We need a new kind of professional

14th July 2006 at 01:00
In the first of our series of TES Scotland summer debates, Iain Smith (left) and Bronwen Cohen (right) discuss the parliamentary report on the early years

I am pleased that the education committee's report on the early years has sparked a lively debate on this crucial but often undervalued sector. Early years services must be a priority for investment, and the education committee recognised that the single most important factor in improving quality in the early years sector is raising skills levels across the workforce. That is why I reject the unwarranted criticism of our unanimous all-party report, following an 18-month inquiry.

The committee is determined to see a clear 10-year vision for universal care and education for Scotland's children, delivered by a highly skilled and properly rewarded workforce. Part of its aim in holding the inquiry was to help stimulate continued debate ahead of the announcement of the Scottish Executive's early years workforce review and a parliamentary debate in the autumn.

The comments made up to now are useful insofar as they are a contribution to that debate. However, the critics may have missed the point, and some of their claims need to be strongly rebutted. While we have not called for the immediate replication of the best of the Scandinavian early years systems, our aspirations are by no means unambitious. The report sets out a clear vision based on what we think are the realistic expectations of people in Scotland.

Yes, we were very impressed with the services we saw in Sweden and Finland, and no doubt many people would welcome similar services in Scotland. But we have come from a different starting point. We already have much in place that deserves to be built on rather than dismantled. We have different education, benefits and taxation systems and the Scottish Parliament does not have the power to make the necessary changes to the benefits and taxation system which would be required to replicate the Scandinavian model.

We have tried to take a politically mature look at the early years and make recommendations that are realistic, sensible and workable. We think most people in Scotland and most early years practitioners, whatever their background, will recognise this as a pragmatic approach which will contribute to incremental change and improvement. It is easy for parliamentary committees to ask for everything that every witness appearing before them demands, but such an approach does not take us very far.

It is more difficult to do what we have done, to recognise that we have a particular starting point, resources that are not limitless and that need to be deployed in ways that maximise the benefits to those in most need.

The report is also criticised for failing to support comprehensive and universal services. In fact, we do recommend comprehensive universal services, but we point out that this need not mean that everyone will receive the same service. Rather, we are calling for the most comprehensive (and expensive) services, like the Whitdale family centre in West Lothian we visited and the Cowgate under-fives centre in Edinburgh, where we launched the report, to be made available where they can have most effect - in deprived areas.

Some services will be universally available, but we need to direct resources most urgently to the places where they can do most good, and improve the opportunities of as many children as possible to maximise what they get out of their education.

That brings us to the role of teachers and the perceived "insult" to others in the sector. We call for the professionalisation of the workforce, better training and development, more respect and higher salaries for early years workers, all of which seem rather lame forms of insult. We don't put teachers on any kind of pedestal, but we rightly recognise that all the evidence is that their involvement from the age of three brings significant cognitive benefits.

But we also recognise that a range of skills are needed, and it is therefore important for people to work together in integrated teams. This is why we have asked the Scottish Executive to look in the longer term at a shake-up in initial teacher education to allow different types of early years workers, including teachers, to be trained together, with flexible delivery, entrance and exit points.

But beyond that, and a point that seems to be missed by many who have so far contributed to this debate, the committee has called for a more radical look at whether there is a need for a new type of early years professional which could allow for the incorporation of the pedagogical skills associated within broader training.

Change doesn't happen overnight. But we must start to move step by step in the direction towards the type of early years services we all want to see.

The education committee is keen to encourage a debate on these issues and we stand by the findings of our report.

Iain Smith is convener of the parliamentary education committee.

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