The SNP Government's commitment to a quality education for the under-fives was being put at risk by school closures, a conference heard last week.
The recent HMIE report on the role of staff in pre-school education backed up previous research by concluding that nurseries with teachers were better for children.
And Adam Ingram, Minister for Children and Early Years, tried to reassure delegates that nursery education and the place of teachers in the nursery sector was at the "forefront of the Government's policy agenda".
The Government would be fulfilling its manifesto promise to give all children access to a nursery teacher "as soon as possible".
But the minister came under pressure to strengthen the policy, which some felt was too vague. Gordon Smith, headteacher of Jordanhill Primary in Glasgow, received thunderous applause from delegates when he asked Mr Ingram if he would consider "access" by a primary pupil to a primary teacher good enough.
Mr Ingram responded by describing that as a "naughty question". It was not fair to compare the "fragmented" pre-school service with the primary sector, since a playgroup operating for 2.5 hours a day could not be expected to have a full-time qualified teacher. A peripatetic service would therefore be more appropriate in those circumstances.
Concerns were also expressed that, in spite of the Government's apparent commitment to the early years, nursery schools continued to be closed. Michele Lang, headteacher of Morton Nursery School in Linwood, Renfrewshire, pointed out that her nursery was under threat also of closure. Nursery staff have accused Edinburgh City Council of "ruining a wonderful early years service" by creating a "two tier system of provision with increased privatisation, closure of nursery schools and the subsequent loss of qualified staff".
Greg Dempster, general secretary of the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland, which organised the conference, asked Mr Ingram if there were any plans to halt the closures.
Mr Ingram said: "It is not our intention to micromanage service provision at a local level. Local authorities are best placed to determine how services should be configured."
Brenda Taggart, research co-ordinator on the renowned, longitudinal Effective Pre-School and Primary Education (EPPE) project (now called EPPSE because some of the children have moved on to secondary), told the conference that a quality pre-school education continued to impact on children's learning when they were 10 years-old and acted as a "protective layer" if they ended up in less effective primary schools.
However, a poor quality pre-school experience was found, in some instances, to be worse for the child than just staying at home.
"We have won the argument about access to pre-school," Ms Taggart said. "The next argument we have to have is about quality."
One nursery head summed up the prevailing mood at the conference: "There needs to be a decision about what people want from early years services - do they want childcare or education?"
Mr Ingram reminded the delegates that an early years strategy was being developed and that from 2009 a new degree qualification in early years education would be available. He said he wanted to "get away from the notion that people graduate from nursery into primary and that's how they develop their careers".
Raw deal for young
Another dimension to what constitutes a quality pre-school service was introduced by a senior inspector who said babies and toddlers in nurseries were getting a raw deal.
The policy focus on three to five year-olds has meant that pre-school establishments have tended to divert their most qualified staff to work with this age group, Kate Cherry, assistant chief inspector, told the conference. As a result, children under three were suffering from a lack of "emotional care and love", she said.
"It's sad to see poor practice with young children and babies," Ms Cherry continued. "It has been noted and we are talking about it. There is a big job to be done there. Often, the best educators are being put into work with three to five year-olds rather than with toddlers or babies."