Government plans to raise the profile of childcare will prove a boon to universities, Claire Sanders reports in the third of our series on employer-led higher education.
The Government's determination to improve the lot of children will result in universities getting millions of pounds and thousands of students. The creation of a new profession, the "early-years professional", has been hailed as a breakthrough for children, and it could also be a boon to universities.
Up to now, a larger slice of the education budget for nursery education has meant less for higher education. But both stand to benefit under these latest reforms.
The remodelling of the childcare workforce stems from the publication in 2003 of Every Child Matters , in which the Government outlined radical changes in children's services to bring schools, social services and health workers closer together.
A new children's workforce strategy was subsequently published, and in 2005 the Children's Workforce Development Council was set up. A key element of the strategy is the creation of early-years professionals - all of whom will need to be trained.
"The development of the childcare workforce certainly does represent a major opportunity for universities," said Keith Brumfitt, director of research and development at the CWDC. "To date, the majority of the expressions of interest in training people to the new professional standards are from universities."
The Government has set aside more than £300 million in a transformation fund for training purposes. Of this, £250 million is set aside for local education authorities to release people from work so they can undertake the new training. The bulk of the cash will go towards raising the skills of staff in private commercial nurseries and ones run by volunteers.
The rest, nearly £51 million, will be distributed to training providers by the CWDC. The council has moved fast. In July, it published a list of the skills, knowledge and practical experience that early-years workers will have to meet to achieve the new professonal status.
Candidates, who must all have a degree or equivalent qualification, can follow a number of routes.
The fastest route is for those with a relevant degree and considerable experience of working in early-years settings, a primary school teacher, for example.
Those with an early-years foundation degree will take a longer route. The full training pathway of 12 months is for those with a graduate-level qualification but limited early-years experience.
This month, 600 students will enrol with ten universities and their partners in the first phase. These fast-track students are expected to achieve professional status in January 2007.
Then the council will move to the second phase. It is already taking bids to train about 9,000 students to the new professional status, this time on a variety of paths. The closing date for the bids is September 22, 2007.
"To date there appear to be four categories of university interested in doing this work," Mr Brumfitt said. "There are those with a track record in primary teaching, a track record in social work, those that have developed courses on integrating social services and the commercial arms of universities - that is those with a track record of providing in-service training with the professions."
Although he said it was too early to say which route universities were planning to offer, he noted: "Over time, universities will probably offer an academic qualification to those achieving professional status, rather as those with qualified teacher status achieve degrees. For the first tranche, the timescale has made this difficult."
As employers are being paid to send their staff on these courses and providers are being paid to run them, universities cannot charge students any extra fees. Graduates not currently in employment are not excluded, however. "The council pays the fees of these students and offers a £5,000 bursary," Mr Brumfitt said.
The CWDC's plans are ambitious. By 2008, it wants practitioners with early-years professional status in all children's centres offering childcare, and by 2015 it wants such professionals in all daycare centres.
However, funding is guaranteed only until April 2008, and any future developments are very much dependent on the outcome of the next Comprehensive Spending Review.
In the meantime, it is clear that this money could represent a major new funding stream for universities, and the Higher Education Funding Council for England has included it as a key part of its employer-led strategy.
Universities involved in the first phase of plans to create early-years professionals.
Leeds Metropolitan University