Stephanie Northen examines what the long-promised nursery expansion will mean in terms of training and qualifications. Rumours are rife that the Department for Education really is about to announce its plans for the expansion of nursery education. One issue that tends to get lost amid the debate about vouchers for parents of four-year-olds is training. Even if, by some miracle, enough places were found for the country's four-year-olds - one estimate is that 100,000 more are needed - where are the staff to come from and what qualifications should they have?
According to Gillian Pugh, of the Early Childhood Education Forum, an umbrella group covering 32 early-years organisations, many people feel "enormous frustration that despite the fact that there is to be an announcement, and given that the DFE can hardly expect teachers in front of every class of four-year-olds, where is the trained workforce to come from?" One woman who might hold the key is Sue Griffin, training officer of the National Child-Minding Association. She also chairs the steering group of the NVQ child-care and education project.
It is through this National Vocational Qualification work that there is at least a chance of proper recognition for the thousands - mainly women - who work for little money and less status with children under the age of five. NVQs might be the ladder by which the many dedicated child-minders, teaching assistants, playgroup and nursery workers achieve a qualification that recognises their skills and even extends them.
The qualifications were introduced in the late 1980s by the Department for Employment. They are intended for people in work - whether paid or unpaid. Already about 2,500 people could wave their NVQ in child care and education under the noses of prospective employers and 16,000 are pursuing the qualification. And it is a pursuit, because NVQs are not like GCSEs or A-levels. You don't really "study for" an NVQ. You are a candidate, not a student. And you are not on a course leading to an exam, instead your "competencies" are "assessed in the workplace".
Sue Griffin says NVQs are "independent of the mode of study". What this means is it doesn't matter a damn where you learned how to get 10 noisy infants to sit quietly on the floor, all that counts is that you can do it. Or as she puts it: "My daughters learnt to drive because I paid for them to have umpteen expensive lessons. My father learned to drive by getting in a Jeep in the desert in the Second World War. But they could all get their NVQ in driving. "
She also likes the fact that an candidate cannot fail an NVQ. A child-minder assessed for NVQ level 2, for example, is either "competent or not competent yet".
Levels 2 and 3 in child care and education were introduced in 1991. (There is no level 1 because it would be at too low a standard for anyone working with young children.) However, there are problems. There are gaps in level 3, and level 4 (equalling a National Diploma) doesn't exist - making progression difficult and explaining Gillian Pugh's frustration. "All people who work with young children should be properly trained and NVQs are incomplete. Without the training being available to underpin the qualification, how can we get the trained workforce we need?" she asks.
Margaret Smith, of the Council for Awards in Children's Care and Education (CACHE) does not think the training situation is that bleak. Courses to help NVQ candidates fill in any gaps in their knowledge are springing up all over the place, she says, adding that existing courses are being rewritten in the light of NVQ national standards. Indeed CACHE, which is one of the bodies that awards NVQs in child care and education, rewrote its NNEB diploma in nursery nursing to incorporate the knowledge needed for NVQ level 3.
However, Margaret Lochrie, chief executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance, shares some of Gillian Pugh's doubts.
The PLA, which represents 20,000 playgroups, welcomed the NVQs when they started, and still supports them as "relevant to the workplace and based on measurable competencies". However, says Margaret Lochrie, "we are very worried about the lack of progress and about cost".
Cost deters many potential candidates. How can a playgroup worker who earns maybe Pounds 1-Pounds 2 a hour afford Pounds 600 to take an NVQ? Margaret Lochrie has some, admittedly faint, hopes that the expansion of nursery education will include money for training. She believes the Government should subsidise lower-paid workers who want to take NVQs.
In the meantime, Sue Griffin's steering group will, once it gets funding clearance from the Department for Employment, start work on the level 3 gaps, such as a unit for staff who work with children for whom English is a second language. It will also begin developing level 4 which will probably be aimed at, for example, people who manage nurseries or early-years development workers.
Her steering group is part of the Care Sector Consortium, a voluntary organisation sponsored by the Department of Health. The consortium is the "lead body" for the NVQs in child care and education which means it sets the qualification's standards.
Tony Smith, its joint secretary, speaks warmly of the "enormous satisfaction that the NVQs have brought, that there is something that actually recognises the many skills under-fives workers have".
He estimates that there are about 300,000 potential candidates for the child care and education NVQs and says that people appreciate a qualification "that has currency and could lead to other work".
So how do you develop an NVQ? First, says Sue, you sit down and talk to early-years workers about what they actually do, then go away and analyse the findings. This complex business is called functional analysis.
Or as a friend of hers puts it: "Doing sweet FA."
Edited by Ian Nash