Linda Miller is senior lecturer in early-childhood studies at the Open University, which is working in partnership with the National Day Nurseries Association to deliver the new programme in early-years professional status.
The university and the NDNA enrolled 100 students this month. They will be assessed by both organisations in a range of workplace settings.
"This is very much a new departure for us because the programme does not lead to an academic award," Dr Miller said. "We may develop a credit system in the future where students will be awarded a degree or postgraduate qualification; but currently students achieve professional status rather than an academic award."
She said that the investment in the course represented significant extra monies for the OU. "This is not money from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, but fresh monies from the transformation fund," she confirmed.
The university will also bid for funds in the second phase, when the Children's Workforce Development Council will fund about 9,000 places. "But we have no guarantees on funding after April 2008," Dr Miller said.
The OU also runs an early-years foundation degree that leads to senior practitioner status.
"We need to develop clear pathways from the foundation degree to professional status for those wishing to go down that route," Dr Miller said.
"Currently, there is some anxiety about how the two awards will work alongside each other."
Students enrolling this September have a range of degrees, from early-childhood studies to sociology and BEds. They also all have considerable experience of working in early-years settings.
"I think this professional status will make a real difference to the workforce," Dr Miller said. "It has certainly received a great deal of publicity. But to be truly effective, salaries and conditions have to improve and match those of teachers. Other professions regulate themselves and require considerable continuing professional development, and this is yet to happen for the childcare workforce."