Union leader brands pre-school staff `well-meaning amateurs'

Avril Hall Callaghan, UTU general secretary

A PROMINENT teaching union leader has labelled hundreds of pre-school classroom staff "well-meaning amateurs".

The head of the Ulster Teachers' Union (UTU) said some children were being left in the hands of people who lacked the necessary skills or knowledge.

The comments by UTU general secretary Avril Hall Callaghan have aroused the ire of early years experts.

The UTU is an advocate of teacher-led schooling for three-year-olds.

Ms Hall Callaghan said teachers were trained "in this most specialist area of education" taking place at a time in a child's life when "its experience could make or break its attitude towards learning".

There are 803 funded pre-schools in the north and more than half of these are voluntary and private pre-school centres - playgroups and day nurseries.

This year, there are 15,216 children enrolled in teacher-led nursery school or units compared to 8,716 in private and voluntary settings. Some of the latter group will be teacher-led.

Ms Hall Callaghan said the UTU believed that children in early years education should be "under the care of highly skilled professionals".

"Early years education should be about the child and ensuring they get the best possible start to their learning lives. It should not just be about letting mum out to work for a few hours a week," she said.

"Most parents wouldn't dream of sending their child to a primary or secondary school run by under-qualified staff so they should have the same qualified provision of teachers running nursery units.

"It is ironic that our system clings onto the so-called elitism of the grammar schools, yet thinks nothing about leaving our most vulnerable children in the hands of well-meaning amateurs in some pre-school settings, people without the skills or knowledge to ensure every child gets the best start in its learning life."

The Department of Education advised that while private and voluntary settings were not required to be teacher-led, some may be.

"All funded pre-school settings are equally valued for their contribution to the education of pre-school children and all follow the same curriculum guidelines and are subject to the same education inspection standards," a spokeswoman said.

Nursery schools and units within primary schools are staffed by qualified teachers and nursery assistants.

In voluntary/private settings, at least half the staff must hold a relevant qualification and are expected to work towards ensuring that all staff have relevant qualifications.

In addition, all funded voluntary/private pre-school settings are required to access support from a qualified teacher or early years specialist to assist with raising standards of provision.

Siobhan Fitzpatrick, chief executive of Early Years, said the "well-meaning amateurs" reference was "insulting and totally inaccurate".

"There is absolutely no evidence from local or international research that pre-school provision led by teachers provides better educational outcomes for young children," she said.

"The evidence does suggest that what we need are well-trained early years educators who are grounded in child development with an understanding of the latest research from neuroscience and who can form warm, caring respectful relationships with young children, their parents, families and the wider community.

"The voluntary and independent pre-school sector is full of such highly-qualified and highly-committed individuals, some of whom may have started their career as teachers but who quickly realised that a teaching qualification alone does not qualify you to work with young children."


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