Jane Bowtell knew she had five months until her hysterectomy. She also knew the pre-school playgroup of which she was chairperson was heading for trouble. A new member of staff had pulled out a week before start of term. Jane contacted social services, which told her to get on a course to enable her to deputise.
That was in October 1998. By the time she was to go into hospital she had a national vocational qualification in childcare, achieving in months what can take five years.
Now this 44-year-old mother of four has accepted a further challenge. In the grim juggling act that requires many women to manage job, family and house, it takes courage to add career development to the list. But Jane and 20 others have signed up for a new part-time degree course. In six years, all of them - mature women with a background as classroom assistants - should hold a BA Hons in early years education studies. They could also be qualified teachers.
"An extraordinary group on an exciting venture" is how they are described by Pamela Taylor, vice-principal of Newman college of higher education in Birmingham, where the course took its first cohort last September. She says it has hit a national nerve, touching on such New Labour priorities as the early years, lifelong learning and the need to raise teacher numbers.
Degree courses in early childhood have boomed since the first two were set up in 1993. Now 26 institutions offer courses, many on a part-time basis, so students can carry on working. Yvonne Crome runs one of the pioneers at University College Suffolk. She says her course, which can take up to nine years to complete, recruits many mature women, who "cope very well and have a lot of interest in personal and professional development".
To win a place on the Newman course - demand was "huge" - students had to have early years experience, and have engaged in professional development and displayed a real interest in how children learn. They also needed their employer's written support; even though they could carry on working, the course demands an afternoon a week off work for two terms a year.
Pamela Taylor says the recruits are all "mature learners with ambition, commitment and expertise".
They are also badly paid - most earn less than pound;6,000 a year - and often taken for granted. Classroom "assistants" an often misleading label for the 100,000 people classified as such - is seen as a misnomer by the many nursery nurses in schools.
While some assistants would be content to have their contribution properly acknowledged and remunerated, others want more. Ruth Tarrant, a 22-year-old nursery nurse in south London, says: "We're classed as support staff, but I do my own job, and feel undervalued. I just have to get a degree." Ruth has decided to give up her job at the Rachel McMillan nursery school and apply for a primary BEd - a move her school supports. She worries about surviving on a student loan but says the hardship will be worth it to earn more than the "pittance" she gets now.
"A nursery nurse can only go so far without going into management, but I'd have worked in an office if I'd wanted that."
Money is an issue for colleges as well as students. Thanks largely to the efforts in 1997 of Helena Kennedy, working mother, barrister and now baroness, cash is available to help "widen participation". The Newman course benefited fom this and from the support of Warwickshire education authority, which sees its BA as a way to trigger interest in lifelong learning.
Julie Payne, another working mother and Newman undergraduate, has 20 years' experience as a nursery nurse, including setting up and running her own nursery. Aged 39, she now manages Dunchurch nursery, attached to a school in Rugby, and says of the course: "If I don't do it now I'll miss the boat. Initially my goal was to become a teacher. But going on the course has made me realise doors can open that do not necessarily lead just to classrooms.
"I don't think any of us can ever stop wanting to achieve more." Jane Bowtell agrees. With her hysterectomy out of the way and the pre-school problem sorted, she says without education she would go "doo-lally". She has another motivation. Her Warwick pre-school is under pressure to recruit a qualified teacher. "Our group functions very well, we had a brilliant inspection report. I'm not saying we don't need a qualified teacher. I'm saying I'd rather it was one of us."
* Classroom assistants have been helping teachers for decades. Numbers grew in the 1990s as schools gained control of their finances, to reach the current total of 108,000, according to the DfEE.
* Numbers will rise by 20,000 over the next three years at a cost of pound;350 million. The Government specifies no qualifications, saying that is up to schools.
* Many of the largely female workforce help pupils with special needs whose numbers increased as a result of the policy of integrating children with disabilities. Others work with the under-fives while many help with the literacy strategy, the main area of expansion.
* The sector is "crying out for rationalisation", says Dr Peter Farrell of Manchester university, who completed a major study of classroom assistants last year. "They have almost no chance of career progression and are paid very poorly. Many work for years with hardly any increase in salary."
* All ages and aspirations are represented, he says. The work is popular and councils and schools have no problem filling vacancies, even attracting an increasing number of young graduates who want to do something worthwhile as they decide on a future career.
* The 1999 Green Paper, Meeting the Challenge of Change, which introduced reforms such as performance-related pay for teachers, backs improved training and career development for classroom assistants. Consultation is due to start after Easter on a national framework.
* All this, it seems, is much needed. Keith Smith, a lecturer at Southampton university and author of a 1999 report on classroom assistants, says many are eager for further training, but are not always guided correctly. "So many do course after course, and think they are well qualified, but the courses often lead nowhere." He and Dr Farrell agree that the popular image of classroom assistants as frustrated teachers is a myth. They put the proportion who want to join the profession at 15 to 20 per cent - which may be disappointing news for a government planning to build assistants a bridge into teacher training.
* What might be preferable, says Dr Farrell, is a national training system that allows people to jump off at any point, but still to feel they have acquired something. And, he adds, more acknowledgement is needed of the skills assistants develop. They, particularly the ones working in special needs, can often become very close to children, but their expertise is not exploited. "The ones who know the children best have the least influence over what happens to them."