Scottish nursery staff were urged at the weekend to guard against the "despairing" mood that has enveloped the pre-school sector south of the border. Margaret Lally, an early years specialist and former head of a nursery school in inner London, condemned what she described as the Government's simplistic prescription highlighted by the voucher scheme.
Ms Lally told a meeting of nursery practitioners in Edinburgh, who were gathering to celebrate almost a century of nursery schooling in the city: "We are in great danger of losing sight of what real nursery education should be in England. The Government is paying lip-service to the value of early learning but is trying to do things on the cheap, paying no attention to the importance of quality."
She praised the continued presence of child development studies in teacher training courses and specialist training for nursery teachers, both of which had been lost south of the border. She also welcomed the Scottish pre-school curricular proposals which were superior to the English version's "very narrow desirable outcomes".
A quality pre-school experience required specialist staff, a good adult:child ratio and a well-planned learning environment both in and out of doors, Ms Lally said. But these were being eroded in England where, among other things, regulations requiring nurseries to have outdoor areas have been repealed, allowing more centres to set themselves up as nursery schools.
Ms Lally, vice-president of the National Campaign for Nursery Education, said some official attitudes reduced pre-school education to little more than "child-minding". In one school nursery nurses were in day-to-day charge of the nursery classes with overall responsibility given to a primary teacher.
"How long before the nursery nurse is in turn replaced by someone cheaper?" she asked.
The threat to nursery schools as opposed to units attached to primaries was also part of this trend, Ms Lally believed. "The schools are expensive and the Pounds 1,100 cost of a voucher does not pay for a nursery school place, " she said. "If the separate nursery school disappears because of financial pressures, we will lose centres of excellence, specialism and training which do not have to compete for resources and attention with the rest of the primary school."