For Penny Park, a playgroup assistant at the Hope Family Centre in Herefordshire, the reasons for studying for a formal qualification were simple. The 32-year-old gained an NVQ Level 2 in Early Years in 2005, which helped her to secure her current job. But she decided to study further after receiving enc-ouragement from her manager.
"She asked me whether I would like to do an NVQ Level 3 in Children's Care, Learning and Development," says Park. "I wanted to do it because it would open so many doors for me. When I finish next year I'm looking at going on to specialise in working with children with speech and learning difficulties. The qualifications will help me to get the jobs I want and increase the amount of money I can earn. They also give you the foundation and theory that helps when you're at work."
Staff throughout the children's sector are increasingly expected to have qualifications. The government's Children's Plan, which was published in December 2007, said the "single most important factor in delivering our aspirations for children is a world-class workforce". It announced a £117m investment package, spread over three years, to fund supply cover to allow early years' workers to continue their professional development.
The money will also boost the Graduate Leader Fund, so every full day-care setting will be led by a graduate by 2015, with two graduate-level trained leaders per setting in disadvantaged areas. In April 2008, the government published Building Brighter Futures: Next Steps for the Children's Workforce, which included promises to invest £73m in a package of proposals to improve training, recruitment and professional development of social workers, as well as a commitment to spend £7.5m to improve the play workforce.
Changes are also under way for professionals who work with young people. At present, youth workers are only req-uired to study to foundation degree-level to be considered professionally qualified. From September 2010, however, youth work students starting courses will need to study to at least BA (Hons) level to become fully qualified. This change will not be implemented retrospectively, so youth workers who gained professional-level qualifications under the old system will continue to be qualified.
Daniel McMillan, who has worked as a personal adviser at Connexions North London - the young people's careers and advice service - for two-and-a-half years, believes having a formal qualification is important. "When my post was advertised they were looking for someone with a 2:1 degree, preferably in soc-ial studies," says the 28-year-old. "I had a degree in health and sports studies, which fitted well."
He joined as a trainee and for the first year studied towards an NVQ Level 4 in Learning, Development and Support Studies. "You have 12 to 18 months to do it, but in reality it takes a lot less time to complete," he says. "I have also done numerous shorter courses, including in emergency first aid and addressing substance abuse."
McMillan says his qualifications help him to improve his performance at work. "They'll also be useful when I apply for jobs in the future. While I don't think you need a degree to be a good youth worker, I certainly don't think you would ever lose out from having a formal qualification," he says.
In September 2006, a new set of -national standards at graduate level were introduced by the Children's Workforce Development Council (CWDC) that cover work with children from birth to the end of the early years foundation stage. Those children's workers who meet these standards are awarded Early Years Professional -Status (EYPS), which is equivalent to qualified teacher status. The government is introducing the Early Years Foundation Stage in September, which will create a new curriculum for under-fives in England. In order to deliver this curriculum, children's centres will need to have staff who have undergone EYPS training.
Keith Brumfitt, EYPS director of strategy at CWDC, says: "With government support we offer the opportunity to work towards a graduate-level professional status," he says. "We work with 30-plus organisations and there are a range of places you can go [to study]. The length of the training dep-ends on how much experience you have. More than 1,000 people have gained this status so far."
CWDC has also developed the Integrated Qualifications Framework, -designed to establish more comparative qualifications, enabling practitioners to move more freely between jobs in the children's sector. "The principle behind this is simple: individuals get credit whenever they do training and development," says Brumfitt. "This credit is -acc-umulated and recognised across the children's sector."
Rise in applications
Jonathan Roberts, a principal lecturer at the University of Teesside, which runs a range of youth work and early years degrees and courses, says such developments have had a major effect on the institutions that provide and validate children's sector courses and qualifications. "We are rewriting our courses endlessly to meet the government's requirements," says Roberts. "We have a lot of meetings with The National Youth Agency and the CWDC. There are some things we never change, of course, and I think if someone came in who had studied youth work in the 1950s, they would still recognise a lot of what we do. Other things, however, such as partnership or inter-agency working, have changed a great deal."
Both Roberts and Dot Gosling, programme leader of youth work courses at the University of Chester, say the government's drive for more formal qualifications in the children's sector has resulted in greater numbers of students applying to their degree programmes. "We have seen many more people signing up for our Youth Work Degree [in particular]," says Gosling.
Roberts adds that degree courses can help teach people who are at the start of their career how to be professional and provide them with a strong found-ation for their work," he says. "We get feedback from past students who say they have really benefited from the technical expertise we instil in them. For example, things such as government public sector agreements are complicated, but increasingly it is youth workers who have to deal with them."
Although the trend is strongly tow-ards formal qualifications across the children's sector, Brumfitt believes it is important not to be too prescriptive. "Access to training and development that helps to improve people's skills and confidence is what is important," he says. "We need to ensure there are a range of opportunities available to people and avoid a one-size-fits-all approach."