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Qualifications are called into question

One of the features of the Scottish education system on which it has long prided itself is the requirement for teachers to be graduates. Whether you wanted to teach in primary or secondary, you had to complete a university degree followed by a year of teacher training, or pursue a four-year undergraduate programme. No short cuts. No fast-tracking.

More recently, Scottish government policies have expanded the role of qualified teachers in nurseries to bridge the divide between pre-school and early primary and create the continuum that is required for the new 3- 18 curriculum.

It seems surprising against this background that Glasgow is relaxing its requirements for headteachers to lead nursery schools, even to the extent of appointing non-teachers where no teacher is employed on the staff. It is less surprising that the EIS teachers union has challenged the move (page 5).

In 2002-03, university researchers found the highest-quality early years centres had qualified teachers working alongside well-qualified nursery staff and, in 2007, HM inspectors reported that pre-school centres with qualified teachers performed better than those without. The government's own guidance on pre-school teacher deployment stated that the greatest benefits were found where teachers spent "a good proportion of their time in direct contact with children"; they added value by feeding into curriculum design, promoting active learning, supporting the transition from nursery to primary and modelling effective practice.

But these are expensive practices and in a pragmatic, if disappointing, move the government agreed with Cosla that access to a peripatetic teacher could be sufficient in nursery, particularly in rural settings.

Add to these, the government's commitment at the launch of this month's Children and Young People Bill to extend nursery care to a minimum of 600 hours for three- and four-year-olds and looked-after two-year-olds, and you can see the costs spiralling.

So what is a council like Glasgow, the country's largest education authority with the highest level of deprivation, expected to do? No one who has seen how it stood up against government pressure for smaller class sizes, to protect its nurture groups for vulnerable children, or has read about its Family Learning Centres can question its commitment to "Getting it right for every child". It goes for creative flexibility.

Something has to give. It is not possible in times of financial restraint to extend early years services, increase staff numbers and raise qualification levels without some kind of concession. The danger will be what happens in less scrupulous authorities. But if Scotland is serious about investing in its youngest children, it has to approach it cleverly. Yes, in an ideal world every nursery child would have constant access to a teacher, but we do not live in ideal times.

gillian.macdonald@tess.co.uk.

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