Teachers in Scotland's nurseries need a background in early years methodology in order to have the maximum impact on the children in their charge, according to a new study.
In its Making the Difference report, Education Scotland acknowledges that the presence of a registered teacher in a nursery setting does not in itself guarantee the best outcomes for children.
Instead, the best provision is found where a range of professional staff with relevant skills and qualifications - which usually, but not always, includes a teacher - combine their strengths to support and develop children's learning.
This is just one of a number of findings set out in the recently-published report, which highlights significant differences in the quantity and quality of children's access to a registered teacher across Scotland's local authorities.
Inspectors found a varied interpretation of what "access to a teacher" meant, and a lack of clarity regarding how much actual time teachers were spending in pre-five settings and what they were doing when they were there.
Between August 2010 and June 2012, Education Scotland gathered evidence from 336 establishments across the whole range of pre-five provision.
It focused in particular on the impact of registered teachers and those with the BA Childhood Practice Award - the sector's two "top-level" qualifications.
Inspectors found that "when teachers had additional early years experience and could implement early years methodology, this was the most beneficial use of a teacher's skills and had an impact on quality of provision. However, where establishments had access to a teacher but the individual had little or no specific early years experience, their impact was limited".
Such a conclusion would seem to support those who claim that the impact of senior nursery staff should not be categorised simply according to their particular qualification, as has been the case in the past, but also their training and experience.
The BA Childhood Practice Award is, they say, every bit as effective as a teaching qualification - if not more so - because the course is geared specifically to the pre-five sector.
Carol Ball, education spokeswoman for the public service union Unison, said: "Child development officers plan and provide for the curriculum and educate children in nurseries to the same level as qualified teachers and, in some cases, our qualifications are more appropriate."
Statistics within the report on the impact (or otherwise) of nurseries having a GTCS-registered teacher or staff with a BA Childhood Practice Award make interesting reading.
The inspectors first stressed that "having a teacher" was not necessarily as simple as it sounded, and that there was no data which showed the actual time a teacher spent in an establishment.
They went on to look at the percentage of the pre-school centres they inspected that achieved positive evaluations across all five quality indicators. Across all sectors (local authority, private and voluntary), the five positive criteria were met in 86.6 per cent of establishments.
If this is narrowed down to those with a registered teacher, the figure falls to 85 per cent. If it is adjusted to cover those with BA-qualified staff, it rises to 92.3 per cent.
The report also found that some headteachers who had overall management responsibility for nursery classes "had little or no previous experience of managing pre-school education or leading staff in early years methodology".
Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS, accepts that the best outcomes for children are likely to be achieved not just by any teacher, but rather by teachers with appropriate backgrounds.
"It's obviously beneficial if teachers who want to work in pre-five have specialist knowledge of that sector. I don't have a difficulty in recognising that, and if there's a training need in individual cases, then that should be addressed," he said.
"However, although I recognise that other staff are well qualified and bring their own skills sets, I don't accept that people with other early- years qualifications can fulfil the role of a teacher. No one would dream of suggesting teachers could be substituted with other childcare workers in later years, so why do they think it's acceptable in nurseries?
"There is no substitute for children in the pre-five sector having meaningful access to a teacher. The early phase of Curriculum for Excellence runs from the age of three to the end of P1, with the clear aim of providing an educational continuum from pre-five through to the end of secondary. So any child who does not have the benefit of a teacher's input in the very first years is at a distinct disadvantage," he added.
Education Scotland found that the best early years provision demonstrated a blend and balance of skills and qualifications.
This view is supported by Professor Aline-Wendy Dunlop of the University of Strathclyde's school of education. "The central point is about having a workforce that is `fit for purpose'," she said.
"The report shows, as far as the evidence goes, that the focus on specialists in early years is positive; that a high level of practitionerprofessional education is important; and that graduates from the new BA courses are knowledgeable about leadership and about children's learning. It suggests that the workforce most fit for purpose should be a combination of BA graduates and early years specialist teachers."
However, Education Scotland stresses that although having teachers involved in the pre-five sector generally improves the outcomes for children, there is significant variation between councils regarding how the concept of "access to a teacher" is interpreted.
Moreover, the impact of teacher access - or lack of it - in pre-school centres is rarely formally evaluated by councils.
The EIS claims the concept of access to a teacher has now become "virtually meaningless".
"What started as an attempt to ensure additional teacher support to the nursery sector has, in practice, been used by many authorities as a means of reducing teacher input," Mr Flanagan said.
"We're now at the stage where the principle is so diluted that there seems to be little or no information available on the actual time teachers spend in nurseries across the country, and the value they are adding while they're there. Access to a teacher should mean real contact between children and teachers."
The union is campaigning for the Scottish government to introduce national, enforceable standards on teacher access. The government itself, however, seems adamant that the current set-up provides a solid foundation from which to move forward.
"Teachers are important in ensuring high-quality early learning and childcare, particularly those with a specialist background in the early years," a spokesman said.
"In addition, all early years managers are now required to hold or be working towards the BA Childhood Practice Award. The report notes the positive impact of this measure and we will continue to monitor this closely."
The Scottish government, he added, has invested pound;330,000 in developing specialist early years teaching qualifications for primary teachers at Stirling, Strathclyde and Aberdeen universities.
"It will also be extremely important to maintain teacher numbers, given the increasing early years population and our ambitious plans for expanding early learning and childcare," he said.
"The report is clear that peripatetic models provide important flexibility, customised teacher input and are highly effective where they give teachers the opportunity to impact on learning."
The good news is that - according to the inspectors - "there has never been a time where the early years sector has had so much invested in its potential".
But they add: "The range and different qualifications of staff are complex and at times difficult to unravel.
"What we can say with certainty is that the unique mix of staff and settings make a rich tapestry in which young children learn and develop."
The government's Early Years Taskforce sub-group on early learning and childcare, chaired by Stirling Council's early years service manager Lesley Gibb, who also chairs the ADES early years sub-group, will now consider the Making the Difference report with a focus on how best to continue to increase early years skills among all pre-school staff
CASE STUDY: FROM ABCS TO BAS
Fiona Crawley is the head of Drumchapel Family Learning Centre in Glasgow.
There are currently 75 children at the nursery. It can accommodate up to eight babies, 17 in its 2-3 room and 31 in its 3-5 room.
Mrs Crawley was one of the city's first cohort to achieve her BA Childhood Practice award, graduating in 2010. Her depute hopes to do it next year, as does one of the centre's two team leaders.
Of the 16 child development officers employed there, one already has a degree. Others may well follow over the next few years.
There is no full-time teacher on the staff at Drumchapel Family Learning Centre. Instead, Mrs Crawley receives support from a peripatetic teacher. She will visit the centre for one morning each week over the next four weeks and will be looking - with Mrs Crawley and her team - at literacy and phonological awareness.
"It's a supporting role. We are always looking for ways we can improve our children's skills and opportunities, and the teacher helps us in terms of how best to achieve that," Mrs Crawley said.
"During her visits, she will come and work on the floor with the staff and children to ensure that everyone benefits from her input first-hand."
The centre employs a range of staff, from a family support worker who runs the EPOD (Early Parent Open Door) scheme, to a nursery nurse with specific training who works solely with children on the autistic spectrum.
It also has a nurture corner, which is open both mornings and afternoons, offering support for three- to five-year-olds with emotional andor social needs.
"There's a lot going on here, and it's vital that we get it right for our children," said Mrs Crawley. "I believe that the range of training, skills and experience of our own staff - coupled with the support of the visiting teacher - gives us the foundation we need to ensure the children in our care can reach their full potential."
EIS VERSUS GCC: A HEAVYWEIGHT LEGAL BATTLE COMMENCES
In one corner stands the country's largest education authority. In the other is its largest teaching union.
The Educational Institute of Scotland raised a legal challenge to Glasgow City Council (GCC) in the spring, when the council widened the eligibility criteria for heads of nursery to include those with a BA Childhood Practice Award.
This paved the way, the EIS said, for some nurseries to have no registered teachers, which it said would contravene teaching regulations.
However, the union lost its initial challenge when Lord Brodie in the Court of Session ruled that the Scottish government's access to a teacher policy was a matter for the discretion of each local authority.
The decision prompted the EIS to label the policy "no more than a presentational fig leaf" that legitimised a "postcode lottery of provision". It subsequently lodged an appeal.
Whenever this protracted battle is finally over, there will be nothing superficial about the loser's wounds - and not just in financial terms. There will be significant damage to some core principles as well.
Glasgow City Council believes it is a matter for each education authority to decide how best to employ its teachers. Scottish government guidance, it insists, supports this stance - a claim Lord Brodie upheld.
"The EIS challenged us on six separate points, and their challenge was rejected on all six," a council spokeswoman said.
"That seems to send a pretty clear message. There is no legal requirement to employ a teacher in every nursery.
"We will, of course, continue to ensure that teachers play a key role in improving educational experiences for children in early years provision across the city," she added.
The EIS argues that an establishment should not be called a "school" if it employs no registered teachers.
General secretary Larry Flanagan said the union believed Lord Brodie had misrepresented its position.
"We did not say a head of centre had to be a teacher - in fact, we would rather the teacher was working directly with the children," he added. "We want the Scottish government to recognise that the lack of any legally enforceable standards on access to a teacher is unworkable. It has created a loophole which various councils are using to the detriment of the young people they're responsible for educating.
"There's clearly a huge cost involved in taking this case to appeal. However, not to do so would be to surrender too much ground on an issue lying at the heart of early years education."
The appeal is due to be heard in May.
VARIATIONS IN ACCESS TO A REGISTERED TEACHER
The 2012 annual school census, published earlier this week, seems to support the EIS's claim that Scotland's pre-school children are subject to a "postcode lottery" regarding access to a teacher.
Education secretary Michael Russell this week described some pre-school provision as "spectacularly good" and urged authorities to emulate the best performers.
"But when we have a local system of education policy, priorities are set locally and some will regard this as not such a big priority as others. That has to be questioned locally by the people they represent," he said.
The government had used legislation successfully to set a maximum class size of 25 pupils for P1, he said.
It was now considering extending that to P2 and P3 as well as defining more exactly what "access" to a teacher in pre-school should mean, he told TESS.
West Lothian is one of three council areas claiming to offer 100 per cent of its pre-school children access to a teacher. Yet the second lowest (after the Western Isles) is Stirling at 34.5 per cent, just 30 miles along the M9.
However, with no definition of what "access" should amount to, different councils can embrace very different models. The statistics give no hint of such variations, or their consequences.
In addition, councils can make significant changes to the ways in which their nursery teachers work without it necessarily affecting their "access" statistics. Some fear the lack of a national standard makes any remaining full-time, hands-on teacher input an easy target in the next round of budget cuts.
North Lanarkshire Council, which employs 70 early years teachers, is already considering an option to remove them in its next budget settlement.
Others have been replacing nursery teachers with other staff when the opportunity arises naturally, and handing the teaching input either to an already-existing member of primary staff or a peripatetic team. Either way, the "access" is neither full-time nor direct.
In Glasgow, which had 109 centre-based nursery teachers at the September census, a nursery without a registered teacher could potentially have no direct, on-site teaching input in any given week. A 19-strong peripatetic team (called leaders of early learning) works across the city with timetables tailored - in consultation with nursery heads and others - according to the quality of provision at individual nurseries and agreed improvement priorities.
The 2012 census also includes the numbers of nursery teachers and children in each local authority counted in September. West Lothian and Renfrewshire, for instance, had similar numbers of three- and four-year- olds - 3.744 and 3,619 respectively. West Lothian, however, had more than four times the number of teachers (96 compared with 17), a factor that may at least partly account for the difference in the proportion of children with teacher access (100 per cent and 69.9 per cent respectively).
Again, though, there are anomalies. West Dunbartonshire had just eight teachers for 1,826 children (one teacher per 225 youngsters), and neighbouring North Ayrshire had 36 teachers for 2,726 children (one teacher for every 76 children). Yet West Dunbartonshire claims to offer access to a teacher to 82.5 per cent of children compared to North Ayrshire's 64.7 per cent.
Percentage of children in pre-school centres with access to registered teachers under a regular arrangement or with ad hoc support from external teachers (September 2012)
Aberdeen City 69.7
Argyll and Bute 100.0
Dumfries and Galloway 76.9
Dundee City 77.2
East Ayrshire 100.0
East Dunbartonshire 97.5
East Lothian 85.9
East Renfrewshire 89.3
Edinburgh City 75.2
Eilean Siar 19.7
Glasgow City 60.3
North Ayrshire 64.7
North Lanarkshire 58.3
Orkney Islands 90.0
Perth and Kinross 92.0
Scottish Borders 69.2
Shetland Islands 83.4
South Ayrshire 96.4
South Lanarkshire 76.6
West Dunbartonshire 82.5
West Lothian 100.0
Source: Scottish government.
Original headline: Report on early years qualifications may cause shock