Dave Watson: Nursery education isn’t child’s play – it needs investment to be top quality

Expanding early years provision won’t close the attainment gap unless we have high quality services with a qualified workforce.

Expanding early years provision won’t close the attainment gap unless we have high quality services with a qualified workforce.

The Scottish Government has committed to delivering 1,140 hours of childcare a year to three and four year-old children free at the point of use from 2021.

This could lead to a high quality service which gives children an ­excellent preparation for the rest of their lives and closes Scotland’s shocking poverty-related attainment gap. There is, though, a serious risk that, by delivering an early years service through a hotch-potch of ­private, voluntary providers with limited public provision, that we lose quality and widen that attainment gap. The current crisis in social care is a stark warning about what ­happens when you don’t get things right.

The Scottish Government needs to make sure that the promise of extra hours leads to better outcomes for children. That means basing their plans on the evidence about what works for children.

The key to a high quality child-centred service is a highly-qualified work force. Recruiting and retaining that workforce will require appropriate pay. Expanding childcare ­cannot be done on the cheap, which is why ­Unison believes that the most ­efficient and cost-effective route ­forward is through direct delivery by the public sector. This is where we already have the qualified workforce.

While there is widespread ­agreement that the key to ­quality services is a highly-qualified ­workforce there has been little research on the detail of what ­qualifications are ­needed and the ­specific staff mix that will best ­support our children. Unison Scotland ­commissioned a team led by ­Professor Findlay at Strathclyde University to research what’s working well, in order to inform the process of expansion.

The new report looks at the ­available data on the current Scottish workforce, their roles and qualifications and how these have developed. The research team also examined the available inspection reports to identify the impact that different workforce roles have on the quality of service. The report includes results of ­questionnaires and focus groups with Unison members across a range of settings.

The report is very clear that the highly publicised reduction in numbers of GTC registered teachers in early years settings has not resulted in any reduction in quality when there are other suitable qualified staff working in early years establishments.

Across Scotland there are now 2316 graduates working in early years (e.g. BA Childhood practice) and a ­further 944 people working towards their degree. There are 921 teachers. Sadly, the latest education statistics don’t include any further information on what qualifications the rest of the staff hold. We do know that in the public sector the staff are already fully qualified with degrees or HNC or SVQs, while in the private sector the non-management/supervisory staff are mainly ‘working towards’ rather than already holding these qualifications.

The research says that: “High quality ELC is associated with highly qualified staff irrespective of whether staff have a degree in teaching or childhood practice. High quality staff, alongside tailored continuing professional development and local authority support is linked to positive practice impacts.”

The report shows the highly complex work that early years staff undertake to support children’s development. Members educate and care for children thorough a range of activities: setting individualised plans for those children; reflecting on individual children’s development/progress; discussing and liaising with both the children’s parents and a range of agencies; supporting and mentoring other staff; observing, recording and reporting children’s’ development and reflecting on their own practice and participating in training and continuing professional development.

Unison, and the wider trade union movement, has been calling for free at the point of use publicly-delivered childcare for more than 100 years. We have long championed better ­recognition of the skills of early years workers and for those workers to have the opportunity for a career path including leadership roles.

The move to 600 hours has already increased ­workload and cuts to ­wider support services like speech therapy has also added to it.

While learning additional skills can be beneficial, both enhancing career prospects and making work more interesting, being overwhelmed by work is both stressful and means a poorer quality of service for the children in your care.

The social care system is fragmented and blighted by low pay. If the government follows the same route, expecting the private sector to ­deliver childcare while managing quality through procurement rules, then we risk all the same problems in early years provision. What parents want is a safe place where their children are cared for and which gives them the chance to reach their full potential regardless of their family income.

Investing in local government early years services and the staff who work there, will be the safest and most cost effective route to a high-quality ­service.

Dave Watson is the head of policy and public affairs at Unison Scotland.