The new early years qualification may squeeze teachers out of nursery schools, the NUT fears. Steve Sinnott, the union's general secretary, has written to Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, expressing concern that foundation stage pupils will not receive consistent support from qualified teachers.
"The foundation stage should have equal status with any other phase of the education system and for that to be so, it needs to be staffed by qualified teachers," Mr Sinnott said. "The idea that teaching young children does not require the same degree of training must not be allowed to develop."
This year, 600 enrolled on the new three-month course to qualify to work with babies to 5-year-olds.
The Government target is to have one early years professional in every children's centre by 2010. But Mr Sinnott believes this will undermine its target to have one teacher in every children's centre. He would prefer to see a teacher training programme developed to cover the birth-to-5 age range.
"The Government has made it clear the early years qualification is not a substitute for a teaching qualification. Therefore, early years professionals should not be substitutes for teachers. Their role needs to be clearly defined," he said.
Judith Pullen, the acting head of George Dent nursery in Darlington, employs a teacher in every class. "Nursery nurses are all very, very capable but they wouldn't argue their training covers planning and curriculum issues," she said. "It's a fundamentally important time in children's lives and you need to get the staffing right."
A DfES spokeswoman said the new early years professionals will not replace teachers, but high quality provision requires a well trained workforce with differing skills.