Nurseries without teachers

10th February 2006 at 00:00
Should expensively trained and highly qualified teachers work in nurseries? (page five). Many local authorities and, it seems, the Scottish Executive believe they should not. Their abilities appear to be better suited to formal schooling where there is a struggle to recruit enough staff to meet ambitious targets. But that line is not often publicly aired.

As with almost every aspect of the early years, if you were starting again you would not start from where we are at, with horrendously fragmented and piecemeal pre-school provision characterised by low pay, low qualifications and low status. It is treated as essentially a woman's job, and women attract low pay. Teachers rise above that, of course.

Over the past nine years, Labour has successfully introduced part-time nursery education, first for four-year-olds and now three-year-olds. On top of that, initiatives such as SureStart have been introduced to support families in most need. As the inspectors report, universal provision is mostly of high quality, especially in local authorities which have traditionally employed teachers. This is progress.

But the picture is more complex now. As Professor Kathy Sylva of Oxford University, the leading UK researcher, told a Scottish conference two years ago, you get what you pay for with pre-five staff. And that's the rub.

Spending is shortly to be trimmed and councils are prioritising to meet Government targets. Many teachers will be switched to the formal sector.

Is this right? You might argue it makes economic sense, but does it make educational sense and can you divorce the two? You can pick your evidence to suit your argument and there is plenty of it. But step back. Where do we want to get to in, say, 10 years? Ideally, we should be moving to the Scandinavian system of offering full care and education, blended together on a single site and supported by a new breed of highly trained paraprofessionals. In Denmark, for example, it takes four years to train staff to work with children.

That is the admittedly expensive model we should work towards, and authorities have it in their sights. The nursery teachers' dispute, so far confined to Glasgow, may be a last hurrah.

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