MSPs have highlighted the importance of employing teachers in pre-five education, particularly in disadvantaged areas, and taken local authorities such as Glasgow to task for removing teachers from nursery schools.
The parliamentary education committee's early years inquiry, published on Wednesday, states: "We recommend that the Scottish Executive provides clear guidance to local authorities on the circumstances where it is essential that qualified teaching staff are employed. We suggest that teachers be a requirement in pre-five nursery education in disadvantaged areas."
It notes evidence from Peter Peacock, Education Minister, to its inquiry that "to require a teacher in every early years setting would create an enormous logistical upheaval and that there would be a challenge in meeting the demand for suitably qualified and experienced teachers to do this, even if it were desirable".
It adds, however: "We are not convinced by the argument that graduates from other types of training programme are necessarily able, purely by virtue of their degree status, to deliver an early years curriculum as effectively as required, or indeed that 'the ability to think critically and reflectively'
will, in the absence of the necessary practical pedagogical skills, prove effective."
The report also urges that additional resources should be allocated to the 0-3 sector as the "area most in need of improvement", since it has received less investment than the 3-5 sector.
The committee argues that this investment should "initially be targeted at families in most need and that it should be coupled with measurable outcomes which will be able to demonstrate a return on the investment".
A key theme running through the report is the evidence from Scotland, the rest of the UK and around the world that investment in early years pays massive dividends for the future.
MSPs also conclude: "It would be possible to argue for comprehensive and universal pre-school services, such as those we saw at first hand on our visits to Sweden and Finland. However, we recognise that the cost of doing so would be significant and that the reality of budgets available may mean a more pragmatic, long-term approach needs to be taken."
The committee looked at options such as the Whitdale Early Learning and Family Centre in Whitburn, West Lothian, which provides care for under-threes, nursery education for three and four-year-olds and family support. But extending such a service throughout Scotland would cost an estimated pound;2 billion, with annual revenue costs of more than pound;500 million.
The report's conclusion was that such intensive centres were likely only to be justifiable in communities where there were the most significant challenges.
While acknowledging moves to bring 3-5 learning and the curriculum in primary 1 closer together, it calls for children's experience in the 0-3 sector to be "more cognitively challenging".
In addition, the report calls on the Education Minister to provide a more detailed plan setting out the ways in which curricular changes in the first year of primary education and in the 3-5 sector are to be achieved, and how children with additional support needs might be better supported during their pre-school years.
The report reiterates findings by HMIE and the Care Commission of quality differences between centres operated by local authorities, voluntary bodies and the private sector. It wants to see the gap between the authorities and the others narrowed and eliminated.
The committee also calls on the executive to produce an early years strategy for the next 10 years and to commission long-term research on the success of the measures recommended by its report.