A new breed of professional is emerging in early education, thanks to innovative higher education courses offering flexible learning. Whether that professional will be happy to remain within his or her original sphere of expertise is another matter entirely. Professor Jim Wilson, vice-principal at Northern College, says: "A new breed of professional is developing and that has influence on continuing education provision in the arena of non-teaching work with children in the public, private and voluntary sectors.
"This arises from the Government's intention to seek improvements in pre-school, early and primary education. In order to support this strategy and to commit to another of the Government's plans - wider access to higher education - we see a strong need to promote a pattern of CPD that establishes a career ladder of opportunities for this emerging group. Our challenge is to meet their diverse educational needs, and we are fully confident we have the mechanism in place to do so."
Since the launch of its innovative BA in early childhood studies three years ago, Northern College has been inundated by requests for places by childminders, nursery nurses and playgroup leaders of all ages, all of whom are keen to climb the ladder and achieve formal recognition within their field of expertise.
One Aberdeen-based nursery nurse who specialises in special educational needs was among the first in her profession to gain access to the course having lobbied the local education department to provide funding for herself and others. She is now interested in whether her prospective degree will make a difference to her working environment.
"I felt it was important that nursery nurses got the chance to achieve recognition for their two-year qualification, experience and expertise. I'm very pleased I've done the course - for example, I now have computer skills I didn't have before - but the frustrating thing is that I haven't been able to put into practice what I've been learning, as the teachers ut a tight lid on that. It's also disappointing that while all my teacher colleagues know that I'm doing a degree, none of them ever asks how I'm getting on."
Soon the first wave of classroom assistants - currently working towards their HNC at Aberdeen College and other FE colleges across Scotland - may join the clamour for a place on the BA course.
One of the reasons for its popularity is its flexibility: the course offers a broad spectrum of "mix and match" modules which bridge the gaps between early education, community work and social and health care. Students - all of whom are working professionals - can choose whether to step off the ladder at certificate, diploma or degree level, and all credits achieved can be held in reserve, should a student require to take time out.
It also operates on a remote access basis (either electronically, by e-mail, or via posted materials and visits from tutors), which enables students from every conceivable social, economic or geographical background to organise their studies around their everyday lives.
The major drawback is funding - an issue with which the college has been struggling since before the course's inception, as Professor Wilson explains: "While the FE sector receives all the funding it needs to deliver early education and childcare provision, the same cannot be said for higher education. We don't think the current funding situation for early education has been fully thought out for our sector, and the HE funding system has not to date been responsive to the educational needs of the new professional group.
"We've made our point to the Higher Education Funding Council and to the Scottish Executive, but they have ignored our pleas for extra provision. This means we are currently operating on a fees-only basis, which is losing us money, and we are having to turn prospective students away because they can't afford to pay the full cost and we can't afford to take them on.
"We are, however, greatly encouraged by the success of the course and we will not give up on our attempts to bid for more funding of places at every available opportunity," he concludes.