Last summer the Secretary of State announced plans to expand pre-school education to ensure, over time, that every child would have the opportunity of education in the pre-school year. Parents and teachers warmly welcomed this recognition of the value of pre-school education and the need to make it more generally available.
Many who responded to the Government's consultation paper, however, were concerned that high standards would be ensured. "If you want to make sure that standards are high," they argued, "then you must have effective quality assurance arrangements."
I have been happy to listen to these views, not least because they fit very well with my own. The Secretary of State and I have emphasised from the outset that this initiative aims to expand the number of pre-school places of high quality. And I have repeatedly made clear my own personal commitment.
I have therefore asked the school inspectors to draw up arrangements for quality assurance in pre-school education. They have developed a model in three parts. First, there will be an evaluation of providers' fitness to enter the voucher system. Second, there will be emphasis on, and support for self-evaluation. And third, there will be rigorous and independent inspection spearheaded by HMI.
Providers in the voluntary and private sectors who wish to redeem vouchers will be required, first, to certify that they are registered with the local authority under the Children Act and that they therefore meet the authority's standards in terms of health and safety and the care of children.
They will also be required to complete a "Profile of Education Provision". It will ask how well their current provision meets educational requirements and will pose some searching questions about development plans and educational targets. My department will appraise the profiles before advising me whether an applicant should be admitted to the voucher system. The procedures for entry will be testing but fair, and should not deter good providers from seeking admission. I shall shortly launch public consultations on a draft of the profile.
The second part of the quality assurance regime aims to stimulate a culture of self-evaluation in line with the "quality culture" increasingly evident in primary and secondary schools. In these schools, for example, growing use is made of performance indicators and other characteristics of good performance to keep practice under review.
The indicators for pre-school education recently published by the Inspectorate will be made available to all providers, and the inspectors stand ready to help staff to use them effectively. That will make a powerful contribution to helping providers improve from within, working towards defined targets.
Self-evaluation is not, of course, in itself a sufficient guarantee of high standards. Again parallel with what happens in other sectors, it will be accompanied by independent, professional evaluation: the third and crucially important strand in quality assurance. For all providers, whether in public, private or voluntary sectors, there will be a regular cycle of independent inspection for which the Inspectorate will be responsible.
The advertisements which have now appeared for two additional HMIs with expertise in pre-school education will enable the Inspectorate to take a lead role in the quality assurance which is integral to the initiative and are a further demonstration of our commitment to ensuring provision of high quality. In taking these steps, I have responded to the strongly expressed view that HMIs - the recognised gate-keepers of quality in Scottish education - must play a prominent part in the quality assurance arrangements for the pre-school initiative.
Work is also in train to develop more fully the curriculum for children in their pre-school year, and I shall be consulting on the fruits of this work, too. I also intend to consider carefully, in the course of the pilot year, the implications of the voucher initiative for staff training and the possible need to develop new or additional forms of training in the skills needed to deliver educational outcomes for pre-fives.
I am determined that this initiative should provide our young children with high quality pre-school education. I am equally in no doubt that credible and robust quality assurance arrangements, including inspection by HMI, are necessary to maintain the confidence of parents and the wider public in the quality standards.
This initiative is about pre-school education, not about child care. There will be no compromise on educational quality. Our young children deserve nothing less.