Early years quality demands new roles

30th June 2006 at 01:00
Expanded nursery provision need not always depend on teachers alone for excellence, argue Peter Lee and Jackie Henry

arlier this month, the parliamentary education committee published the findings from its early years inquiry. Among the many truths, insights, distortions and contradictions in this report, the biggest concern is surely that there is nothing innovative, challenging or exciting for the future professionalisation of the service.

One of the major conclusions was an unanswered question on the most beneficial mix of qualifications, staff, skills, roles and remits. Among the confusing plethora of staff titles and conditions of service within the sector, there was special mention of the need to value the role of teachers. This was placed alongside the judgment that teacher involvement equates with quality provision and, the corollary, that without teacher involvement there is no quality.

In the single statement, "We therefore view with unease moves by local authorities to remove qualified teachers from their nurseries", the committee managed to kill off, however inadvertently, any opportunity for radicalisation and harmonisation of the staffing terms and conditions of service of all early-years staff.

The danger of looking backwards to design future provision is twofold. The first is the continued inflammation of the old debates on whether education or care is more appropriate; whether a school effectiveness model or support for families model is more suitable; whether nursery schools or child and family centres are more efficient; and whether a teacher or other professional is more effective.

The second danger is that, in the MSPs' report, there appears to be no possibility of developing stimulating, high-quality provision in a single-tier, professionally-oriented Scottish service for all children.

There is no doubt that all teaching staff in nursery classes and schools welcomed the continuation of the linkages with colleagues in the primary sector, as reinforced by the 2001 teachers' agreement. However, that agreement did not give thought to early years as a sector which required consideration on its own merits.

In the same year, 2001, the Scottish Executive's excellent children's strategy drove early childhood education and care to the pinnacle of local authority policy priorities.

This came amid the push to implement the equally excellent For Scotland's Children proposals for a single-tier, one-stop approach. These initiatives aimed to link health, education and social services to assist our most vulnerable people. A complementary drive to increase workplace standards and quality of service in the early years also took place.

The nursery teacher today may be only one of a range of early-years professionals in a school and, as is the case in some centres, may not be the main professional leading the drive for quality improvement.

If involving a teacher ensures a level of quality, the absence of a teacher does not necessarily mean quality will be diminished. To declare otherwise is an insult to the many dedicated non-teachers who are the majority of staff in the early-years sector. A combination of these two streams of professional delivery of the service is surely the future.

But at present, early-years teachers have been guaranteed a new set of conditions of services, coupled to a commensurate salary agreement, ongoing staff development opportunities and access to national negotiation bodies.

All other staff, to quote the Beastie Boys, have continually "to fight for their right to party".

Is it time to look at a new professional in early years? A professional who can meet the needs of children and the demands of society? In a profession where pedagogy is central but where the wider experiences of children and their families are also recognised?

Whatever that new professional in early childhood is - social pedagogue, child development officer or early-years worker - he or she will continue to seek to provide a high-quality service.

Raising the number of children under three who have nursery places surely calls for highly-qualified professionals who have a firm knowledge of how these young children develop and learn and how staff can best support them.

They must also have a good understanding of the social realities of children's lives and work closely with other professionals.

Some sacred cows may need to be slaughtered, however, including: * why should teachers have 22.5 hours per week contact time in early-years establishments if this is denied to others who also help to deliver the curriculum?

* why should nursery classes and schools close for 12-14 weeks of the year in a social climate where parents of young children are encouraged to return to work?

* why is there not a discrete, full-time undergraduate programme for early- years staff, linked to the vocational programmes?

* is 16 a suitable age to start working with children and families?

* what should be the minimum qualification for those who take responsibility for caring for our youngest children?

* how can we provide a service which links children's emotional well-being and support for vulnerable families, provides the foundation for healthy growth and development, promotes positive behaviour and acknowledges that children will grow up to be pupils in schools before they become adults?

When politicians begin to ask fundamental questions, and are clear in the vision for early years, then the time for new contracts, new conditions of service and new responsibilities will have arrived.

Peter Lee is director of the childhood and families research and development centre at Strathclyde University and Jackie Henry, a former early years HMIE, is a lecturer in the childhood and primary studies department.

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