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Teachers are at the heart of early learning

The contribution of the profession to the pre-school setting is unique, distinctive and desirable, says Norma Watson.

HE Scottish Executive's guidance on the involvement of teachers in pre-school education was accompanied by a statement from Cathy Jamieson, the Education Minister, in which she said that the role of teachers would not be diminished. They would "continue to make a positive and flexible contribution to the quality of children's experience of pre-school education".

This is a welcome commitment which should help to reassure nursery teachers and parents. They know that teachers make a difference and provide a service which is value for money. Teachers, the guidance acknowledges, make distinctive contributions to children's learning, adults' relations with children and the management of learning within early years centres.

Given that the guidance emphasises staff costs as the major factor in the viability of "centres", it may be cold comfort to teachers and parents. Yet HMI has reported that "while very good practice is found in all types of provision, a higher proportion of local authority nursery schools and classes perform consistently well or very well than do private day nurseries or voluntary playgroups".

If we look south of the border, a major project has reported on a relationship between the qualifications of the head and quality scores. Even more important, however, in the discussions in Scotland about whether research has shown that trained teachers are indeed different, is the fact that the study has reported confidentially to Whitehall on the positive benefit of children being enrolled in centres which are led by trained teachers.

This benefit is seen in children's tested outcomes which include literacy, numeracy and also social and emotional behaviour. This data provides evidence that trained teachers have a critical and different contribution to make from that made by staff with other forms of training.

So what is it that teachers do which is unique, distinctive and desirable?

* Management and delivery of the curriculum: the guidance tells us that "their skills are used to cultivate and support the disposition to learn. They design learning opportunities that respond to the needs and aptitudes of individual children, in observing and assessing the child's reactions, and the planning on a daily, weekly, yearly basis for the child's further discoveries about himherself and the world."

The planning framework which is set to ensure a broad range of learning opportunities is carefully evaluated and monitored. In essence, teachers "create a rich and stimulating environment where the child's social, physical, emotional and intellectual self can grow".

* Assessment and transition: teachers test and justify the techniques used to observe, assess and record children's progress, aptitudes and needs. The focus on the dynamic of learning - the progression from pre-school to primary 1 - is distinctive to the professional education of teachers. "Not only are they trained and qualified to teach in nursery settings, they are also qualified to teach in primary schools."

* Development of principles and practice: a key part of teacher training is to challenge and develop principles and practice. Teachers can thus provide staff with "new perspectives on their own practice, offer fresh insights into certain practice which is effective and stimulate critical self-evaluation".

* Supervision of students and probationer teachers: the General Teaching Council for Scotland requires qualified and registered teachers to supervise student and probationer teachers. This impacts on all primary teacher trainees - given that they are now required to incorporate a nursery place-ment into their course of training in order to acquire their teaching qualification.

It is essential that teachers remain at the heart of nursery schools and classes, not only as guarantors of quality for the children but also to contribute to the education and training of future generations of teachers. That should be the starting point for all providers of pre-school education when they sit down to consider the guidelines.

Norma Watson is education vice-convener of the Educational Institute of Scotland and head of Kirkhill nursery in Broxburn, West Lothian.

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