Growing numbers of pupils starting primary school are unable to speak in sentences, cannot sit still or listen and don’t even know how to hold a pencil, a teaching conference has heard.

The issue has arisen because of declining standards in nursery school, a teacher told the annual general meeting of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS).

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

Councils argue child development officers are now better qualified than ever following the introduction of new qualifications 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.

Jillian Gillespie, a primary teacher, told the EIS agm in Perth: “Over the years we have seen a steady decline in the abilities of children coming into P1.

“Poor communication skills, poor speech, social and emotional difficulties, lack of independence. We can no longer assume that the children coming into P1 have a basic level of ability.

“Some children are coming in to school unable to speak in sentences, they don’t know how to sit and listen and a majority of them don’t even know how to hold a pencil.”

Ms Gillespie said the job of being a P1 teacher was getting harder every year because there was “no educational input” in nurseries.

And she warned the situation had arisen at a time when the Scottish Government was doubling the provision of free nursery places.

“Local authorities are decreasing the educational value in the early years and we need to put teachers back into nursery,” she added.

“Our curriculum is three to 18 and we should have a teacher there educating from three.

“I am not disrespecting what our early years officers do, they do a very good job, but teachers are qualified to a higher standard and can offer high quality educational activities and encourage pupils’ development.”

A motion from the Dumfries and Galloway EIS local association called on the agm to campaign for qualified teachers to be part of the core staffing of nurseries.