The most significant thing about the speech by Elizabeth Maginnis to the annual conference of the Scottish Independent Nurseries' Association last Friday is that the education authorities' chief spokesperson was present at all (page five). It is clear that the Government's favourite theme of partnership is yet to be fully cemented in the relationship between the public and private sector. But Mrs Maginnis's appearance was at least a sign that the drawbridges are down. It is now up to both sides whether and in what fashion they cross over.
Mrs Maginnis and her colleagues are clearly on probation as far as most of the delegates were concerned. The private sector remains suspicious of the new pre-school partnership into which they evidently believe the local authorities have been forced because there is no other way the Government's immediate aim of universal coverage for four-year-olds can be realised.
To some extent, as Mrs Maginnis confirmed, the authorities have a good conceit of themselves. While she nodded in the direction of the private sector's quality provision, her remarks about Edinburgh's plans were taken to imply that parents opted for private nurseries because they catered for an extended day and an extended age range rather than because they offered a quality service. This infuriated SINA leaders. But Mrs Maginnis also boosted SINA's role as the watchdogs of quality and made clear that their endorsement of any private nursery would be good enough for the local authorities. It was a significantly healthier olive branch, from the private sector's point of view, compared with the remarks a few weeks ago by Bob McKay, a past president of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, who suggested it was the authorities which were best placed to benchmark quality as they did in the rest of the school system.
SINA's move to call in Glasgow University to act as a guarantor of quality must now be seen in retrospect as a smart step. As Eric Wilkinson, who has devised the standards manual for the sector, writes on this page, the exercise has revealed plenty of weaknesses but it has encouraged the private nurseries to engage in an active process of self-improvement and self-evaluation. Now where have we heard that before? That suggests, along with Mrs Maginnis's promise of a "benevolent partnership", that the gibe of nursery "cowboys" is an old slogan not worthy of New Labour.
Partnership, as everybody who talks about it never tires of reminding us, is the difficult not the soft option. The relationship between the public and private - and indeed voluntary - sectors of pre-school education will undoubtedly confirm this truth. On the evidence of last Friday, two of the partners at least are edging closer together. But they remain distinctly edgy. While the axing of the voucher system may have taken away the more aggressively competitive edge, the formation of the new pre-five parents' group reminds us that the market has not gone away.