Linda Kinney, head of children's services at Stirling Council, told a pre-school conference in Glasgow that the present arrangements do not make sense. There could be up to four "perspectives on quality assurance", involving the Inspectorate, registration officers, local authorities and centres which have their own quality assurances policies.
"This system does not work, causes confusion and is unacceptable," she said. "We need national agreement on how we ensure quality. It is time to initiate a national debate and look at real harmonisation and at least get a core framework. New ways of working together need new models."
A national study of pre-school education is currently being carried out by the Accounts Commission for Scotland, and a report is due to be published in the summer. It is expected to urge local authorities to be more effective in managing the fraught early years "partnerships" with the private and voluntary sectors. The commission is also likely to produce a framework for authorities on how to ensure best value so they have a clearer idea about the true costs of early years provision.
Ms Kinney told the conference that partnerships must find a common language, recognise similarities and differences and not underestimate the power of the myths which exist in the areas of public and private provision. The Stirling Children's Partnership had gone some way towards breaking down stereotyping. "There have been slight shifts in perspective, but it is a slow process," she said.
Patricia McGinty from the Scottish Independen Nurseries Association praised those "brave and visionary local authorities" which had adopted "a pluralist and inclusive approach". Others, however, had still not appointed partnership officers and among those who have "there is sometimes a tendency for partnership officers to feel that they are employed to work on behalf of the authority".
Mrs McGinty said: "We should try to avoid public services using the voluntary sector for deprived families and having private nurseries for wealthy children. To avoid stigmatisation there should be a wide range of admissions policies to our centres."
She criticised the lack of support from some councils and their inability to distinguish between providers in terms of need. Private school representatives on local partnerships also found it "intimidatory and frustrating" when presented with inadequate budgetary details, which prevented them from making informed comment. "Some providers need a high level of support, others have invested in high-
calibre staffing and resourcing, and it is important to discern between the two," she said.
Councils should recognise the value of the private schools' own quality assurance standard as a means of avoiding the "wasted effort" of having to submit up to 10 sets of development plans.
Speaking on behalf of the voluntary sector, Anne Brady, of Highland Pre-school Services, called for greater awareness of the needs of pre-school groups in rural areas. "These are vulnerable groups needing support to deal with difficult changes in such areas as the use of educational language, which is alien to them.
"The biggest problem is continuity of management. Management committees are currently under tremendous stress because of the amount of paperwork and jargon. If we value diversity we must support these groups."