The Scottish Executive has set out a busy agenda for the early years sector in 2004, including the Integrated Early Years Strategy, assessment and testing for three- to 14-year-olds and a consultation on child health.
But while groups representing most areas of childcare welcomed the greater emphasis on childcare from both Holyrood and Westminster, they reiterated the demand for better pay and professional recognition.
Patricia McGinty, a director of the Scottish Independent Nurseries Association, said, 'The Government needs to intervene to find a way of helping pay nursery nurses the professional salary that they deserve. You cannot just leave it to market forces.'
Although chancellor Gordon Brown announced increases in the child tax credit in last month's pre-Budget report, Mrs McGinty expressed concerns that it was still not working properly. She said, 'We would like to see the child tax credit sorted out so there's clarity in the system and the money goes to who it was intended. At the moment it goes to the parent, without necessarily getting to the childcare provider.'
Margaret Brunton, senior training development officer at the Scottish Pre-school Playgroups Association, said, 'We anticipate that some of the issues will centre on staff recruitment and retention and the ability of voluntary sector providers to pay salaries commensurate with the qualifications and professionalism of staff. The sector will also face difficulties in supporting staff, for example by providing funding for the qualification, releasing them from work for study or attendance at college.
'Also, the growth in demand for qualifications will strain the capacity of early years training and qualifications providers to meet the sector's demands.'
Ms Brunton added, 'It is difficult to gauge until the Scottish Social Services Council publishes its training and qualifications requirements for early years workers, but we hope they provide clear descriptions, flexible pathways and career progression. They should also include reasonable timescales to enable voluntary sector workers to gain a qualification which best suits the sector's needs.'
By April the Executive should have published its Integrated Strategy for early years after a year's consultation and review. Last October Mary Mullligan, deputy minister for communities, told a seminar in Aberdeen, 'There are many policies in place across Executive departments - education, health, communities - which are designed to help children during the crucial early years period. The finalised strategy, taking account of the consultation responses and subsequent discussions, will be published in the early part of next year.'
Carol Ball, chair of the nursery nurses working group at public services union Unison, which has been locked in a two-year dispute with employers over pay and career structure, said, 'Unless we get proper recognition of the childcare workforce, they are only paying lip service to an integrated strategy.
'We would say our proposed pay scale lends itself to an integrated service.
The top of our scale matches with the bottom of the teachers' scale. If you want integrated care, then why should there be a gap in pay scales from the top to the bottom?'
Also in 2004, the Executive will publish the results of its consultation on Assessment, Testing and Reporting for Children aged three to 14. Pupils'
progress will be monitored using personal learning plans.