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Pre-school earns its stars

UNDER-FIVES receive a better all-round deal in local authority and independent schools than in the voluntary sector and private nurseries - but the newcomers are beginning to catch up.

That is the main message from HMI's report on Standards and Quality in Scottish Pre-school Education, which covers 1997-2001.

Despite the usual judicious HMI blend of "strengths" and "further improvement", Douglas Osler, senior chief inspector, says that after analysing 1,401 pre-school inspections across all sectors over four years, the conclusion is: "The messages are overall very positive."

Mr Osler acknowledges the "generally high" quality in all sectors, although many private and voluntary centres are not long-established. He pays tribute to progress made by the newcomers in a number of aspects. One example is that 55 per cent of voluntary sector centres now set very good or good aims and policies for themselves - double the figure for 1997-98.

Fears had also been expressed about substandard accommodation and facilities as private and voluntary centres rushed to cope with demand. But percentages of those rated very good or good barely varied - 88 per cent in local authority and independent schools, 83 per cent in the voluntary sector and 86 per cent in private nurseries.

Relationships with parents were rated very good or good in almost all centres in every sector, although local authority and independent schools have a better record in dealing with other agencies.

There is no doubt that a gap exists between the newer entrants and longer-established provision. In the curriculum, for example, five of seven aspects covered during inspections had ratings of more than 90 per cent in the council and independent school sectors, the exceptions being planning (73 per cent) and physical development and movement (88 per cent).

The strongest curricular showing in the voluntary sector and private nurseries was in the support they gave to emotional, personal and social development, which was very good or good in more than 90 per cent of cases.

Patricia McGinty, director of the Scottish Independent Nurseries Association, said: "Given the challenge we face, in not only educating but in caring for and nurturing children mostly within full day care stretching from early morning to the evening, we are delighted to have recognition that we are meeting these particularly important needs of young children."

One of the biggest gaps was in assessment and recording of children's achievements. This was very good or good in 73 per cent of council and independent school inspections, but only rated 52 per cent in private nurseries and 43 per cent among voluntary groups.

Educating children with special needs is also a strong feature in formal school settings - 93 per cent of which offered very good or good provision against just 64 per cent in the voluntary sector and 77 per cent of private nurseries.

Overall, schools and centres generally come out least favourably over arrangements for staff development and training - ranging from good or very good in 64 per cent of council, independent and private establishments to 49 per cent in the voluntary sector.

Linda Kinney, Stirling's head of early childhood, said the report confirmed that year-on-year improvements are taking place. But she criticised "unhelpful" comparisons between different providers.

"It is in all our interests to ensure quality provision throughout the early years, working in partnership with one another. That means we should see it as one service."

One of the ironies emerging from the report is that after years of complaining that pupils entering S1 often end up repeating earlier work, primaries are now told by HMI to be on their guard against the same "fresh start" mentality for those transferring from pre-school .

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