Greg Dempsteris general secretary of the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland
In the run-up to the Scottish elections, it is reassuring to hear the major political parties talking about the importance of early years education. So this is an opportunity to put some interesting research back into the spotlight and to call for politicians to make firm commitments to invest in the enhancement of nursery education.
This means investment to ensure that as many children as possible have access to high-quality nursery education, which involves qualified heads and teachers.
I recognise there is sensitivity about making such statements as some will choose to argue that, by suggesting there is a need for classroom teachers in nurseries, I am demeaning or undervaluing the role of others in the nursery sector. I am not.
The Effective Pre-school and Primary Education project is significant longitudinal research commissioned by the Department of Education and Skills in London to investigate the effects of pre-school education on intellectual and socialbehavioural development. The researchers have followed the progress of 3,000 children since 1997 and reached these conclusions:
* EPPE is the first large-scale multi-level modelling study to show convincingly that individual pre-school centres have lasting effects on children's development.
* Integrated centres and nursery schools tend to promote better intellectual outcomes for children.
* The most highly qualified staff provided the most direct teaching and were the most effective in their interactions with children, using the most sustained shared thinking.
* EPPE shows that one in three children were "at risk" of developing learning difficulties at the start of pre-school, (which) fell to one in five by the time they started school. This suggests that pre-school can be an effective intervention for the reduction of special educational needs, especially for the most disadvantaged and vulnerable.
* While not eliminating disadvantage, pre-school can help ameliorate the effects of social disadvantage and can provide children with a better start to school.
* There is evidence of a continuing positive effect of attending higher quality or more effective pre-school settings on children's subsequent outcomes in mathematics and reading at the end of Year 5 (age 10), once the influence of background factors has been taken into account.
The fact the research highlights that high-quality nursery education has a sustained impact on children's progress and that it can play a significant part in tackling social disadvantage provides two clear pointers for politicians and policy makers.
The first is that efforts and resources to tackle the Neet (not in education, employment or training) problem could yield positive results if focused on early years rather than on those who are about to fall into the group. The second is that there needs to be a strong policy steer in favour of high-quality pre-school provision which, as the research suggests, means a commitment to increased numbers of teachers in nurseries.