The nursery voucher scheme has revived debate over appropriate qualifications, reports Linda Blackburne Nursery workers' qualifications will be hotly debated by MPs and political activists over the coming weeks as the conference season gets under way.
The debate about whether all under-fives should be taught by a qualified teacher has been revived by the Government's nursery voucher scheme.
This will give parents of all four-year-olds a Pounds 1,100 voucher to spend at a nursery or playgroup of their choice in 1997, but the Department for Education and Employment has stipulated that only those with a high-quality curriculum will be eligible for the money.
On Monday, the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority will launch its long-awaited under-fives' curriculum, and early-years workers nationwide will find out whether their curricula meet Government standards.
SCAA has a difficult task trying to please everyone, for high standards inevitably have implications for qualifications, and the Government will be anxious to placate the Pre-school Learning Alliance.
The PLA, which has 20,000 playgroups nationwide, runs an accreditation scheme for its members and puts training at the top of its agenda. However, few of its playgroups have qualified teachers, and it believes strongly in parents playing an important role. The Liberal Democrats also believe in parent power, but many of their members, including education spokesman Don Foster, want qualified graduate teachers in early years as well as in the primary and secondary sectors.
The Liberal Democrats will debate the quality of early-years education at their autumn conference. One motion calls for a guarantee that "any group of under-fives will have an appropriately qualified staff and be led by a graduate from an appropriate degree-level course or equivalent". Appropriately qualified staff means a nursery assistant with a National Nursery Examination Board or Business and Technology Education Council qualification, or an NVQ level 3.
Don Foster, however, said: "There are those in the party (not me) who would prefer to fight shy of the word graduate, believing there are other forms of experience."
Margaret Hodge, Labour's early-years spokeswoman, said her party wanted skills from both the care and education sectors recognised. There should be a "climbing frame" of modular qualifications to lead to more multi-skilled workers and teams, and better provision.
Early-years academics favour graduate teachers. Kathy Sylva, professor of child development and primary education at the London Institute of Education, and deputy director of the influential "Start Right" project on early learning, would like to see at least one professionally trained member of staff in all under-fives groups.
In many cases that person would be trained as a teacher, but he or she might also be an experienced social worker. Dennis Reed, director of the Local Government Information Unit and a former national negotiator for Unison, the union which many nursery nurses and social workers belong to, believes care and social work skills are under-valued in early-years groups. He said: "There is far too much emphasis on automatically assuming that even if care is included in the under-fives setting, somehow or other it should always be a qualified teacher who is in charge."
But for many early-years experts, the Government's enthusiasm for a high quality curriculum conflicts with its recent record on training. Government funding for early-years in-service training has been stopped, and following the "Mum's Army" debacle, in which ministers unsuccessfully tried to make the teaching of young children a non-graduate profession, they are now debating cutting the four-year Bachelor of Education degree for primary teachers to three years.
The status of early-years workers is important to Geva Blenkin, senior lecturer in early childhood education at Goldsmiths' College, London. "If we lose the leadership of the graduate profession, and only teachers have that, it will inevitably downgrade everybody," she said.
At Manchester Metropolitan University, the early-years department offers a "climbing frame" of qualifications ranging from national vocational qualifications to one of the first multi-professional early-years degrees - the BA honours degree in early childhood studies, which is open to anyone working with young children.
Lesley Abbott, principal lecturer in early years at Manchester Metropolitan and a supporter of graduate teacher status for young children's education, fears the Office for Standards in Education has created a loophole for downgrading under-fives' workers. OFSTED has redefined "early years" as three to five, instead of three to seven or three to eight years.
Ms Abbott fears the change makes it easier for the Government to hive off the non-statutory under-fives sector, and for the Teacher Training Agency to wriggle out of training early-years workers.