The same, but different

27th July 2007 at 01:00
Do nursery nurses do exactly the same work as early years teachers? Are they as well qualified and do they take on as much responsibility? If that is the case, it should be reflected in their pay and conditions. Illustration by James Fryer

Carol Ball

is convener of Unison Scotland's education issues group and childcare development worker with Glasgow City Council

Walk into a nursery class anywhere in Scotland. If there are two members of staff a nursery teacher and a fully-qualified early years worker try and spot any difference in what they do. If you are talking to heads of early years facilities, see if you can insert the thickness of a sheet of paper between the jobs that they do and the responsibilities that they carry.

The only way to tell who is the "teacher" and who is the "worker" is to look at their pay and conditions. The early years worker will be paid substantially less and their conditions will not be as good.

Nursery nurses are early years professionals. Their qualification covers working with children from nought to eight years. It includes theory and principles of children as active learners and child development (physical, emotional and social). Many also embark on further qualifications a BA in early childhood studies or the SVQ Level 4. All are involved in continuing professional development.

As trade unionists, we have campaigned for proper recognition for women in the workplace, particularly where occupations dominated by women workers have been historically undervalued. The Edu-cational Institute of Scotland now seeks to dismiss early years workers, one of those occupations, instead of recognising their crucial role.

Essentially, the EIS argues that legislation should dictate that all children must have access to a qualified teacher. Unison cannot accept that competent, qualified, experienced staff who deliver education should be sidelined to pander to a teacher's "status". After all, the relevance of the early years workers' qualification to nursery education outstrips that of teachers.

Independent research carried out by Unison and published in 2005 confirmed this, noting: "Teachers and nursery nurses work to the same set of national regulations, including national curricula, and care standards... While teaching requires higher entry qualifications, teachers (unlike nursery nurses) receive little specific training in relation to pre-5 children... They only do a short endorsement course to work in nurseries... in sharp distinction to nursery nurses who do a two-year training with children in these age groups."

Ironically, the skills, commitment and experience of early years workers have recently been recognised following a lengthy Scottish Executive review. New career pathways will ensure a range of new professional opportunities with plans to drive up standards, streamline qualifications and raise the status of those in the sector.

The executive last year announced plans for a new early years professional qualified to degree level or a work-based equivalent. All facilities will be led by someone with that level of qualification, not necessarily a teacher.

The research carried out for Unison concluded: "There is a strong indication from the range of knowledge, skills and attitudes reported by nursery nurses in this study, that many of these workers are already delivering a professional education and care service." The research also backed our call for a national pay structure, unfortunately rejected by the executive.

Unison and the Scottish Trades Union Congress want to see comprehensive, fully-funded and universal full-time pre-school education covering children from birth to school age with publicly-funded centres, staffed by appropriately trained professionals.

The EIS, however, does not live in the real world. It is not comparing like with like to contrast a school setting with the range of different early years experiences that society now expects to be available for children.

Nursery nurses are fully-qualified early years professionals whose job requires professional discussion and reflection, based on a shared vision of their aims for children. Their role and responsibilities are set by the 3-18 curriculum, the Child at the Centre guidance and the National Care Standards. They are inspected, registered and regulated on the basis of these professional criteria just like teachers.

We need an integrated service disposing of the illusion that those who provide education for early years children don't care, and those who care don't educate. This is a fallacy. It is impossible to do one without the other.

Norma Anne Watson is a former nursery headteacher and was convener of the General Teaching Council for Scotland

Today, nursery education is under threat. Already some councils have redeployed nursery teachers into the primary sector, thus reducing the commitment to quality education in their area.

HM Inspectorate of Education reports point to evidence which indicates that, while very good practice is found in all types of provision, a higher proportion of local authority nursery schools and classes perform consistently well or very well across all the criteria used by HMIE.

If we look south of the border, the first major study in the UK to focus specifically on the effectiveness of early years education was carried out in 1994 by a team from the Institute of Education and Birkbeck College at the University of London .

The effective provision of pre-school education (EPPE) project revealed that pre-school experience compared with none enhances all-round development in children, and that relationships exist between the qualifications of the head and quality scores. For every single quality outcome, a relationship was found between managers and leaders of early childhood settings who had Level 5 qualifications and significantly high levels of provision.

The guidance on Involvement of Teachers in Pre-school Education was launched by Cathy Jamieson, then education minister, in January 2002. "Teachers play a vital role in the pre-school education of our children," she said. "They always have, and will continue to do so." This was a welcome recognition that teachers were value for money.

So what is it that teachers do that is distinctive? The guidance tells us that "teachers' skills are used to cultivate and support the disposition to learn. They design new learning opportunities that respond to the needs and aptitudes of individual children, in observing and assessing the child's reactions and the planning on a daily, weekly, yearly basis for the child's further discoveries about himherself and the world".

The planning framework which is set to ensure a broad range of learning opportunities is carefully evaluated and monitored. In essence "they create a rich stimulating environment where the child's social, physical, emotional and intellectual self can grow".

Teachers also test and justify the techniques used to observe, assess and record children's progress, aptitudes and needs. They focus on the dynamic of learning the progression from pre-school to P1 is distinctive to the professional education of teachers and "not only are they trained and qualified to teach in nursery settings, they are also trained and qualified to teach in primary schools".

The combined knowledge of the 3-5 curriculum and the 5-14 curriculum places them in a unique position to carry out meaningful transition assessment. As the guidance notes: "Teachers' theoretical training, allied to the practical experience, allows them to design systems, pilot them and adjust them in the light of experience."

A key part of teacher training is to challenge and develop principles and practice. They are "equipped with what may be called a discourse for learning a framework of ideas about learning though which their expertise is continually filtered and which in turn is repeatedly challenged by experience." Thus, they are well placed to offer staff "new perspectives on their own practice, to offer fresh insights into certain practice which is effective and to stimulate critical self-evaluation".

Qualified and registered teachers are required to supervise student and probationer teachers. This impacts on all primary teacher trainees, given that they are now required to incorporate a nursery placement into their course of training in order to acquire their teacher qualification.

The EIS welcomes the statement by Fiona Hyslop, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, about the merits of extending pre-school education. We await further details on how this is to be implemented and what the implications will be for teachers.

We also agree with Ms Hyslop that "our children have the right to experience relevant, exciting inspirational learning". Teachers must be at the heart of that process.

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