Scotland will 'miss education goals' with falling early years teacher numbers

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A failure to address dwindling teacher numbers in Scotland’s early years settings will hold back government goals to tackle the impact of deprivation on education, the country’s largest teaching union has warned.

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Qualified teachers benefit early years

Rates of General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) registered teachers in settings have dropped 29 per cent over the last decade - compared to a decrease in child numbers of just 4 per cent, according to the research.

The result is a national ratio of one teacher to 84 children – which the authors claim must improve if government policy objectives are to be achieved.

The concerns are raised as the Scottish Government launches proposals to boost free early learning and childcare (ELC) entitlement to 30 hours a week by 2020 and narrow the education gap caused by disadvantage.

The report, commissioned by union the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), found that maintaining a registered teacher workforce in pre-school settings would provide ‘valuable contributions to young children's learning, including support for early literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing, in line with the experiences and outcomes’ of the Scottish national curriculum – the Curriculum for Excellence.

It concludes, ‘With the small numbers of teachers employed in early years pre-school settings further attrition is not an option if policy objectives are to be achieved.’

It adds that ‘serious consideration’ should be given to the future composition of the ELC workforce.

The GTCS hopes the findings will be inform new strategies for supporting the profession.

It continues, ‘These are important messages for policy makers and for the enactment of policy in local authorities.’

The study gathered key data about teachers’ current roles, by accessing publicly held current data on early years provision and staffing in Scotland, mapping the teachers’ perceptions and roles via a questionnaire and focus groups, and reviewing available literature on a range of teaching themes.

The focus groups debated central themes of ‘teacher importance’ such as:

  • Knowledge and delivery of the curriculum and understanding its intentions and pedagogy
  • Leadership and vision
  • Specialist training and qualifications and for whose benefit these are intended
  • Working with parents and in the community with a particular emphasis on deprivation
  • Progressing learning through skills in the cycle of observation, assessment, planning, recording and reporting
  • Supporting transitions, into nursery and out of it in to primary school
  • The nursery teacher as a mentor and trainer of others

Early years teachers were also found to make a number of valuable ‘non-teaching contributions’, including working closely with parents and families, identifying and supporting children with additional support needs, co-ordinating with other agencies and taking on training, mentoring, leadership and management responsibilities for the nursery team.

Despite these benefits, some local authorities areas are seeing a reduction in the nursery teacher's role and in some cases they are no longer being employed. This is despite the Scottish Government’s requirement for nursery children to have 'access' to a GTCS-registered teacher.

The report states, ‘Many respondents believe that recent and planned funding and staffing changes will be detrimental to the early years workforce and to the quality of education that children receive, now and in the future.’

The findings of the survey, carried out by the Child’s Curriculum Group, included:

  • Robust evidence of the effectiveness of pre-school education and the actual impact of the highly qualified teacher within the sector was difficult to find in a Scottish context
  • Not all three- and four-year-olds children in funded ELC settings have access to a teacher
  • Notions of teacher presence and teacher access are ill-defined and inconsistent
  • The diversity of roles undertaken by the GTCS-registered nursery teacher includes, but goes well beyond traditional teaching roles
  • Teachers themselves know they are a vital but undervalued resource, many such teachers experience a perceived lack of support in the roles they undertake
  • GTCS-registered teachers play a unique role as pedagogical leaders and 'bridging professionals' across the Early Level Curriculum for Excellence
  • Commitment of the teaching profession to social justice, ethical encounters and combatting under-achievement brought about by social disadvantage, provide fundamental values for teaching graduates in Scotland
  • Local authorities vary in their commitment to, and ways of, employing teachers
  • The main route to specialism is through study for an early childhood specialist award at postgraduate level

The report goes on to stress the strengths of the Scottish Initial Teacher Education qualification, being that it embraces both pre-school and primary education, allowing teachers to move between both sectors.

It adds, ‘Our evidence suggests that the discussion of increased specialism should be re-visited, and at the very least… The models of teacher role should be expanded to reflect the new contributions some teachers are already making.

‘Local authorities and other employers should develop robust support systems in the light of the reported evidence that too solitary a role leads to a dip in commitment and confidence.’

It also suggested that the GTCS collaborates with training schools to strengthen the early years component of teacher education, recruit positively for new postgraduate routes and address issues of teacher placement and the probationary year.

Susan Quinn, convener of the EIS Education Committee, said, ‘This new independent report confirms the importance of maintaining a registered teacher workforce in all pre-school settings.

‘It highlights the added value that specialist early years teachers provide in nursery establishments, while also questioning the varying commitment by councils across Scotland to the deployment of teachers in nurseries.

‘The report also highlights the ambiguous interpretations of 'teacher presence' and 'access to a teacher', which is particularly important in light of the planned expansion of the early learning and childcare entitlement to 1,140 hours by 2020.’

Ms Quinn added, ‘Scotland's Curriculum for Excellence offers an enhanced learning experience for young people of all ages, supported by a seamless curricular model from age three to age 18.

‘This means that it is even more important for an appropriate level of teacher involvement in all nursery settings. The clear message is that early exposure to a quality educational experience in the nursery setting brings a whole host of benefits to young children.

‘The findings also support the belief that employing the skills and leadership of qualified teachers remains the best way to ensure a quality educational experience in all nursery settings.’