For Tracey Gibbs, getting a job in early-years care seemed anything but child's play. She left school at 16 with few qualifications and had not worked since having a family.
"I was a mum at home looking after three children," she says. "I'd spent a lot of time helping out in nursery and I loved it. I was thinking about going into childcare but I had no idea how to go about it."
Now she has an NVQ level 2 in childcare and is studying for level 3 while working as a part-time creche assistant. She achieved her qualifications through an innovative programme run by Birmingham's adult education service. The Training in Childcare project offers training and work experience for women over 25 from disadvantaged areas, who may lack confidence, skills, and qualifications.
The project recently won an award, presented by UK Members of the European Parliament, for its work in responding to the Government's drive to boost numbers working in early-years care and education. It is estimated that Birmingham will need an extra 9,000 childcare places by 2004, and another 3,000 childcare workers over the next three years.
For a busy mother like Tracey Gibbs, the programme was ideal. It was free, it was flexible to fit around the needs of her family and it offered her valuable support with her English and written work.
"At first I was nervous because I'd been out of work a while," she says. "There were times when I said I don't think I can do this, but my tutor was there saying you can, I know you can. Sometimes there's only one person in your life you meet like that, and for me she was that person."
The pound;500,000 project was initially intended to run for 18 months with the backing of European Social Fund money. In the initial project, 203 women received training: 78 gained level 1 and 69 level 2 qualifications, with a further two receiving City and Guilds awards. Many have now gained jobs in early years care. The training programme has been incorporated into Birmingham's mainstream adult education.
It offers a range of qualifications such as childminding and classroom support. The initiative also offers a range of other NVQs, including literacy, food hygiene and first aid. The childcare project was established in the city's nine education action zones. One of its key aims was to bring down barriers for those taking the courses. So there is extra support with literacy or language, and where necessary the programme even finds bus fares and childcare costs.
"Everything was there, in place ,so there was no cost to them at all," says adult education officer Liz Stearn. "There were certain people who wouldn't have been on that course otherwise."
She said that the courses have also helped some childcare students relate to their children at home. "A lot of the women come along out of curiosity and don't think they can do it. Some never succeeded at anything in the past. They had a poor school record and sometimes very difficult times at home."
Courses are delivered in community centres or, where there are none, whatever was available. In Sparkbrook it was a converted shop, in Kings Norton a disused caretakers' house.
Students get five hours' training a week in the classroom and two hours'
study skills support. The tutor also doubles as assessor when students do their work placement to allow continuity.
"You're asking for tutors with a lot of skills," says Sue Stokes, head of curriculum development. "They have to teach, they have to work with a co-tutor - which is new for many of them - they have to assess, and be able to visit workplaces."
Liz Maslen, Birmingham's childcare recruitment co-ordinator, said their qualified staff were in demand as nurseries sprang up around the city.
"There are people out there who have great potential to work with children and perhaps just don't realise that there's a pathway for them. The more we can promote these locally-based courses, the better. We're looking for qualified, trained people to slot into vacancies, and this really is a ready production line for us."