The social and emotional development of young children is every bit as important as education, Peter Peacock, the Deputy Children and Education Minister, told an early years conference last week. "Perhaps we've put education in a box for far too long. That's not going to do for the future. Children learn in a whole variety of settings," he said.
Addressing a Scottish Executive early years conference in Edinburgh, the deputy minister said families and young children did not care about administrative boundaries. They wanted services - and agencies had to work together more. The 0-3 age range in particular demanded closer co-operation, one reason why ministers had set up a children and education ministry. "It's quite deliberate and quite central to what we're doing," he said.
Setting out a new agenda for children's services, he said nothing was more important to the Scottish Executive in countering social exclusion and poverty. The Government had committed around pound;500 million to support initiatives - and they were in it "for the long run". Funds would not be withdrawn after the first phases.
Mr Peacock said education had taken the lead role in co-ordinating services. But it was not "a heavy agenda to bring the curriculum further down the age range".
Responding to concerns from the voluntary sector, the minister added:
"We've got to recognise that if we're creating choice, parents will vote with their feet." Nevertheless, as a former worker in the voluntary field he did not expect councils to run all services themselves.
Gill Stewart, head of the Scottish Executive's children and young people's group, said it was the first time in her working life as a senior civil servant that politicians had been prepared to take a long-term view. The importance of the task was underlined by recent figures that one-third of children in Britain live in poverty - 4.5 million. The number had tripled since 1979, she said.
Sally Brown, deputy principal at Stirling University, cautioned strongly against pressures to begin formal education in nursery. "While I accept that there are no plans here for a formal curriculum for two year-olds, I am not so confident for three and four year-olds," she said.
"Right now we are in danger of subordinating our concern to support and provide the opportunities for children to develop their confidence, curiosity and ability to form strong relationships, beneath an urgent pressure that they should start to read or count or use a computer at the age that Mozart started to perform in public," she said.
Professor Brown, one of the country's most eminent educational researchers, warned that a narrow assessment of literacy and numeracy in the early years could risk alienation of "the fun-loving, adventurous small persons of our community".