Morale among early years workers has hit rock bottom because of low pay, lack of recognition and the absence of a proper career structure.
This is the view of Dr Tony Bertram, deputy director of the Centre for Research in Early Childhood at Worcester College of Higher Education, who has just completed a five-year, national study of early years workers - Effective Early Childhood Educators.
Dr Bertram, who worked for 13 years as an infant teacher before moving into higher education, interviewed and observed 169 early years workers in several local authorities throughout Britain for his project.
He found that while practitioners mostly had a strong sense of vocation and expressed "deep, personal satisfaction and joy" in their work, many were frustrated by poor pay, lack of training opportunities and an inability to progress up the career ladder.
"My research indicates that those who hold a Nursery Nurse Examination Board (NNEB) diploma are most dissatisfied. They often have the longest service of all early years workers, yet they are at the same level when they enter as when they leave 25 years later," he said.
"These are highly skilled, well-educated practitioners. They do not, on the whole, wish to become managers or administrators, but they do want a career structure which acknowledg es experience or rewards special attributes. We need to offer them something more."
One solution would be to introduce more incentives, increments, rewards and access to in-service courses. Nursery nurses should have the opportunity of taking on co-ordinating roles, he said.
"This could be particularly useful now that nursery vouchers are going to be putting added pressure on schools as increasing numbers of children go into reception classes. "
For his study, Dr Bertram developed a special observation tool based on the concept of "engagement" - which describes the way an adult interacts with a child.
He looked, in particular, at three categories of engagement: sensitivity to the child; whether the adult stimulates the child; and the adult's ability to give the child some autonomy, or choice, about its own learning.
He found that, on the whole, workers displayed a reasonably high level of sensitivity, but their general educational level was fairly poor. This was especially true of playgroup workers, who often found it hard taking time out to go on training programmes because they had young children of their own.
"Large numbers of workers have no qualificati ons at all, even within schools. There are also substantial numbers who may have teacher qualifications but not early childhood qualifications, " Dr Bertram said.
"Overall, those who have had some level of training are, not suprisingly, better at stimulating the child. Although there may be a lack of training opportunities, in questionnaires and interviews people were expressing a strong, universal desire for it."
Dr Bertram believes the lack of training among early years workers should cause grave concern. With more mothers going out to work, he explained, practitioners, including child minders, are playing an ever more significant role in young children's lives. Yet, at present, many are simply not qualified enough to do the job properly.
Nursery nurses are well qualified but tend to be under-used. Yet it could be argued that their training, with its emphasis on observation and development of the whole child, is better than the current primary training which focuses narrowly on the national curriculum, said Dr Bertram.
"One teacher I spoke to said that her nursery nurse was so good that she'd steered her through her first few months in the job. Ironically, the nursery nurse had been the mentor rather than the other way around.
"All the recent research suggests that what happens to children in their early years is crucial in terms of establishing attitudes to learning, yet many practitioners say their work simply isn't given the recognition it deserves," he said.
Deborah Lawson, chairman of the Professional Associatio n of Nursery Nurses (PANN), said she was not surprised by Dr Bertram's findings.
"The idea that anybody can look after young children seems to be prevalent. Until this idea is completely reversed, morale will remain low," she said.
"Nursery nurses are well motivated and like to see children achieving. But we have mortgages to pay and families to support too. I know of women with many years' experience who have left the profession because they got so fed up. Some people think: 'Is it worth all the hassle? Wouldn't I be better off filling shelves at Sainsbury's?' "
Melanie Sibthorpe, a nursery nurse with 19 years' experience, has been working at Latchmere Infants' School, Kingston upon Thames in Surrey, for two years. She said: "I feel frustrated but it's got nothing to do with where I work. Here I feel very valued. I'm treated as an equal and I've been given quite a lot of responsibility.
"But the fact is there's no career structure for nursery nurses in schools. If you work in a family centre or day nursery you can move up and become an officer in charge of the establishment. If you work in a school you start as a nursery nurse and remain as one.
"You can do a further qualification but it doesn't bring any financial rewards. When you get to 21, that's more or less as much money as you'll ever get. I love working with young children and that's why I continue. But it would be nice to know that if you wanted to advance your career in some way you could."