Government wants better quality education for under-fives. Teachers want continued professional development. Fiona Leney talks to two women test driving the new work-based qualification.
Seven years ago, Janice Chaplin was one of the "mum's army" of helpers at her local infants' school. Last month, she became a reception teacher at the same school and next month she is set to become one of the first people in the country to gain a brand new qualification.
The new qualification, the Early Years Professional Status (EYPS), is aimed at producing an elite corps of specialists to lead services for young children as part of the Every Child Matters campaign.
Janice says staff at Henry Maynard infants in north-east London, where she started as a teaching assistant and is now a reception teacher, not only alerted her to the possibility of doing a work-based degree offered by Kingston university, but positively supported her through the process.
"It is hard combining study and work, but a work-based degree was the only way I could afford to do it. The whole thing has only been possible because I was encouraged by the head and deputy. They timetabled me into their lessons and kept me going when I felt too tired to continue," she says.
"The advantage with a work-based qualification is that what you are learning relates so closely to what you are doing in class," she adds.
Janice, 32, now also lectures and mentors other early years students - a move she says she could never have imagined originally, but one that she finds immensely satisfying.
One advantage of having worked her way up is that she knows what life can be like for teaching assistants and how best to use them.
"I have progressed through different roles over the years I've been here and I hope people recognise that I take my responsibilities seriously. I think a lot depends on how you present yourself.
"It is important to value your teaching assistant, and to share plans you may have with them, to work as a team - although I have to admit, I like to do it my way in the end," she says.
Janice is one of a number of "pathfinder" students test-driving the EYPS course. She sees the new qualification as a recognition of the importance of early years teaching. The course is part of the Government's drive to boost the quality of care and education for children up to the age of five.
The course covers multi-professional working, with parents and children's development. The qualification will be recognised for jobs handling multi-agency work in the new children's centres, and by the end of 2008, it will be mandatory for professionals managing and leading the foundation stage in schools.
Zoe Hale, who was a special needs assistant in the foundation stage at the same school as Janice, also took a degree at Kingston university. But she has followed a different route, now running multi-agency support for families with disabled children for the London borough of Waltham Forest.
"I would never have thought I could do it," she says. "If it had not been for the staff at school, I would never have gone for the degree. But your confidence grows through education. By the time this job came up, I was ready for it."
She says that working in a senior capacity with the people for whom you once worked as a junior can be tricky, but the answer lies in good people-handling skills.
"I am now supervising many of the people I worked for. It may seem strange but it's fine, actually; I started by buying them all a good lunch," she says For further information on EYPS visit www.cwdcouncil.org.uk