Ask Gabi Wainwright about her chosen career as a childcarer and she will regale you with tales of her godson Finley Joe, to whom she devoted hours of attention every day while her friend, the boy's mother, was working.
Gabi took time out from her own busy timetable at Leeds City College to help to nurture him. "I was involved with him taking his first steps and crerating his first words," she says, "helping him to speak long and complex sentences. This fed into my college work and without college I would not be where I am today."
Having completed the two-year A-level-equivalent extended diploma in childcare, 19-year-old Gabi is now in charge of eight one- and two-year-old "Finley Joes" at Asquith Nursery. "We nurse children, meet their most basic and individual needs and give the education – learning through play – that helps them develop social skills, language and communication. It is important that all children are given equal opportunity, a chance in life to develop. That's what I'm there for."
Gabi is not untypical of many opting for childcare; leaving school with a vague wish to be an English teacher but having poor GCSEs, she revised her ambitions. "I thought maybe I would be a nursery nurse as I wanted to work with children," she says. The college course, however, opened her eyes to much more. After struggling at the start, within a year she blossomed because, she says, "the tutors gave me constant support throughout". Now a full-time childcarer, Gabi also plans to do a degree part time in nutritional science for children.
Leeds City College is outstanding for childcare training, say Ofsted and the Council for Awards in Care, Health and Education (Cache), the oldest and largest of childcare-training awarding bodies. More than 500 students are on courses from Entry Level (pre-GCSE) to Level 5 (degree), with a huge increase over the coming months at the request of the local authority. Following a coalition-government £1bn pledge of free childcare places in England for an additional 260,000 of the most disadvantaged two-year-olds by 2014, demand for more trained carers should rise by more than 50,000.
But part-time care costs on average £5,000 a year for parents who pay, and the challenge in the recession, David Cameron says, is to keep costs down. Launching the National Childcare Commission in June, he said: "We will do all we can to reduce the cost of childcare for parents and make sure they have affordable, high-quality places." He put the then-Education minister Sarah Teather and the Work and Pensions Under-Secretary Maria Miller in charge, to report back later this autumn with recommendations on costs and training.
There are, however, real concerns among Cache officials, college leaders and other training groups that quality training will be sacrificed to cut costs, despite recommendations from an official review of qualifications this summer for tougher training. Professor Cathy Nutbrown, the review's chair, said the entry bar for training should be raised to A-level (Level 3) minimum, arguing that costs could be constrained by increasing the size of the groups professionals should expect to manage.
However, a parallel report by the Conservative MP Elizabeth Truss, for the think tank CentreForum, calls for wholesale deregulation and cost cutting, with a "mums' army" of volunteers effectively running the show. Teather's sympathies are with Nutbrown, but she is now out of the frame, replaced as minister by David Laws in Cameron's reshuffle. Truss was made Education minister with responsibility for childcare. So, even if the mums'-army idea may have receded, the more draconian approach of Truss's looks likely, since a central part of Cameron's remit to the commission is to "relax the rules", cut costs and scrap unnecessary red tape, giving employers greater discretion.
When an extra £100m in capital spending for nursery-age children was announced by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg at the Liberal Democrat Party conference last month, there was considerable hype and no mention of the original £1bn pledge. The new cash will not meet the training needs.
Richard Dorrance, Cache's chief executive, said: "We welcome the £100m but two issues must be borne in mind. First, there are not sufficient people trained to support and develop disadvantaged two-year-olds. Childcare requires the same level of skills as that of an early-years teacher.
"Second, there is a shortage of equipment and resources for this age group. They have different needs from three- and four-year-olds. Money for buildings is welcome, but more needs to be done. We need money for training, salaries and running costs, so that we can attract the best people to the job.
"Childcare is not only about caring, it is about supporting child development – giving them the best possible start to life. Get it right, and these two-year-olds will make a much more positive contribution to society when they are older and will have fewer health and social-services needs."
For Gabi, any reduction in training would be a mistake as she insists nothing was expendable on her intensive programme of study and 400 hours of work placements a year. To meet the needs a class of two-year-olds, it is essential, she says, to know the needs of the full 0-8 age range. "I found in the process of learning that I wanted to work with toddlers. I now feel I can give the full attention they need while understanding what they will move on to."
Moreover, the constant attention of tutors, whether on the course or placements, the help when struggling, and the reinforcing of academic ideas with vocational relevance, was what spurred Gabi on to learn in a way she never did at school. "I am therefore doing my science and maths GCSEs again to get higher grades. When I did them at school I got Ds and now I want Cs for university."
To cut the training would be to close down life chances for tens of thousands like Gabi, says Jeanne Garnham, her senior tutor, who has managed the courses at Leeds since 1999. "We have a very good progression rate on childcare, particularly at Level 3, where 25 per cent go on to university," she says. "Around half leave with offers of employment, mostly from those with whom they had done placements. In a recession, few other vocational areas can claim that success rate."
Leeds, like all such colleges, says it works closely with Cache regional officials, who carry out exacting quality control of standards in institutions offering their awards. The awarding body has done so since it created the National Nursery Education Board diploma that set the gold standard in 1947. A Level 3 award from Cache or a similar body gives the licence to practise, a requirement the Truss report said should be dropped.
Julie Hyde, the senior national development manager at Cache, who regularly liaises with Leeds City College, insists the economic case for sustained investment in high-quality childcare training is unarguable. "Given the economic crisis and push to get more people into employment, with fewer on the dole, it's really important these people have access to good childcare, feeling confident that there is a secure, happy, credible, safe and valued environment offering all the best aspects of learning through play."
Richard Dorrance calls for careful judgement on qualifications from the childcare commission – which many in the profession see as a spoiler against Nutbrown, which is unlikely to reduce costs.
"Raising the entry bar to Level 3, as Nutbrown recommends, will raise quality but will hit affordability. Larger child-adult ratios cut costs but could reduce quality and safety. You could have classes of 20 with a professional teacher at Level 5 or 6 but all the evidence shows that at this age, additional support is needed to ensure a ratio of 5:1.
"We are proud of our diploma because it provides additional childcare development and helps the learner understand why best practice is best practice. Everyone wants affordable, accessible high-quality education for all, but it comes at a price. As Nutbrown accepts, reforms will take time and we are concerned with maintaining quality to meet the huge growth in demand facing us in the immediate future."