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The librarian got sick of me

Last week Sue Donaldson, a 46-year-old grandmother, went to see a careers adviser for the first time.

Sue is a playgroup supervisor in Selby, Humberside. She is also the proud possessor of a level 3 National Vocational Qualification in child care and education, and it was this achievement that gave her the confidence to approach a careers officer.

Her NVQ took 10 months and "a lot of grit and determination". It also cost money and here Sue, a mother of three, was lucky because she was helped by the Humberside Early Years Assessment Centre - an organisation with almost as much determination as herself.

There is an irony at the heart of child care and education NVQs. The people at whom they are aimed - those who already work with young children - often don't have the money or can't afford the child care to be able to take them. So the vicious circle of work with young children being badly paid and of low status remains.

Fortunately for Sue, Humberside's Early Years Assessment Centre recognises this problem. Set up in 1992 it now has 120 NVQ candidates on its books and a waiting list of 40. According to the centre's Jean Rennardson, there is "an untapped market out there, with so many people so desperate to start".

But they cannot start without money, and the centre has to organise the finance for most of its candidates. In other sectors it is usually the employer who pays. Sue's NVQ cost about Pounds 600, of which she paid Pounds 160 with the local training and enterprise council paying the rest. She could not have afforded the full amount.

Aside from the local TEC and the education authority, the centre has also turned to the European Union Social Fund in its search for cash. But the Social Fund will not help anyone who works more than 10 hours a week and is not geared to qualifications that allow candidates to work at their own pace. "It's so hard to explain to a child-minder that because they work over that limit they cannot have any money," says Jean Rennardson.

Sue's Pounds 600 basically bought her an assessor, someone to tell her what she needed to know and to be able to do. The actual finding out and learning was left up to her, as was how long she took to do it. While this flexibility is something that appeals to women like Sue who do not have the time or money to go to college, it does mean doing an NVQ can be lonely and requires large amounts of self-motivation.

But Sue was undaunted. She enrolled on day courses at colleges, visited other providers of child care, and read so much that "the lady in the library got sick of me".

She says she "thoroughly enjoyed" her NVQ, which boosted her self-esteem and improved her understanding of children and her ability to work with them. She and other candidates agree that doing the NVQ also proved to them how much they already knew.

The centre that has supported them in their efforts is itself not rich and only made it through last year with the help of Save the Children. Now it is trying to sell its administrative and verification services to colleges in the hope of tapping into FE money.

According to Sue Owen, Humberside's early years development officer, the NVQ has turned those who have taken it into learners. "It has made them think about the service they provide. It's one of the best developments I've ever been involved with."

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