Fifty years ago, nursery education was seen by many as childminding. Since then, there has been a huge increase in awareness about the importance of this time in a child’s life. It is now undisputed that a strong start contributes to good health, strong social and psychological development and higher levels of attainment. In the ongoing fight against poverty, quality nursery education is vital as it can help reduce the gulf in attainment levels that exists between rich and poor.

This agenda was championed by the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition in Scotland 10 years ago, and where they left off, the incoming SNP government picked up. Ministers pledged to ensure that there would be access to a qualified nursery teacher for every nursery-aged child on their watch.

But a new EIS-commissioned report suggests that progress towards that goal has gone into reverse. It points to a 30 per cent reduction in qualified teachers in the sector in the past decade. There is now one teacher to 84 children; what is more, further reductions are expected. Figures published in December show that only 60 per cent of children in Scottish early learning centres have access to a qualified teacher on a regular basis while a quarter have no access at all. The report also highlighted concerns about the vague term “access” to a nursery teacher.

How has this happened? Some councils appear to be less committed to having teachers in nurseries than others. Partly this is because, post financial crisis, councils need to save money. Many have therefore replaced teachers with lower-paid child development workers, who used to be called nursery nurses. Another driving factor is the demand for nurseries to stay open later, at increased cost, for parents who work long hours.

There are many excellent staff at all levels in the nursery sector who provide a great standard of care and education to young children, creating a loving, nurturing, secure atmosphere in which children thrive. Child development workers are certainly qualified – better qualified as a section of the workforce than ever before, in fact – but they do not happen to bring all the same skills as teachers.

This matters because in nurseries with qualified teachers, the evidence suggests the quality of the children’s experience is better. Having appropriate registered teaching staff operating in nurseries is also potentially helpful in getting the best out of Curriculum for Excellence. They are not the only highly qualified staff whose input is beneficial – the BA in Childhood Practice is well regarded and can be held by non teaching staff. But this fall in the number of qualified teachers working in early years settings is an unwelcome trend that needs to be reversed.

The Scottish Government has responded to the concerns with more pledges of more graduates. That is all well and good but with its earlier target on nursery teacher access not having been met, parents could be forgiven for doubting how much difference this will make. It is another piece of bad news for the Scottish Government, which has presided over falling attainment levels in reading among primary pupils between 2012 and 2014, and a dramatic decline in numeracy among primary pupils.

Qualified nursery teachers should be a mainstay of Scotland’s early years education. Losing them is an economy too far.