Early years expansion - quantity or quality?

Written by Tom Freeman on 22 March 2017 in Feature

The expansion of free childcare will have an impact on early years education, with a tension between affordability, flexibility and quality

Nursery - credit Mary MacTavish

The doubling of free preschool provision for three and four-year-olds to 1140 hours per week is a flagship Scottish Government policy, with support from across the political spectrum. 

Debate among politicians has been focused on how flexible that provision will be, to enable parents to re-enter the workplace. It is universally referred to as ‘childcare’.

But the current 600 free hours have mostly been provided in an education setting, with councils opting to fit them into four or five half-day sessions. 


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A recognition of the emergence of the attainment gap before a child has even attended school has led the Scottish Government to promise that the quality of early years education will be maintained, or even improved, during the expansion. 

But what does that look like?

In an event run by Holyrood on child poverty, the government’s poverty adviser, Naomi Eisenstadt, said she had told ministers she “had a problem with it” because of the tension between affordability, flexibility and quality.

“Flexibility is great for work. If you want to work part time, just two days a week, it makes complete sense, with you travelling two days instead of four days. But two long days in formal childcare will not deliver the cognitive social benefits of five half days. It just won’t,” she told delegates.

“The assumption you can maintain the same intensity of experience for children over those long hours is just silly. Because it’s not how we as humans work.”

While some of these extra hours may well be delivered by subsidised childminders, the Scottish Government has pledged £1.5m to promise 435 “graduate-level” members of staff to 432 nurseries in the most deprived 20 per cent of Scottish communities.

Minister for Childcare and Early Years, Mark McDonald, said: “During this expansion our priority is to ensure quality remains at the heart of the programme and a diverse, highly skilled workforce is key to achieving this.

“We will work closely with local authorities to deliver this commitment in a way which maximises the number of children who will benefit.”

However, ‘graduate level’ does not necessarily mean qualified teachers. In fact, there has been a 39 per cent reduction in the number of registered teachers employed in early years since a statutory provision to guarantee a nursery teacher per every 20 children was rescinded.

Now, local authorities must only provide ‘access to a teacher’. Research by teaching union the EIS last year revealed council budgetary pressures have shifted teachers away from early years.

Among the findings of the ‘Sustain the Ambition’ report was the revelation that the nursery teacher to child ratio in Scotland is now one teacher for every 94 children, while at least a quarter of Scottish children aged three to five have no access to a teacher at all.

EIS president Margaret Smith is a former nursery teacher in Falkirk. She says childminders can provide the home activities which are vital to a child’s development, and which could be missed if young children were put in a nursery setting full time.

Activities like baking and going to the park are vital to development, she says. “Families are the first teachers.”

But the Scottish Government’s upskilled ‘early years practitioner’ graduates cannot fill the gaps left by declining teachers, the EIS warns.

“The degree qualification doesn’t have the education element to it – it’s more of a managerial degree. A teacher has that Curriculum for Excellence knowledge,” says Smith.

Within teacher training there needs to be more recognition of early years as a specialism, she says, pointing to the fact some student teachers are going on two-week placements to a nursery with no teaching staff there. “The specialism has to be recognised and embraced.”

Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) is designed to be a seamless transition from three to 18. “You have to be a teacher first, then get your specialism, so you have that broad understanding of the curriculum.”

The need for the specialism has been exemplified in recent initiatives to tackle literacy in nurseries, she says, which have seen children being given activities designed for primary one children. She recounts one child who failed a test on initial sounds because when asked what the initial sound was in the word ‘cat’, he answered ‘miaow’.

“Then I asked him what the first sound was in ‘fox’ and he said, ‘well, that’s a difficult one because the farmer or farmer’s wife would chase them off from the chickens’. He scored nothing in that test, you know? We’re taking them on too early.”

Children should develop “depth and feeling” to language before they can be tested, she adds. 

Teachers, she argues, know the stages needed before primary one, and have the confidence to challenge when those stages are being missed.

“We have the confidence with the curriculum to pass it on to the other staff, and to parents. That’s really important.”

Smith also remembers an example from work in numeracy, when she kept several different six-sided dice in her pocket, some with three numbers, some with four and others with six. She gave children different ones based on their ability.

“It was just part of what I did. The educational psychologist said to me, ‘you nursery teachers have a way of giving every child success’.”

The work of the early years teacher could also benefit from being recognised and valued by others in the primary school, suggests Smith. 

“I sometimes felt isolated by other teachers in the staffroom for a variety of reasons like different lunch times. I didn’t always feel that my opinion on learning and teaching was taken into account and valued.”

Without qualified teachers, there is a danger of a de-skilling of younger children, she says, when children’s life skills developed at nursery might go unrecognised. These include things like proper use of scissors or putting coats on, where an unqualified adult might do it for them rather than let them learn by doing. 

Indeed, the need for wider life skills and awareness to be developed first is reflected in the Upstart Scotland campaign, which argues the formal school age should be raised to seven.

Author and chair of the group, Sue Palmer told Holyrood last year that CfE’s Early Level has been split down the middle – with one or two years of highly variable childcare followed by one or two years of “prematurely formal” schooling – which goes against the principles of the curriculum’s ethos.

“Not only does our early school starting age mean the developmental principles of [CfE’s] early level are often ignored, but the stress now placed on achieving literacy and numeracy outcomes means that parents and teachers also lose sight of the central significance of health and wellbeing,” she said.

“The introduction of national tests at P1 is likely to exacerbate this situation. In contrast, countries like Finland and Switzerland, which traditionally have not started formal schooling till the age of seven, are doing extremely well in international surveys of achievement.”

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