October 1, 2008

Are Teachers at Nursery School Really Needed?

By Fiona MacLeod

NURSERY school in Scotland has traditionally been seen as time for fun, before the real hard work starts. However, a growing emphasis on early years has opened up the question of what constitutes early years education.

The new school Curriculum for Excellence covers a wider age range - from three-18 years - than the five-14 range in the guidelines it replaced. As a result, teachers say they are needed more than ever in nurseries. Councils, however, are replacing them with nursery nurses to save money, or using peripatetic teachers who spend a few hours a week at each early years centre.

This week controversy broke when the children's minister, Adam Ingram, admitted that the SNP election pledge of "access" to a nursery teacher for all pre-school pupils did not mean every class every day.

No-one says nursery nurses do anything other than a wonderful job of caring for children, so why the calls for teachers?

An HMIe report in 2007 concluded teachers played an important role in guiding non-teaching staff, and children's needs were met better in pre-school centres that had a teacher.

In 2006, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published a report on early education that concluded quality nursery education meant being taught by a fully qualified and registered teacher.

Academics from three universities in 2004 and again in 2007 concluded, in a research project called the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) that, in pre-school settings with a high proportion of teachers, children made better progress in intellectual development and sociability. They found this was particularly true in those from deprived backgrounds.

The biggest teaching union, the EIS, would like to see all pre- school children in Scotland taught by a nursery teacher. Ronnie Smith, general secretary, said teachers were crucial to the success of the new curriculum.

"Parents, too, know the importance of having a teacher present in all nursery settings," he said. "And, with the introduction of the new 3-18 curricular framework under the Curriculum for Excellence, it is now more important than ever that nursery education provision is delivered by fully qualified teaching staff.

"This new framework is designed to enable seamless transition from nursery to primary, and primary to secondary education. Without qualified teachers in the nursery sector, this will be impossible."

Nursery teachers hold the same university teaching degree as primary teachers, but choose to specialise in early years education. The qualification focuses on child development, on how children learn and how to educate them.

That level of education is reflected in a salary that starts at about GBP 24,000. After a year's probation, most qualify and become professionally registered with the General Teaching Council Scotland. Nursery nurses also train, but on a less academic course, more focused on childcare, that generally involves two years at college.

The Scottish Government has a working group looking at creating a specific early years teaching degree.

But do parents really care whether their children are cared for by nursery nurses or by nursery teachers?

Tina Woolnough, of support group Parents in Partnership and chair of the board of Blackhall Nursery in Edinburgh, thinks not. She said: "The needs of very young children are different from the needs of a formal classroom setting. One size does not fit all.

"Where nursery or early years centres are already very good or excellent, there is no need to have teacher input because that curriculum delivery is already being done by professionals.

"I would argue a teacher is not always the best way to meet children's needs. Early years professionals may not be teachers, but often have years' more training and experience."

Blackhall Nursery had to stop employing a teacher because of what Ms Woolnough called the "prohibitive cost".

She said: "When we stopped having a teacher we thought there would be massive fuss from parents, but they saw that the provision and level of education and care were as good as they had ever been."

And she believes that the Curriculum for Excellence demands are already being met with the help of nursery nurses.

"It's always been learning through play, it's always been child- centred, so there won't be huge changes in terms of delivery and style," she said. "A teacher suggests children will be sat down and taught by rote, and some parents come to early years and expect their child will be sat down and taught to read and write. But parents are increasingly realising that style of teaching is completely inappropriate for such young children."

However, Bryan Lewis, the headmaster at the independent Mary Erskine and Stewart's Melville Junior School in Edinburgh, said teachers were crucial.

He said: "It has long been acknowledged that children of pre- school age need far more than childcare if they are to flourish in a pre-school environment, and then to be ready for the transition into the more formal educational experience which they will encounter as they move into primary 1."

At his school, there are 120 children in four pre-school rooms, each supervised by a teacher supported by nursery nurses and teaching assistants.

"A visiting or peripatetic class teacher can have an influence on what happens in the room, but unless she is present throughout the time that the children are present, her influence will be significantly diluted and the overall provision will suffer," he said.

He stressed that nursery nurses had a crucial role as a complement to the teacher. "The partnership is vital if children are to be provided with the best possible start to their educational experience," he added.

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