School's out, learning centres are in
They would provide universal education at primary and secondary level, and encompass full-time pre-school services and out-of-school care.
Giving evidence at the start of the parliamentary education committee's inquiry into the early years, Bronwen Cohen, the organisation's chief executive, said a universal service in which children from diverse and different economic groups could learn and be cared for in the same place would simplify children's lives and parental arrangements, offer an equal start for all and strengthen local communities.
Dr Cohen said there was an urgent need for a clearer sense of direction and a more integrated system of funding.
She emphasised to MSPs the need to build on the "successful and swift" achievement of a part-time pre-school place for every three and four-year-old and to extend the target to a full-time "whole-day" place for each child, no matter which economic group they are from.
Dr Cohen also told the committee that training, pay and conditions were a significant issue. The Scottish Executive was carrying out work to ensure the pre-school services would be led by staff with a graduate or equivalent qualification, she said. "However, I would like to see us moving to a situation where at least half of those working in pre-school services have a graduate or similar qualification."
Referring to the "rapidly expanding group of classroom assistants", Dr Cohen said they were given only 12 weeks of training on the job yet, along with special needs staff, were providing essential support and care. "We should be looking at whether those working alongside teachers should be given much better and more extensive training to provide a more substantial role in schools," she said.
MSPs also heard Dr Cohen voice concern about the "cocktail funding" of services. "We believe it is really important to have a systematic policy," she said. "There is a lot of duplication and I am not convinced we really know how much we are spending on a lot of these services."
Peter Lee, co-convener of the Scottish Educational Research Association, said: "We need to look at the way health, education, social work services, national organisations, voluntary and umbrella organisations are all communicating with each other and the way they are impacting on the lives of families."
Research showed that resources were not reaching vulnerable children due to a variety of factors. "One of the major reasons is the lack of communication between professionals operating in the neighbourhoods they are working in. Where there are examples of integrated provision, that is having a major impact on vulnerable children and families."
Scotland had made considerable progress and more effort, however, was needed to "flag up" achievements. "We don't document, we don't trumpet and we don't say there are great things happening here," he said.
Tam Baillie, assistant director of policy for Barnardo's Scotland, stressed the need for childcare policies to run alongside employment policies. Mr Baillie voiced regret at a delay in the publication of the integrated early years' strategy and the Executive's views on parenting support. This, he argued, could go some way towards answering some questions about priorities.