Since 2011, it has been mandatory for those managing early years settings and out-of-school clubs to have or be working towards the BA in Childhood Practice.
The Scottish Social Services Commission (SSSC) commissioned the University of Edinburgh to carry out research on the impact the new degree was having on individuals who were doing it.
It follows the Making the Difference report from Education Scotland in 2012, which showed that changes to qualifications were making a difference to services on the ground.
The new report, Taking the First Steps - is Childhood Practice Working?, shows the benefits the Childhood Practice degree has had on early years workers' knowledge, confidence and leadership skills and how they work with children, parents and other professionals.
Principal investigator and author of the report Professor John Davis, professor of childhood inclusion at Edinburgh University, said the findings demonstrate the impact of the qualification by enabling managers to connect theory, research and policy to practice.
The degree is a work-based qualification with strong academic components, he said.
Many of those studying for the degree are experienced practitioners, with the majority having worked in early years for at least five years. Dr Davis said, 'When connected to the Making the Difference report, these findings indicate that childhood practitioners are different to primary teachers and that if you put a new teacher into early years with no knowledge of how to work with young children it doesn't improve children's outcomes, it actually decreases outcomes.'
He said that the research shows statistically significant differences between early years staff who already hold the BA in Childhood Practice, those that have started working towards it, and those that do not have the qualification.
The research involved more than 500 participants and looked at three broad areas: leadership, knowledge and practice.
The degree was found to have a positive impact, particularly on delivering a creative curriculum, enabling participatory leadership, listening to parents and children, and putting knowledge of children's rights into practice.
Dr Davis said this showed that, 'the qualification is enabling childhood practitioners to work on a par with those from other professions who have a Masters in early years'.
He added, 'The qualification is enabling professionals to be more thoughtful about how they work with parents and children.'
Managers of early years settings were now seen as 'a degree-led professional in their own right' and this degree was 'recognised by employers as valuable', he said.
The report's findings chime with those of the latest report from the longitudinal Growing Up in Scotland study (see box), which is tracking the lives of several cohorts of Scottish children through early years, childhood and beyond.
The report, published last week, shows that the quality of 'care and support' provided in the early years influences future primary school aged abilities. It also found that it was the quality of the setting that mattered, not whether it was maintained or private or voluntary sector.
Dr Davis said, 'Qualifications are improving across the board in different types of provision. We now have three different Scottish studies pointing to the importance of qualifications in improving outcomes, parents' support, listening to children and a more rights-based approach.'
These reports also support the findings of the OECD international report Starting Strong, which showed that quality early years provision required subsidised access, a unified workforce, a single regulatory framework, and the development of an integrative way of working with communities that merges our ideas of education and care.
What makes a difference to provision, Dr Davis said, was having a knowledge of integrated working, supporting the voice of children and parents, qualifications in early years, and an understanding of how to work with parents from different communities.
He added, 'It's a creative pedagogy, a culture of listening and a caring and supportive environment that has an impact on children's future outcomes.'
Commenting on the research findings, chief executive of the SSSC Anna Fowlie said, 'I'm really pleased but not really surprised that it's so positive.
The qualification recognises the difference that early years workers make, and that it's different from a teacher.'
She said she was 'very proud' of the work that had been done around the Childhood Practice qualification with employers, parents and children. 'It's really making a difference to the confidence of people working in the sector - that it's a career, not just a job.' Because it's a work-based degree 'people can bring learning in their jobs and have it recognised academically,' she added.
She said this research shows that mandatory qualifications can up-skill the workforce. The SSSC is now considering commissioning more research to examine the impact of the degree on children.
- More information on the BA in Childhood Practice
'GROWING UP IN SCOTLAND'
A major finding from the latest report, Characteristics of Pre-School Provision and Their Association with Child Outcomes, was that the benefits of pre-school education were shared by all families, regardless of their backgrounds.
Children from higher income households or whose parents had higher qualifications were no more likely than those from poorer families or whose parents had fewer qualifications to attend a higher quality pre-school setting.
The report said, 'There were no significant systematic differences in the average quality of pre-school settings that more and less socially advantaged children attended. Neither were there differences in the quality of settings attended by children with different levels of social and cognitive development.'
After taking into account children's social backgrounds, researchers found that only the grading by the Care Inspectorate on 'care and support' was linked to children's outcomes. Attending a pre-school setting with a higher care and support grade was statistically significantly associated with better vocabulary at the age of five.
This was regardless of whether children attended a private nursery with a higher care and support grade or a nursery school class with a similar grade.
Read Aileen Campbell's column here