Several mornings a week, Shetland childminder Jenny Smith used to hear her front door open and shut and she would hurry through to find one of her tiny charges looking lost and bewildered and, as often as not, crying. Furious, the mother of four would console the child, unable to comprehend how any woman could go to work without a backward glance.
Today, she sees the situation in a different light. "At that time I could appreciate things only from the bairn's point of view. I thought the mother was heartless. Now I know better. That poor mother was completely stressed out, having to get her kids washed, dressed and organised, rushing off to a full-time job, and then coming home to a busy evening looking after the kids and catching up with housework. I still don't agree with what she did, but I can understand why she did it."
She attributes her shift in perceptive to her participation in the pilot of a new BA degree course in early childhood studies, launched this year by Northern College as the first remote access course of its kind in the UK. "The course, especially the module on working with others, has opened my eyes to the bigger picture," she says.
Funded by Shetland Islands Council in a bid to raise the profile of those working with pre-school children, the pilot has involved 12 students working individually to complete five modules on a part-time basis.
All women aged from early 20s to 50s, with jobs as playgroup leaders, nursery nurses, childminders or after-school club leaders, they share the aim of overcoming a lack of recognition for the type of work they do.
Irene Smith, a former nursery nurse and now a playgroup leader in Sandwick, says: "For years I have been spouting forth about the fact that the job I do is an important one, yet it receives very little recognition. Until now, there have been no professional development opportunities for people like me. This course is giving me the chance to take things a step further."
The new BA has been designed to meet the demands of the growing number of early childhood professionals working to meet the demands of policies advocating educational provision for all four-year-olds and, come time, for three-year-olds and under.
Course tutor Liz Gillies, who provides support and guidance to her Shetland students in person and by telephone, says: "They have been a joy to teach, a real inspiration. Traditionally their role has been undervalued by society, but now they are finding themselves on a ladder of opportunity which leads to a variety of levels."
The course allows students to start their journey on the rung most suited to their previous experience and qualifications. They may climb as high as degree level, or choose to step off after achieving their certificate or diploma, or after only a few modules as part of a short-term professional development package. Module credits have no sell-by date, and students can resume their studies at any time.
Irene and Jenny started the course in September 1995 and are now on target for their certificate in early childhood studies. Finding the time to study has been the hardest challenge of all.
Jenny, whose children are aged between five and 12, looks after six babies and young children, at least three at any one time, between 7.45am and 5pm. While many practical aspects of her job count towards her qualifications, a significant part of the course requires reading, research and written work, which she fits in after her two younger children have gone to bed and on Sundays.
"It does require a great deal of commitment, and although I try to spend quality time every day with my children and husband, come 9pm, I have to shut the door on them and get on with my work. Luckily, they understand and leave me to it," she says.
Irene Smith says: "My husband was originally keen for me to do the course, but seems to have forgotten that now, and my teenage daughter and 12-year-old son don't take it seriously at all, and think they should come first always. It is hard to find the time to study when you are working, giving moral support through Standard grades and running kids back and forth to their different activities."
Time and financial issues mean that Irene and Jenny will step off the ladder at certificate level, although they would love to continue. Nevertheless, both women will be more than delighted with their achievements and believe their participation has considerably enhanced their professional outlook and performance.
As for the course itself, although interest has been considerable, with enquiries coming from Orkney to the Borders, places are limited due to funding restrictions. Bill Thomson, the course director, says: "Unfortunately, this type of course, in which education and child care overlap, falls between Scottish Office funding cells as they currently stand, and so we have been able to provide only 30 places, which include our 12 pilot students.
"There is a huge market out there, however, and now that the new qualification has broken down the barrier to professional development in early childhood work, the demand will only grow stronger."