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Row as Ulster Teachers' Union chief labels pre-school staff 'amateurs'

By Rebecca Black

An early years expert has blasted a senior educationalist for describing some pre-school staff as "well-meaning amateurs".

Early Years chief executive Siobhan Fitzpatrick described the comment by Avril Hall-Callaghan of the Ulster Teachers' Union as "inaccurate and ill-informed", saying pre-school staff must be qualified to work in the sector.

Ms Hall-Callaghan yesterday stood by her comment, and said her intention had been to highlight a lack of funding for pre-school education.

"No, I don't regret it, because in some cases, that is what we have got out there," she said.

She issued a statement earlier this week following a recent national report from Save the Children which said that every nursery should have a qualified early years teacher to help toddlers develop skills like speech and language.

"The report stated that pre-schoolers can be 'set back decades' if their brains are not adequately stimulated before they start formal schooling and this is something our colleagues in the primary sector see time and again," she said.

"We believe that early years education should be in the hands of professionals - teachers who have been 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."

Ms Hall-Callaghan said early years education should be about the child and ensuring they get the best possible start to their learning lives, not, she added, "just be about letting mum out to work for a few hours".

"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," she said.

Ms Fitzpatrick rejected Ms Hall-Callaghan's comment about "well-meaning amateurs".

"I find that statement inaccurate, ill-informed and downright insulting to the 10,000 early childhood educators who work in the independent and voluntary pre-school sector in Northern Ireland," she said.

"Inaccurate because no one can work in an early childhood setting without qualification."

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