What is it?
Studying early-years education isn't just about learning to be a teacher, though it can also be that if you choose. Nor is it all about changing nappies. It is a comprehensive look at how children under-8 learn and develop from both a theoretical and practical perspective. With most courses including elements of philosophy, sociology and literature (for instance, the cultural concept of childhood, the role of gender in childhood and early literacy and literature for children), you may find yourself looking at Sigmund Freud's work one minute and Noddy the next. Each course will also involve a number of practical placements in different settings, from reception classes to libraries to family centres. You can usually specialise in an area of particular interest.
Who studies it?
While the majority of people who study early-years education have already decided they want to spend their working days surrounded by little darlings, fear not if you're unsure or even later decide that the very thought of hordes of children is enough to send you straight for the box of paracetamol. You'll get your fair share of transferable skills, from working to deadlines and managing others (such as children) to learning how to process data and problem-solving. To get onto a course you need to be able to prove you have skills in written and spoken English and basic numeracy. You also need to be willing to work with computers and the be able to listen, express your own views and respect the views of others. Courses are also suitable for those who are already working in the field without a qualification who wish to formalise what they know and build on their experience in the classroom. Some courses include the opportunity to have an international work placement.
Why study it?
The care and education of young children has a huge effect on their later lives, from educational achievement to life chances generally. Courses in early-years education are as far away as possible from the idea that you just have to dump some well meaning people into nurseries to make sure the children don't come to any harm. Instead they work on the principle that you need a well-trained, well-informed, skilled and confident workforce running services for young children.
But can I get a job in it?
There's huge demand for qualified people at this level and government policy in recent years has recognised the importance of a highly qualified workforce to support early-years children. Some courses include a teaching qualification. Others will prepare you to take a PGCE. Some people may decide to pursue a further qualification in social work, or to go straight into working in the community at family centres or Sure Start, the Government scheme that delivers education, childcare, healthcare and family support. Then there's specialist library work and work in the voluntary sector, education research or management roles in daycare provision. And there are plenty of higher-level courses for those who want to go on to further study or research.
Little known fact
"Give me a child until he is seven, and I will show you the man." It is true that the quality of education and care given to children at an early age has a huge effect on their achievements later in life. In fact, research shows that the number of words an infant hears each day (from a human being, not from the radio or television) is the single most important factor in later success.