Helen Haygarth is the North East’s very first graduate of a national pilot programme designed to develop highly skilled professionals who will help improve the lives of children and their families.

The University of Sunderland was selected as one of only eight universities in the country – and first in the region – to introduce a new level of recognition for students on its Childhood Studies course.

The Early Childhood Graduate Practitioner Competencies aims to shape the identity of the early childhood workforce and strengthen the professional practice aspect of the degree.

Mum-of-three Helen, 45, worked full-time while studying towards the professional qualification, which she says has helped improve and inform her practice as an Intensive Family Support worker in the Durham area.

“I’m thrilled to be the first to graduate from the course, it’s been a challenge juggling life, study and work but worth it,” she said.

“The course has undoubtedly informed my practice, it’s all about reflection; what works best to improve the quality of life for children and families. I was working in an early years setting at school, and now I work directly with families and children to provide practical direct support from routine behaviors, non-school admissions, drug and alcohol issues, special education needs – the list is endless; whatever we’re presented with we try and solve.”

She added: “It’s also that academic validation and recognition as a professional, you no longer feel devalued and underpaid, as this qualification sets you alongside those in the teaching profession. The competencies highlight how much you do in your job role.”

The competencies have been developed by members of the national Early Childhood Studies Degree Network (ECSDN) in conjunction with students and employers and are endorsed by the Department for Education (DfE).
There is also more good news for graduates of the University course with the ECSDN announcing a historic major change nationally to the official perception of early childhood graduates as ‘professionals’, as announced in the National Occupational Standards 2020.

This means Early Education and Childcare practitioners are now classified as Associate Professionals instead of ‘Teaching and Childcare Support Occupations’ (non-professional).

Dr Lindey Cookson, Childhood Studies Team Leader, said: “This national strengthening of the position of Early Childhood Studies Graduates as professionals is welcome news and truly historic. Being Associate Professionals recognises the contribution of Early Childhood Studies graduates with relevant early childhood practice to the workforce. This not only enhances the degree programmes but also enhances graduates’ chances of having appropriate graduate/professional employment in the early childhood field.

“The changes also mean that this will strengthen the position of the Early Childhood Graduate Practitioner Competencies as well as all Early Childhood Studies graduates.

“For this news to be announced as we celebrate our first graduate from the Competencies programme, shines a spotlight on Helen’s achievements and the impact she is having in her daily work.”

Gayle Blackburn, senior lecturer leading the Early Childhood Graduate Practitioner Competencies, commenting on Helen’s achievements, said: “Helen’s an amazing individual, who has worked so hard and is really passionate about what she does. She has created strong relationships in her role and developed as a professional since beginning the programme.

“As our first graduate, Helen is a great advocate of the programme and this could not come at a better time for her with the national strengthening of the position of Early Childhood graduates.

“Allowing graduates to be recognised as professionals will impact on their opportunities and work environment, as well as a professional graduate salary.”

She added: “As a University, we continue to recognise the need to enhance early learning provision as a positive way to improving young children’s lives through the development of a highly skilled graduate workforce.”

Helen, from Peterlee, for many years worked in an early years setting before completing a Foundation degree in 2017, followed by the University’s Education and Curriculum Studies top-up degree, embedding the Competencies into her study.

She said: “You could say I’m from that background in society you would not expect to achieve academically, but here I am and I’m proud of what I have achieved. Sunderland has been fantastic; it was such an accessible course. The driver for all of this has been to be a role model to my own children. I wanted to show them that you can achieve with hard work. My two oldest are now at university, and my 16-year-old is now in sixth form college, I couldn’t be happier.”

Currently there are different routes into the early childhood careers, with some programmes having an academic focus only, while others offer placement opportunities or are employment based.

Under the Competencies programme students have to meet nine competencies through assessed placement tasks, observations of practice and academic assignments.

They include: advocating for young children’s rights and participation, promoting holistic child development, working directly with young children, families and colleagues to promote health, well-being, safety and nurturing care, observing, listening and planning for young children to support their well-being, early learning, progression and transitions, safeguarding and child protection.