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Early risers

Working in early years is not as easy as it looks. Now a course at Cambridge university is giving students the training they need. Stephanie Northen reports.

Everyone has fears. Fears of spiders, of flying, of dying. Of being left in a room with a group of three-year-olds for several hours a day.

For some people, that last example will generate more than fear. Especially when, in their nightmare, the nursery door opens to admit parents, social services staff, health visitors and inspectors. The sweat begins to soak the sheets when one child breaks a toy, another asks how aeroplanes fly and a third has a nosebleed. And, reaching for the cotton wool, they fail to notice that the blood is dripping all over the latest batch of government guidance on how they should do their job. Time to wake up.

Being an early-years teacher is "a very specialist task and a big responsibility", says Wendy Scott, chief executive of the British Association for Early Childhood Education. "The better students realise that and are humble and sometimes very nervous."

Sue Bainbridge knows what it takes to be a good early-years teacher. She is the headteacher of Colleges nursery in Cambridge. Despite its name, it is an ordinary local authority school with 80 part-time children. Well, ordinary is not quite right. It is actually the only beacon school in Cambridgeshire, an accolade it won after a glowing inspection report in 1996.

Working in early years is, says Sue Bainbridge, very different from working with older children. "You have to be very organised and you have to plan, but there also has to be a freedom, a flexibility to pick up on what children are interested in and go along with it.

"You are not leading from the front as in secondary teaching. It is crucial that you have good observational skills which allow you to plan activities, and resources that build on children's interests and extend their skills and knowledge. If you get it right it just takes off."

After observation comes interpretation and an understanding of how a young child thinks and learns. For a top-notch early-years teacher, add the need for a caring nature, boundless enthusiasm and commitment, loads of energy, good communication and the ability to work in a team.

Wendy Scott says people don't notice when the job is done well. "It looks simple and things run smoothly. That's part of the art. It's not enough to mean well."

Over the next few weeks, a student teacher will get the chance to prove herself at Colleges nursery, for Bainbridge has agreed to work in partnership with Homerton college, Cambridge, on its early-years postgraduate certificate in education course.

It is a first for Bainbridge and a first for Homerton, which has never run this course before. Its 25 guinea pigs have taken advantage of the fact that PGCE students can now specialise in early years instead of a curriculum subject - a change announced in 1998 by the Teacher Training Agency.

They have no doubts about their choice. Susan Miller, a 28-year-old student, says: "I did my degree in history and politics. Then I travelled, mainly around south-east Asia. I came back to get a job with BT, but there was no satisfaction in thinking at the end of he day that I had increased a huge company's profits."

She escaped for two mornings a week to work in a reception class, and was hooked after six months. "It was enough time to make an impact on those children and to see them develop."

Fellow student Katy Kowalski agrees. Aged 29, she is a fine art graduate, specialising in photography and sculpture. The mother of a four-year-old, she is committed to early-years education. "You can make the most impact at the earliest age," she says. "You are often the first point of contact for children with school and it is vital to get that right."

A member of the National Campaign for Nursery Education, Katy is pleased that early years is getting more attention and money from the Government. "But the system is still working from the top down and not taking the child as the starting point."

Most people in early years regard such statements as the essence of good practice, yet they feel that while things have improved under Labour, they are still swimming against a political tide of tests, goals, outcomes and results.

Holly Anderson, Homerton's joint language co-ordinator who teaches the PGCE students, bemoans the great weight of the curriculum that bears down on colleges. "The pressure is to train students to teach the subject. What has been lost is a reflection on teaching and learning, and particularly on the needs of very young children. It is a great pity that child development isn't studied in the way it used to be."

Homerton's early-years students are encouraged to intepret the curriculum positively, to balance the demands of politicians with the needs of the three to eight-year-olds who will be entrusted to them. They are also encouraged to question and to think - just what they will be doing for their pupils. "They are a challenging group who do not take things at face value," says Holly Anderson, "and I'm glad that they don't."

The students have 36 weeks in which to cover a lot of ground. They spend about half of the time on placements, where another distinctive aspect of the job should become apparent: more than any other classroom teacher, they have to work closely with other staff, mainly nursery nurses and learning support assistants.

Both Sue Bainbridge and Holly Anderson see nursery nurses as a vital complement to the teacher. According to Ms Bainbridge: "Nursery nurses' training really does stress looking at the child. For some teachers it is quite a big step from thinking about the curriculum, activities and resources, to actually thinking the child is at the centre of it all."

One Homerton student who has been "thinking about the child" for four years now is 22-year-old Leah Kemp. She has a degree in early childhood studies from University College Suffolk. While some universities prefer graduates applying for their PGCE courses to have a degree in a national curriculum subject, others are more than happy to accept students such as Leah who have already made a commitment to education.

Leah took a year out before going to Homerton and spent it eventing on her horse, Bonny. Over the next few weeks she may well look back on those months of mud, leather, horseflesh and huge fences as a bit of a holiday.

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