One government initiative after another - from getting mothers back to work, to social inclusion policies to close the gap between the haves and have-nots - has meant that demands on nurseries and all their staff have increased enormously.
A nursery nurse's work is focused on the child from birth to eight years (P3) and sometimes older in special schools. With a national curriculum now for three- to five-year-olds and early intervention in literacy and numeracy before they enter school, youngsters receive far more education than ever before in their early years, much of it from nursery nurses.
"We are not a baby-sitting service. We are here to educate the children and to care for them," says Barbara Foubister, who has been a nursery nurse for more than 30 years.
"We are called support staff but I don't like the term. I'm a nursery nurse. I don't just give support. I do work with children on my own. I contribute to planning and I comment and evaluate.
"I am contributing to the education of these children," she explains.
Mrs Foubister, a nursery nurse at Bonnington Primary in Edinburgh, is one of thousands of nursery nurses taking industrial action in support of better pay and conditions and career prospects. An average nursery nurse earns pound;13,361 a year and their last pay review was in 1988. Their present salary claim to raise it to pound;18,000 a year is based on the enhanced role of nursery nurses, including additional duties and responsibilities.
They want a McCrone-style national review and a better career structure.
Carol Ball, chair of the nursery nurses panel for Unison, the public service workers' union, and Mrs Foubister both say the job has changed greatly over the 15 years since the last review. They now work to national curriculum guidelines and the social inclusion policy means they are involved much more with children with additional needs. They are involved in information technology developments and early literacy and numeracy, with more recording of observation, assessment and evaluation. They monitor attendance, work to child protection guidelines, work with other agencies, such as social work, hospitals and educational psychology (including case conferences), and have to be up to speed with the multi-cultural agenda, among other things.
"Nursery education is itself more prominent now," says Mrs Foubister. "In the nursery school we work to the early years curriculum for ages three to five, but we will also be catering for younger children in the future because of the emphasis on integrated services.
"In dealing with matters like child protection and social inclusion, we have had to acquire new skills but we are not receiving any recognition or reward," she says.
Nor is there any career development, says Mrs Foubister. "I can't go anywhere unless I go into teaching.
"You don't have to do teacher training to work in a nursery and there are nurseries without teachers. But there's no management training for nursery nurses.
"If I'd wanted to be a teacher I would have trained. I want to be here and I want our own management structure."
Bonnington Primary has five nursery nurses: three in the nursery and two who do early intervention work in the infant school.
"Nursery nurses are an invaluable part of the team in both the nursery and the infant school," says headteacher Susan Thomson. "If we had no nursery nurses in the infant department, it would adversely affect our early intervention policy, no doubt about it."
Gillian Walker has been at Bonnington Primary for three-and-a-half of her 21 years as a nursery nurse. She has also worked in a post-natal ward at a maternity hospital, supporting mothers with everything from breast feeding to hygiene, and at a child and family centre, where she helped with parenting skills and child behaviour management.
"This is my first school since I was a student and there's a big difference since then," she says.
"There's more observation and recording. Work is more cross-curricular and diverse and there are more children with additional needs. It makes the job more challenging. The group dynamics among the children are so different."
Linda Grandison and Carrieanne Donoghue trained together at Stevenson College, doing the two-year Higher National Certificate course. Both have been in the infant department at Bonnington Primary for six years.
"We have a heavily focused literacy programme which has had good results," says Miss Grandison. "There may be four or five children who are extracted at any one time to come to us because they need education and behaviour support.
"We don't teach new concepts. We do reinforcement work. And we work on our own as well as supporting in class.
"With regard to the literacy programme, we work on letter signs using phonics, key word recognition, word building and word segmenting - sounding out - and handwriting. And we play literacy or numeracy-based games to develop skills," she says.
"It involves a lot of preparation work," Miss Donoghue points out. "We sometimes have to create our own resources. We have to produce and photocopy worksheets. We do assessments in small groups, spending individual time with children to make sure they understand and do things properly.
"The extra support for them is vital. There's such a wide range of abilities in big classes; it would be unrealistic to ask a teacher to cover them all," she says.
Both Miss Grandison and Miss Donoghue love their jobs and communicate enthusiasm and the excitement and achievement they feel when a pupil starts reading on their own. Their base is festooned with visual materials they have either created or sourced and with the children's work. It is a riot of colour. Their commitment is obvious but neither would be a teacher.
"I wouldn't want all the red tape, all the pressure teachers get. I prefer this," says Miss Grandison.
Both are on temporary contracts, Miss Grandison for five years, Miss Donoghue for four.
"There's no career structure. This is still an early intervention pilot programme," explains Miss Grandison. "We don't feel undervalued by the school but it would be nice to be made permanent.
"Our pay is miserable. I got a mortgage when I used to work in a bank. I can't get a bigger one now; the pay is so low."
Ros Cooper, the P1 teacher at Bonnington Primary, says she could not do without the nursery nurses, as she has a class of 29 pupils. "They help out with reading groups which I just wouldn't be able to get around to and they do so much to help with the curriculum. They are accommodating, creative and help with everything.
"What would life be like without them? I don't want to think. It's challenging enough as it is. It would be much harder. In fact, it would be dreadful," she says.
Ms Thomson agrees. "For me it's all the skills the nursery nurses have that make the day work. They are an essential part of the team in both nursery and infant departments.
"It's about the work they do with the children and the other work: the preparation, liaison, assessment, observation, evaluation, talking with parents, playground supervision.
"The nursery had an excellent report in June 2001 and that was down to the nursery nurses as well as the teaching staff.
"There is so much expectation on them though, because there is so much expectation on nurseries from society, from politicians and parents.
"In the school we know their worth," she says.
The school inspectors highlighted in their report the very good support the nursery staff as a whole provided for the children's emotional, personal and social development and how effectively they interacted to extend the children's learning. They specifically mentioned the very good support provided further up the school "by an early intervention teacher, nursery nurses and classroom assistants".
An important part of the nursery nurse's job is parental liaison, chatting with parents not just on arranged visits but when they pick up or drop off their children.
"With very young children it's important to know what's happening at home, how they've been behaving, how they are feeling, if they're maybe upset about something," says Mrs Foubister.
"It's important to remember that the nursery will often be the parents'
first contact with an education establishment since they themselves left school. If their own school memories are not positive this can be difficult for them, though they may try not to show it.
"From the beginning we have to be welcoming and make sure the nursery is a happy, positive place so that they are happy to leave their children in our care."
Parents often don't distinguish between nursery nurses and teachers, especially at first. Because they often work with small groups or individuals, nursery nurses have an opportunity to get to know the children better than a teacher managing a large class and so they can be important conduits of information.
In Bonnington Primary, the nursery nurses feel valued by parents and teachers and feel supported in the strike action they are taking. Mrs Foubister says: "Staff support us, I know, and I think parents do as well.
All I can say is, we don't do this lightly."
* working to national curriculum for three- to five-year-olds
* early intervention for literacy and numeracy
* working with children with additional needs
* multi-agency work with social work, hospitals and educational psychology
* training in information technology
* more recording of observation, assessment and evaluation
* working to child protection guidelines