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Staff shortage at children's centres

Early-years project struggles to recruit qualified teachers. Helen Ward reports.

Children's centres - a cornerstone of the Government's childcare strategy - are struggling to attract teachers, new research reveals.

The study, by the National Children's Bureau, shows that the gulf between teachers' pay and status and other childcare workers can make it hard for them to fit into a team.

A qualified teacher starts on pound;19,121 a year and can earn more than pound;30,000 in the classroom while nursery nurses earn an average of Pounds 14,664 a year.

Unlike schools, children's centres are open for 10 hours a day, for 48 weeks a year. Teachers' contracts say they only have to work 195 days (39 working weeks), leaving a gap of nine weeks.

But the Government wants a teacher working with every centre, which must provide good-quality early learning and full daycare.

Ministers say three-year-olds must follow the foundation-stage curriculum and that the centres must employ qualified teachers or be advised by them.

The Government wants the equivalent of 2,000 full-time teachers to work in the private, voluntary and independent childcare sector - a target of one to every 10 settings. At present, there are 1,100 full-time and 1,300 part-time teachers working with the private, voluntary and independent nurseries.

Ministers want to create 3,500 centres in the next five years. There are currently 268 centres.

But the NCB research found that teachers working in children's centres were employed on a variety of contracts.

Some are employed in line with teachers' pay and conditions, which entitles them to 13 weeks' holiday. Others are on the Soulbury scales - used for education advisers - which may mean more pay. This starts at pound;28,704 a year, but includes only 20 days' holiday.

Some centres maintained existing contracts but negotiated with teachers for their holidays to be taken at various times.

The study, based on interviews with 300 people from the centres, also highlighted problems with management structures.

Researchers found problems where teachers were managed by people with a care background or, in some instances, by people earning less than the teacher.

In one example cited, a team felt undermined when a teacher was brought in, especially because members could see no prospect of training for this role themselves.

Sue Owens, head of the early childhood unit at the NCB, said: "The experience is patchy, with some centres really moving ahead and others struggling."

Researchers found overwhelming agreement that children's centres should not be staffed solely by teachers, or necessarily led by teachers.

The influential Effective Provision of Pre-school Education project by London university's institute of education found that children did best in settings that were led by a teacher.

The Department for Education and Skills is now consulting on the creation of a new early-years professional post.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "The position of teachers in children's centres, including headteachers, is proving to be more and more difficult in pay terms. Local authorities are trying to push as many employees on to Soulbury conditions and pay rates as possible which, compared to the teachers' leadership scales, are totally inadequate when it comes to reflecting their responsibilities."



* The Government wants to set up 2,500 children's centres within three years, and 3,500 by 2010. By June, 268 had been established.

* The centres are set up mainly from existing provision - local Sure Start programmes, neighbourhood nurseries, early excellence centres and maintained nursery and primary schools.

* They must provide a "core offer" of: good-quality early learning combined with full daycare for children; parental outreach; family support services; a base for a childminder network; child and family health services, including antenatal services; and support for children and parents with special needs.

* They must also have effective links with Jobcentre Plus, local training providers and further and higher education institutions, and management and workforce training.

* The scheme was launched in 2003 and centres are being established in the most disadvantaged areas first.

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