Ministers have minded their Ps and Qs in launching the most exhaustive consultation paper ever on pre-school education. Guaranteed places for all 4-year-olds by next winter, improved partnerships between providers, better planning and closer liaison with parents are at the heart of Scottish Office plans for universal pre-school education.
For the first time, quality across all sectors will be monitored by stiff new arrangements involving the HMI, local authorities in their role as lead agents, and self-evaluation processes. It will not be good enough just to create places: they will have "good enough to meet HMI's stringent quality standards".
Ministers concede the Conservatives' controversial voucher system "forged a necessary link between the quality of service and its funding by the taxpayer". Around 10 per cent of potential providers who were not up to standard were refused access to voucher funds.
In the run-up to the election, Helen Liddell, then Labour's education spokeswoman, pledged to build a network of centres of excellence, but this is now being jettisoned in favour of an "excellence in practice" initiative, a wider concept embracing all sectors.
The paper points out: "Ministers believe that pre-school centres should be judged on what they do, not what they are called or who they are run by.
They also believe that pre-school centres providing education (whether or not in association with daycare) should be assessed on the same educational criteria, irrespective of whether they are public, private, independent or voluntary."
Local authorities, as expected, have been awarded the central role in pre-five services and will continue to be the major providers of education services, although they will be forced to consult parents and other providers about gaps in provision. Extending places to three-year-olds may be better tackled, and more cost-effectively, through local partnerships with playgroups and mother and toddler groups, the paper admits.
"Authorities will be both providers and facilitators, planners of provision and builders of consensus with parents," ministers suggest. Integration of pre-five education with childcare and child health is a key theme. But councils are reminded not to undermine playgroups or private nurseries that already satisfy parents. Local early years forums would enable better planning.
More contentiously, perhaps, authorities will join with the HMI in assessing quality in the voluntary and private sectors, a process begun through the vouchers. Any pre-five partner an authority chooses will have to be drawn from an HMI approved list of registered centres.
Ministers also dip into the troubled waters of staffing qualifications without reaching a firm conclusion. The paper acknowledges nurseries must have a trained teacher by law in every class and that there are advantages in planning the curriculum and in assessing young children. Yet the HMI found high quality pre-school education in centres without trained teachers.
The paper observes: "The position on quality is a complex one, and it is also certainly the case that qualified teachers, other things being equal, are in a better position than other early years professionals to plan the curriculum and modify the activities in light of their assessment of children's progress. "
The Government wants to tease out whether it would be sensible to have a qualified teacher attached to every centre attracting a grant. Staff could either be loaned out to a voluntary or private provider, arrange to visit a number of centres in an advisory role, or be available on a consultancy basis. Ministers will consult separately in the new year on harmonisation of standards. In the longer-term, they suggest training and qualifications should be rationalised.
Meanwhile, the Scottish Office has commissioned research on costs, the role of parents, staff competences and other aspects of current provision.
With quality virtually top of its agenda, ministers are proposing to set up an umbrella group called the Pre-School Education Accountability Group, involving the HMI, local authorities, and the voluntary and private sectors to review overall performance.
The Government is also, in the long-term, considering giving pre-school education a statutory base if funding is eventually transferred back into the general local government pot. At present, the cash will be ring-fenced through a specific grant.
"Education in early childhood: the pre-school years", is published by the Scottish Office.