COLLEGES have five years in which to train 100,000 childcare workers under Government plans to provide a million new places for the children of working parents.
The just published Green Paper, Meeting the Childcare Challenge, could have huge repercussions for further education. The document puts forward a range of measures, including creating 40,000 out-of-school clubs next year and a revised framework for qualifications, which will increase the demands on colleges to improve the range and quality of their courses.
At present only 50 FE colleges include childcare courses in their syllabus. The most common qualification - a two-year National Nursery Examination Board diploma accredited by the Council for Awards in Children's Care and Education - is awarded to around 8,500 students every year.
But a Further Education Funding Council report into health and community-care courses published last month noted that while the NNEB remained one of the most popular courses, the number of students following childcare-related national vocational qualifications was "disappointingly low" and that many colleges were "experiencing difficulties in attracting suitable staff to lead their childcare courses".
A TESLancaster University survey on public attitudes to NVQs found widespread scepticism towards childcare qualifications, which were seen as "highly questionable" or "worthless".
The Daycare Trust charity has described the range of courses on offer as "bewildering" and a multi-agency think tank is looking at ways of sorting out the qualifications muddle.
In a recent briefing paper, Working Wonders, the trust called for a "coherent national framework" with a minimum of two years' training, raised entry requirements to courses, and pay in line with other caring professions. At present, some childminders, nannies and playworkers earn as little as pound;3 an hour.
Lucy Lloyd, policy manager of the trust, which is also conducting an audit of childcare provision in FE colleges for publication next year, said the Government had to look at ways of making the profession more attractive to school-leavers: "At the moment it is not a high-status job and pay is notoriously low, yet there are people out there delivering good services."
More money needed to be invested in training programmes to ensure the high-quality, affordable childcare that the Government was promising, she said. "The infrastructures are there but they need more resources. Everybody involved recognises that there is a need to increase the capacity across the board."
Tricia Pritchard, of the Professional Association of Nursery Nurses, said that the pound;4 million earmarked for the training of new staff would not be enough and that there were already shortages of trained assessors.
She added: "While we applaud the Government for taking the initiative and making a commitment to childcare, it must be quality and not quantity. The strategy talks about one million new places but it is only providing pound;4m. This can't possibly be enough."
More than half the existing childcare workers have no relevant qualification and the cost of training a childcare worker to NVQ level 2 is about pound;800 - which makes retraining existing, unqualified staff prohibitively expensive for most playgroups and nurseries.
Richard Dorrance, chief executive of CACHE, said many in the childcare industry are ignorant of the NVQ system and "something needs to be done about that, fast".
He envisages an influx of mature women - only 1 per cent of childcare workers are male - "topping up" their existing childcare skills through short courses and in-service training to cover the shortfall in qualified staff.
"We know from our own research and postbag that the people are there who want to do it. We also know that a large number of people will be needed to make the strategy work. But they can't do it without training."