The drive to close Scotland’s notorious attainment gap may be doomed unless the dramatic fall in qualified teachers working in nursery schools is reversed, a landmark report has predicted.
New figures show that the number of nursery teachers fell by 39 per cent in the decade to 2015 – a trend that is accelerating – but they are “essential” to flagship national education policies, the report reveals.
The study, Scotland’s first comprehensive research into the impact of the early-years workforce, says that in 2005 there were 1,702 nursery teachers; by 2015 this number had fallen to 1,038.
Most reviews of Scotland’s teaching workforce have “neglected” the early years and under many cash-strapped local authorities, the nursery teacher’s role is “changing or under threat of removal”, the report finds.
There are also concerns that, due to a lack of support from councils, the role is becoming less attractive to those entering teacher training. Half of councils could not state what teachers were doing in their nurseries, the study shows (see figures, opposite).
Some senior figures in local authorities have previously blamed the duty to maintain teacher numbers in schools for the fall in nursery teachers, as they can be cut without affecting the overall pupil-teacher ratios.
Despite the Scottish government’s promise that every pre-school child will have “access” to a teacher, the report finds that more than a quarter do not. In many cases, primary headteachers and other senior primary staff are plugging the gaps.
Vagueness about the meaning of “access”, meanwhile, ensures that children have very different experiences: each of Scotland’s 32 local authorities has a different definition of the term, the report finds.
“Access” could be anything from working with an in-house nursery teacher every day, to infrequent drop-in visits from a teacher. Professor Aline-Wendy Dunlop, who wrote the report “Sustaining the Ambition”, said: “If the government has the ambition to put equity for all children with their closing-the-gap agenda, they can’t afford any further attrition in [early-years] teacher numbers.”
The ‘foundation’ of learning
The University of Strathclyde academic saw “a real risk” that children would lose some of the “vitality, interest and curiosity in learning that we should be taking as a given”.
Professor Dunlop added: “If you haven’t got the kind of foundation that excellent early-years practice can give, that catch-up game is very, very difficult.”
The academic, who worked with seven other experts in the study, pored over survey replies from 1,440 teachers – half of whom worked at primary school but who also had an early-years role. The research also drew on previous studies and focus groups, as well as Freedom of Information requests.
The team found that no authority had evaluated the impact of not having a nursery teacher on children’s outcomes.
Nursery teachers are an “essential” part of leadership in nurseries and provide a “bridge” to primary school, the report says.
It adds that the early years are a “critical time” for children in the “development of learning dispositions” and that there is “ample evidence” of the ramifications to both education and employment prospects for students beyond the age of 16.
Susan Quinn, EIS teaching union education convener and a former Glasgow primary headteacher, said: “Without teachers in all nursery establishments, there is the risk that this important early stage of Curriculum for Excellence could start to unravel and cause greater challenges for children, their parents and their teachers once they reach primary.”
High-quality universal pre-school education “has strong benefits for both children and wider society”, she added.
A Scottish government spokesman said that from 2018, all nurseries in deprived areas should have an extra graduate with early learning and childcare expertise. This should be a teacher or a holder of a childhood practice degree, he said.
The government is funding the Universities of Aberdeen and Strathclyde to deliver early-years master’s qualifications for primary teachers, to help them specialise, he said.
The government previously commissioned Professor Iram Siraj, of the UCL Institute of Education, to review the sector’s workforce.
She concluded last year that it would take 15 years for it to achieve “a good mix of graduate and other professionals who are truly capable of improving children’s learning”.
What do teachers on the frontline say?
“I feel that a lot can be learned from nursery practice and applied across the primary.” West Lothian nursery class teacher and former P1 teacher
“Nursery staff do a great job but it was a backwards step, in my view, to remove teaching staff with their expertise.” Primary school depute headteacher in a local authority area where nursery teachers and a team dedicated to smoothing pupils’ transition into primary school were removed
“The current degree level of teacher training does not provide adequate training for a teacher to provide quality leadership and knowledge in the nursery setting…It is most definitely a specialist role, with quite a unique job description and set of responsibilities.” Nursery teacher
“There is no doubt in my mind that teachers are essential in nursery. The responsibility staff have in nursery is huge; a class teacher [has] much less day-to-day responsibility.” Nursery class teacher
“Nursery education is a unique specialism which can only be learned and understood by practitioners who have a depth of understanding and experience of child-centred learning and play.” Nursery teacher with 17 years’ experience working as a nursery nurse
“We are always under pressure to raise attainment in primary schools so the highest quality of nursery provision is the obvious foundation for such achievement.” P1 teacher
“It is so frustrating [because parents] just want to talk to you about reading books, writing, and how high their child can count to. Parents still see teachers in a very traditional role.” Nursery class teacher
The proportion of pre-school children (ages 3-5) who had no access to a teacher in 2014
The national teacher-pupil ratio in early-years establishments in 2015 (this compares with a ratio of 1:62 in 2005)
The proportion of local authorities that say that pre-school children in their area do not have equal access to a teacher
The number of local authorities (out of 32) with no minimum standard for teacher time in nurseries and/or contact time with children
The proportion of local authorities that could not tell researchers what teachers did in their nurseries
The proportion of early-years teachers who have worked in both nursery and primary
The number of local authorities (out of 32) with a full-time teacher in each of its early-years establishments
The age range that has seen a “marked increase” in the proportion of nursery teachers in recent years