Brian Wilson has given local authorities a lead role in co-ordinating and delivering pre-five services, but while the Education Minister's statement is to be welcomed it is weaker in many respects than that issued by Labour last December.
Although the statement, in dismantling the much criticised voucher scheme, encourages partnership and collaboration between the local authority sector, the voluntary sector and the private sector (the "mixed economy"), it falls short of specifying how. Effective partnership between different agencies is notoriously difficult to establish and maintain. Exactly how councils will use their new powers will no doubt vary considerably from authority to authority. Not unexpectedly, both the voluntary and private sectors are very concerned about their future roles.
The Scottish Independent Nurseries' Association has set in place an elaborate quality assurance scheme that requires its members to demonstrate that certain standards are being met. The association consists of 126 nurseries providing a range of services for approximately 3.5 per cent of the 0-5 age range in Scotland. Fees vary considerably with some parents paying upwards of Pounds 100 per week. Set up in 1993 to promote the care and education of young children with working parents, SINA is a dynamic and energetic association anxious to play its part in providing a comprehensive pre-five service in Scotland. One of the first tasks of the association was to commission a quality assurance scheme from the Department of Education in the University of Glasgow.
As a condition of membership of the association, all nurseries are required to submit for external scrutiny by the Glasgow University team their description of practice and the supporting evidence. To validate the process, 12 randomly selected nurseries were visited by the scrutiny team to ascertain the relationship between the material submitted and the day-to-day reality of nursery practice. It was made abundantly clear that the visits were in no sense an "inspection". In all cases it was found that rhetoric and reality were well matched.
Of the original 126 nurseries participating in the scheme, 64 submitted in the first round and a further 20 in the second. Some nurseries were of exceptionally high standard while others were in the process of upgrading their practice. The nurseries that were deemed to be below the threshold were given encouragement to address their weaknesses and make a resubmission of their evidence. No nursery has yet appealed against the judgment of the scrutiny team.
Nearly all the nurseries provide a stimulating and caring environment for babies and young children; all nurseries communicate effectively with parents; most have a curricular framework in place; most have an assessment and record-keeping policy; many nurseries employed a range of staff including teachers and nursery nurses; many have a staff appraisal scheme and staff development opportunities; some have a very effective equal opportunities policy; some nurseries have an after-school facility.
However, with one exception, all the association's nurseries were lacking a modern, systematic approach to their planning and co-ordination of children's learning activities. All the nurseries were advised to put in place a clear and visible relationship between the nursery's aims, the curricular areas, the learning outcomes, the learning activities and the record-keeping practices. A questionnaire raised new ideas and gave them the opportunity to verify the quality of their services despite the length of time required to complete the submission.
The next phase of the scheme is now being planned. "Quality" is a dynamic concept that requires constant updating and review. With the exception of one or two, all SINA nurseries are of the view that the scheme should continue, that on-site visits to all nurseries are desirable and that an external agency such as Glasgow University should be involved.
The private sector should be taken seriously by the local authorities and not dismissed on misguided ideological grounds. The association's nurseries provide a much needed service that is unique in many respects and quite different from that provided either by the local authorities or the voluntary sector.
It is essential that local authorities with their new powers give SINA a place at the negotiating table.
Eric Wilkinson is head of the Department of Education at Glasgow University.