A SHORTAGE of nursery staff is putting the Government's target of a place for every three-year-old by 2002 at risk.
Independent nurseries in particular are finding it hard to recruit and retain nursery nurses at a time when the focus is on quality of provision with publication of the final version of the Scottish curriculum for three-to-five year olds.
The problem appears most acute in Edinburgh where a meeting was recently held to discuss the crisis. Ruth Jessop, of the Potty Place nursery, said:
"The shortfall is putting the provision of childcare in the city in danger."
The meeting was attended by representatives of central and local government, training bodies and careers education.
Alison Leach, who works for the registration and inspection unit of Edinburgh's social work department, said there was a high turnover of staff leading to "a lack of consistency" in the care of children. "There is no doubt, too, that the Government benchmark that nurseries should be staffed with a minimum of 50 per cent of nursery nurses - that is staff who have recognised accreditation - is not being met."
The minimum qualification to become a nursery nurse is a Higher National Certificate, which takes a year's study, usually on top of a year for a National Certificate in Childcare. Representatives at the meeting from Edinburgh's three further education colleges reported a decline in the number of applicants.
Low pay was cited as a factor, with rates in many private nurseries less than those in the local authority sector. But there is also competition from the classroom assistants whom the Government wants installed in lower primary classes. In Edinburgh 1,000 applications were received for just over 100 posts.
Frances Scott, lecturer in childcare at Stevenson College, said a number of candidates had withdrawn their applications after the offer of a classroom assistant post, which does not require formal qualifications.
"This is a much bigger issue than the Government has appreciated," she said. But Ms Scott stressed the need to maintain qualifications. "The Higher National certificate has national standing. I would not want that diminished."
Betty Gordon, early years officer for Edinburgh education department, spoke of the "overwhelming" calibre of applications for classroom assistant posts. "They should be targeted. They have experience and the right kind of background."
Other parts of Scotland report a varying pattern in recruitment. Margaret Dobie, who is in charge of pre-five provision for Glasgow education department, said that a recruitment campaign was being mounted through local FE colleges, with emphasis on the attractions of working in Glasgow.
She pointed out that as surrounding councils increased their nursery places, Glasgow suffered a growing staff shortage.
In Aberdeenshire Betty McGill, pre-fives officer, said that one possible recruitment target was mothers in playgroups, who were being encouraged to go for a Scottish Vocational Qualification and make a career out of their interest in and experience of childcare. But so far the local authority had not met acute staffing problems.
In Edinburgh nursery owners will keep up their campaign through a steering group which will continue discussions with government and training bodies.
Yvonne Birrell, whose Birrell Collection has a roll of 350 children, told the TESS that in-service training was a growing need. Nursery staff had to prepare written reports on children and parents were becoming more sophisticated in asking what children were doing.
Nursery owners could compete with local authority provision by offering good training and a career ladder, but that was expensive. "We do need high calibre graduates to meet the expansion," Mrs Birrell said.