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Play needs a career ladder

Staff in the early years have a plethora of outdated qualifications that are at odds with ministers' policies for integrated children's services, research for the Scottish Executive has found.

This controversial conclusion in a report by Children in Scotland, which carried out the study, centres on the 32,000-strong "paraprofessional" workforce in early years care, pre-school education and play services. But it may well set alarm bells ringing among teachers about possible inroads into their pre-school qualifications.

Carolyn Martin, the lead researcher, commented: "We are moving towards providing integrated services across health, education and family support for all children and their families. We cannot do that without considering the competencies we require of those who will work with them. The current qualifications framework reflects an increasingly outdated approach to delivering services, which is single-service based".

A spokesperson for Children in Scotland pointed to "opportunities at a more radical level for a restructuring of the field following, for example, the Swedish move to integrate all training for those who work in pre-school, school and out-of-school settings".

Any suggestion that the teaching qualification for pre-school education should be absorbed into a wider framework will almost certainly be resisted by the General Teaching Council for Scotland and the Educational Institute of Scotland, citing "dilution". But the new report goes no further than suggesting a single paraprofessional qualification possibly linked to that for nursery teachers.

The researchers uncovered a total of 13 awards and qualifications aimed at the early years sector. While there is a considerable degree of overlap, broadly centred on working with children, safety and professional relationships, many fail to include areas such as management and issues to do with young people in the community. The general view from interviews is that this framework is "inflexible, fragmented and with built-in barriers to transfer of knowledge and skills".

But there is division about what should replace it. There is support for a broad-based introductory award, but disagreement about whether this should be an initial qualification in its own right or a taster course which would not give immediate access to employment.

At this stage the research team go no further than a call for "exploring the possibilities for devising a single entry level paraprofessional qualification". This will have to take account of demands that will arise from closer integration between education, health and social work.

The report notes: "While it is not within the brief of this research to consider qualifications at teacher level, it is suggested that consideration be given to how this qualification should relate to those operating at professional level."

The researchers also want better links between awards, from school-based qualifications through to higher education, to provide progression and an improved career structure.

The report says lack of career opportunities is linked to poor retention of staff. There still appears to be a problem for those with further education qualifications who want to step up to university courses, which is seen as vital if staff are to win higher status for their work - one of the causes of the ongoing nursery nurse pay dispute.

While universities are happy to accredit some FE qualifications for the BA in early childhood studies, they do not recognise others such as the higher national certificate or the professional development award in childcare and education.

* A sharp reminder of the dissatisfaction felt by one group of early years paraprofessionals came this week from Unison, which is stepping up its nursery nurse pay and grading dispute with the local authorities. Different parts of Scotland will face week-long and grouped days of action over two weeks, beginning on December 1.

While several authorities say they have reached agreements to end the dispute, Unison insists there has only been one local deal since the strike action started - in Perth and Kinross (Aberdeen and South Lanarkshire settled earlier).

Joe Di Paola, Unison's Scottish organiser for local government, accused the authorities of trying to encourage splits among councils and nursery nurses, and said the limited number of local agreements suggests this has failed.

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