaced by less qualified staff. The authority's six nursery schools would be replaced by pre-school centres or classes within primary schools.
The EIS queried whether the Government had been aware that its aims were being translated into the removal of teachers from classes.
Renfrewshire wants to provide "consistent" access to nursery teachers by reorganising how they work, but the expertise of some will be lost from the pre-school sector. The EIS has accused the authority of cost-cutting and taking nursery education toward "unprecedented depths of embarrassment" by turning nursery education into childcare.
Critics will charge the SNP with undermining ministers' oft-stated commitment to the early years and their concerns about the removal of nursery teachers from nurseries. Yet Renfrewshire Council, whose administration is run by the SNP and a smaller number of Liberal Democrats, argues that its plans tie in with the Government's aim of giving all children the benefit of nursery teachers' expertise.
Councillors have already agreed to change the authority's early years policy so that teachers will be removed from all nursery classes and replaced by less-qualified nursery officers. That has angered the EIS because, it says, consultation promised by the council did not happen, and separate consultation on the closure of the six nursery schools has therefore been pre-empted.
Some of the 31 heads and teachers will join an existing peripatetic team, roving between council-run, private and voluntary sector pre-school establishments. The team has 8.2 full-time equivalent staff and will only increase to between 15 and 20.
Since there will be no compulsory redundancies, other teachers may go on the permanent supply list, and some teachers' nursery expertise is likely to be lost as they are forced to take jobs as primary teachers.
The EIS fears that scrapping headteachers' posts - with a saving of pound;160,000 - will make nursery teaching less appealing by removing a career structure.
"It is difficult to see the proposals for pre-five as anything other than an attempt to cut costs and redefine pre-five as predominantly care rather than education," said Ian McCrone, Renfrewshire EIS secretary.
The plans were "designed to reduce teacher involvement to the lowest common denominator", and he questioned the logic of deprived Renfrewshire communities having inferior pre-school provision to more affluent neighbours.
"If a teacher in every nursery class is good enough for the leafy suburbs of East Renfrewshire, then it is difficult to see why parents and children across Renfrewshire should be forced to accept less," he said.
If the council wanted consistent provision, it should be aspiring to build up pre-school services: "Identifying where the level of teacher involvement is at its lowest and arguing that all other levels should be reduced to that level to generate `consistency' seems an educationally untenable argument."
Mr McCrone added that the council appeared to have "disregarded" a 2007 report on nursery education by HM Inspectorate of Education, which found that the highest-performing form of pre-schooling was a nursery school with a teacher, and it explicitly warned against weakening such provision. "If closing schools isn't bad enough, inventing the teacherless class would take nursery education in Renfrewshire to unprecedented depths of embarrassment," he said.
Lorraine Cameron, SNP convener of the council's education policy board, said the proposals would create a "much fairer system" where all under- fives had the same learning opportunities and there was a fairer distribution of teachers' expertise, while parents would have "more flexibility" of childcare.
Education and leisure director John Rooney said: "While these proposals will mean change for some of our employees, there are clear benefits for children."