THE number of qualified teachers in Scottish nurseries has fallen sharply, according to the latest figures, leading to fears over the quality of education in the sector.

Across Scotland, the number of qualified nursery teachers has fallen by 113 in the past year, from 2181 in 2005 to 2068 in 2006 - a drop of more than 5-per cent.

The figures, released by the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), come amid growing fears over the quality of education in council-run nurseries, with several local authorities either reducing numbers or holding reviews into the use of teachers.

The most controversial was Glasgow City Council's decision to axe nearly 40 nursery teachers and replace them with less qualified staff as part of its council tax budget cuts.

Teaching unions fear that standards of education will fall if teachers are not an integral part of the running of nurseries.

The view is supported by Europe's largest pre-school research project, carried out in England, which found a direct correlation between the quality of a pre-school setting and the qualifications of staff.

However, the issue also ref lects the increasing demand for so-called wraparound care, where nurseries are open longer to care for the children of working parents.

As teachers work a fixed 35hour week and their salaries are relatively high compared with other council employees, officials are increasingly using nursery nurses, who are paid less and are on more flexible contracts.

Councils argue that nursery nurses are now better qualified than ever before both to look after children and to give them the necessary educational input, particularly following proposals for a raft of new qualifications for nursery nurses up to degree level.

Last night the EIS, the country's largest teaching union, warned that education would be damaged as a result of the reductions.

Ronnie Smith, the union's general secretary, said: "With all the weight of evidence pointing to the value of nursery education, it is perverse that local councils should now be reducing the numbers of nursery teachers working in their area.

"It now appears that Glasgow is leading the way in a direction which no parent could have wished. Other authorities are now starting to follow by removing nursery teachers from schools and classes.

"There is no educational rationale for this development. The removal of nursery teachers is purely a budget-saving device.

"It is a false economy because increasingly children will lose out on the benefits which quality nursery education can bring."

However, a spokesman for Cosla, which represents local authorities, said it was a matter for each local authority to determine where best to deploy its teachers.

"We believe teachers make an invaluable contribution to early-years provision and future achievements by children are highest when founded in an excellent start in a nursery setting, " he said.

"However, how that contribution is made can vary from council to council and indeed from school to school. It is important that the local authority targets its resources appropriately."

Unions representing Scotland's 5000 nursery nurses also defended their use. Carol Ball, an early years expert with the public services union Unison, said that she was "angered" by suggestions that education would suffer as a result of the changes.