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Unravelling the knot of pre-school provision

The Scottish Office was criticised for continuing with the nursery vouchers scheme for a year. Last week's consultation document on the pre-school experience shows how many fundamental questions remain unanswered. A new system of finance will have to be in place by next summer. But the forms of wider provision needed to implement Labour's election pledges and to make sure that quality accompanies quantity are still being debated. If the vouchers system was a diversion from real problems, as its critics claimed, it has precipitated decisions which might have been better tackled over a longer period, except that that would have removed the impetus for action.

The Government has already produced a framework for the pre-fives curriculum. If logic rather than political pressures had dictated events, then decisions on the curriculum would have followed those on the structure and financing of pre-school centres, as well as their staffing. But ministers have to move on from the position as they find it - a variety of pre-school settings, some places for three-year-olds as well as children in their pre-school year, a curriculum which inevitably owes much to the starting point of the 5-14 programme.

The consultation paper makes clear that although local authorities will be the conduit for pre-fives resources, partnerships are the order of the day. Expansion of council provision has badly affected some voluntary and private centres, but in all parts of the country a range of provision is necessary, and in some areas the Government's pledge to four-year-olds could not be met for many years if playgroups and private initiatives were not encouraged.

But the paper advocates more than a financial relationship. "A local authority which had entered in to partnership arrangements would wish to extend to its partners the various supports for quality that were made available to its own nursery schools and classes. These would include expert guidance, curriculum support, access to training and staff development." That statement may offer the beginnings of a solution to the question of staff qualifications and training.

Glasgow is moving away from the Strathclyde concept of a generic pre-fives centre which might as readily be headed by a nursery nurse as a qualified teacher. The consultation paper makes clear that pre-five teachers have had more demanding education and training than nursery nurses, but the inspection of hundreds of centres made necessary by the vouchers system has shown that good quality provision is available from staff with a variety of backgrounds. In time, uniformity of qualifications, or at least an agreed progressive hierarchy, may come. For now, as long as standards of care and safety are guaranteed and children in their pre-school year are following the recommended curriculum, there need not be too much prescription.

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