VOLUNTEERS running playgroups, out of school clubs or working as childminders must gain recognised qualifications or close.

Under new rules brought in by Ofsted, all groups and organisations caring for children in the absence of their parents must show their leaders hold at least an NVQ level 3 qualification or a diploma in pre-school practice.

The aim is to ensure standards in early years care are high and bursaries are available to cover the costs of training, which can take between six months and five years.

Janet Clarke, Pre-school Learning Alliance field worker said: "This can be a good stepping stone for a career as once qualified you could then work in any early years setting such as nurseries."

However many playgroups have already suffered a drop in numbers due to the availability of free nursery places for three year olds.

Now there are fears the new rules may force groups to close if volunteers are unwilling to follow the courses, and take on the extra paperwork required by Ofsted.

Vicky Stephenson, of the Dales Playschool in Grassington, which now provides daycare, feels strongly about the issue and believes many playgroups across Craven will be lost.

She said: "I think this will be a huge problem. It is really difficult to run a playgroup, and playgroups in rural areas will struggle.

"They can only pay a small wage and there is no pay in the school holidays. It is so difficult to get staff and now they have to be trained as well.

"To get the vouchers for the three year olds, which is quite a lot of money, the playgroup has to be registered with Ofsted and that's a nightmare. There is a lot of record keeping and every activity that is put out has to be recorded to show what every child has achieved. In rural places they just can't do it.

"Playgroups in Craven have been run really well and they have done a very good job. The great thing about playgroup is that everyone is working for the benefit of the children not for any profit.

"Ten years ago I would think 'what can I do to make playgroup fun for the children?' Now it has to be multicultural and meet the six areas of learning.

"I think playgroups in a lot of villages will die. In rural areas where are the children going to get together to socialise? Social interaction in the Dales is a real nightmare."

Parents in Grassington were keen to see their playgroup survive so last September it became the Dales Playschool offering all day care enabling more parents to get jobs.

However Vicky says this will not be an option for smaller, more isolated groups.

Ian Wood, who runs Bentham's Out of School Club, holds the BTEC national diploma in nursery nursing.

He said that having to have groups run by qualified people could be a problem in rural areas just because there were less people in the villages available to do the work.