The Scottish government's key pledge to maintain teacher numbers is discouraging councils from employing teachers in the early years, the head of schools in West Lothian has claimed.
Jim Cameron warned that the way numbers were monitored - by the total number of teachers working in an authority and the pupil-teacher ratio - was acting as a "disincentive" to employ teachers in nurseries because they were not counted in the pupil-teacher ratio.
Mr Cameron made his comments at a recent event on raising attainment hosted by local authorities' body Cosla. "What incentive is there for a local authority to invest in high-quality teacher input into the early years if these teachers are not counted in the pupil-teacher ratio?" he asked.
Terry Lanagan, director of education in West Dunbartonshire, agreed, telling TESS: "There could be a perverse incentive to take teachers out of nursery and put them in primary to maintain the ratio." However, he added that his authority had no plans to do so.
Greg Dempster, general secretary of AHDS, which represents nursery and primary school leaders, warned that the structural issue "flies entirely in the face" of the government's promise to give every child access to a nursery teacher. "This would suggest local authorities are not employing nursery teachers to meet these targets," he said. "Rather, they are moving them into primary. The government made a clear policy statement about access to a nursery teacher and it needs to stick to it."
Early years expert Iram Siraj, who carried out a recent review of Scotland's early years workforce, called on the Scottish government to introduce another measure to ensure that councils maintained teacher numbers in the early years. Professor Siraj, of the UCL Institute of Education, said: "It seems to me that the early years gets left out of a lot of things. At some stage people have to wake up to the fact that this sector is as important as any other and you cannot deny children their right to early learning and care, not just early care."
Professor Siraj led the EPPEEPPSE project, the first major study in the UK to focus specifically on the effectiveness of early years education, for 17 years. It found that early years settings with a good proportion of trained teachers tended to be of higher quality and children made more progress.
"Even one year of quality preschool lasts until the age of 16," she said. "There's a cyclical advantage to doing this; I really don't understand why people don't get this."
John Stodter, general secretary of education directors' body ADES, said: "We have never supported the idea that teacher numbers are an appropriate indicator of quality of education. There is a contradiction between local management and then saying, `Here is how you are going to staff your institutions'."
Education chiefs made decisions about early years teachers based on budgets and what they were trying to deliver, not teacher number targets, he insisted.
However, Mr Stodter admitted that education directors were "under pressure", adding: "Some directors, although they are committed to maintaining teacher numbers, can't get the staff to fill positions. Even where traditionally there have been plenty of staff available, councils are finding it very, very difficult to maintain the numbers."
A spokeswoman said the Scottish government was committed to ensuring that all three- and four-year-olds had access to a teacher. Early years teachers were included in the overall teacher numbers that councils had to maintain, she added.
However, she said the government was considering whether more needed to be done after Professor Siraj's review had highlighted the important contribution of early years teachers.