MINISTERS are facing calls to protect the numbers of qualified teachers working in Scottish nursery schools.

The call comes after a new report commissioned by the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) found qualified teachers provided significant benefits to the development of young children and the running of nursery schools.

In recent years, local authorities have replaced teachers with lower-paid child development officers - previously called nursery nurses - partly on cost grounds, but also because they work longer hours.

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Councils argue child development officers are better qualified than ever before, following the introduction of new qualifications up to degree level, and their use allows them to open nurseries for longer in order to meet the demands of working parents.

However, research has consistently highlighted the importance of teachers in nursery education and figures published in December showed only 60 per cent of children in Scottish early learning centres have access to a qualified teacher on a regular basis.

The latest draft report, by the Edinburgh-based Child’s Curriculum Group, found qualified teachers made an "essential contribution" to leadership within the workforce, bridging the gap between the early level of curriculum between nursery and primary. However, it said local authorities varied in their commitment to teachers with overall numbers diminishing.

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS, said: "This independent study confirms the high value of qualified teachers in the nursery sector.

"The findings also highlight that the number of teachers employed in nursery schools and classes is continuing to decline, despite the Scottish Government pledge to ensure access to a teacher for all nursery-aged children.

"Added to this, as the report also identifies, is the highly variable interpretation of the meaning of access to a teacher by local authorities, with wide disparities in the amount of teacher involvement in young children’s learning in different parts of the country."

Stephanie Primrose, education spokeswoman for council umbrella body Cosla, said nursery teachers were a valued part of the local government workforce.

She said: "Local government operate a mixed workforce in early learning and childcare for good reasons. An adaptable workforce is needed to support children’s education and wellbeing requirements and to provide the flexibility that working parents are increasingly wanting from local authorities.

"Local authorities are completely sold on the value provided by quality early learning and childcare and Cosla has supported expansion to 600 hours and co-authored with government Scotland’s overarching policy on early years.

"However, with cuts to services inevitable as a result of the budget, the real issue is not about whether we can increase teachers or other staff in early years, but whether we can afford to operate the range of early year’s services that have been put in place over the last few years."

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "We welcome this research and will consider its findings carefully, but the executive summary appears to back this government’s determination to ensure all three and four-year-olds and disadvantaged two-year-olds receive a high quality early learning experience through their entitlement to 16 hours free provision per week.

"That is why the First Minister recently announced that every nursery in our most deprived communities will have an additional teacher or qualified childcare graduate by 2018."