• Inka Tähkä

Early Childhood Education: Children First - But What About Employees?

Finland and its school system are globally well-known for high learning outcomes and equitable education. Early childhood education and care (ECEC) is an essential part of the Finnish education system as a cornerstone for equal opportunities, but the field is suffering from a crisis.


Let’s begin with an overview of the Finnish ECEC system. The Finnish “Educare” model is a combination of teaching, care, and education, with special emphasis on pedagogy. All children under school-age have a subjective right to ECEC, and since 2015, all children take part in compulsory pre-school education a year before starting their basic education. ECEC teams are multidisciplinary, involving teachers, social pedagogues, and childcare nurses. In 2018, the legislation changed so that by 2030 at least one-third of the personnel in day-care centres will be required to have a bachelor’s degree from university.


A major goal of the Finnish education system is the pursuit of educational equity. The official educational documents state that in addition to equity, the primary goals for ECEC are to recognise the individual needs of every child and organise appropriate support when needed, to enhance children’s capacity to learn, and to support their growth as human beings. Clearly, ECEC is seen as an important part of children’s learning path, especially in detecting and supporting possible learning difficulties at an early age and giving equal opportunities at the beginning of their lives.


However, these goals cannot be reached if the crisis in the ECEC field continues. The shortage of qualified teachers keeps getting more severe, and personnel are often considering switching fields. A popular solution is that Finland needs to raise the intake numbers of ECE teacher students; The Ministry of Culture and Education even granted 3,2 million euros for a project to increase the number of places in ECE teacher education. However, the crisis will not be solved with increasing study admittance only, as the issues are far more complex than that. In this post, I want to address some of the key issues in the field.


Unclear responsibilities

In a study from 2017 by Onnismaa and colleagues, ECE university graduates at the start of their career felt that different work tasks were not distinguished enough between occupational groups in the workplace and felt that they weren’t able to use the knowledge gained from their teacher education to its full potential. Even though new teachers felt relatively positive about their vocational competence, uncertainty about job descriptions and responsibilities were seen as particularly dangerous for teachers at the beginning of their career in terms of motivation and engagement. On a positive note, in 2018, the legislation changed, clarifying the work tasks and responsibilities for different personnel groups.


Yet, the alarming numbers of ECEC personnel switching careers, the rising numbers of sickness absences, and a constant shortage of qualified personnel have not decreased. A study from 2019 revealed a divided work field: personnel with university education felt positive about the new and clearer work descriptions, while most of the other personnel had negative emotions towards the new additions to legislation, thinking they would add a further burden to them in the workplace. Many of the participants felt that the rising number of responsibilities and excessive workload without a corresponding salary grade were the main reason for the turnover rate of personnel.


Salary issues

Inadequate salary level in ECEC is often mentioned as one of the main reasons for the motivation to change career. Additionally, inadequate salaries are linked to the overall appeal of the ECEC field and to the number of applicants into ECEC education, as well as the feelings of being appreciated in the society. An OECD statistic about teachers’ statutory salaries reveals that pre-primary education teachers’ salaries in Finland are below the OECD average, in absolute and relative terms. Pre-primary teachers’ salaries are also low in comparison to other teachers in Finland.


In addition to the starting salaries being lower than other teachers’ in Finland and ECEC teachers’ around the world, there is not much financial motivation for a lengthy career in ECEC. By comparison, Finnish classroom teachers in primary and lower secondary education can expect an increase of around 23 per cent compared to their starting salary after 15 years of experience, while for the pre-primary educators the maximum raise in their career is around nine per cent. These statistics make it apparent that a reform is needed to appeal to new potential ECEC teachers and to keep qualified, educated personnel working in the field.


Shortage of personnel

An alarming finding in a study by Kalland and colleagues was that even though ECEC personnel feels strong engagement towards their job, almost half are considering switching careers. Most of the participants felt that their work was too emotionally burdening with too little opportunities to influence their job. A major part of all participants said that the resources for their work were inadequate. The shortage of qualified personnel and constant sickness absences are a major factor burdening teachers in the field, creating a vicious cycle where overburden leads to even more absences. Considering that the basis for the motivation to learn begins to form in early childhood, having qualified and motivated personnel working in ECEC is crucial for creating equal opportunities at an early age.


As Professor Edward Melhuish argues, research data indisputably shows high-quality ECEC and pre-primary education holding major benefits for children’s development, self-regulation, pro-social behaviour, and better learning outcomes. The international evidence consistently shows that all children from the age of two benefit from ECEC. And besides individuals, high-quality ECEC also benefits society. Adding to educational and social adjustment, ECEC reduces societal costs and increases general wellbeing. Melhuish states that “ECEC is, therefore, an essential part of the infrastructure for optimising global wellbeing”. Undisputedly, ECEC is essential to Finnish society, equitable education and for an equal start for every child. This is the foremost reason to keep developing ECEC at every level and keep the educated, dedicated personnel engaged, satisfied, and enthusiastic about their work. These issues need to be discussed widely in our society, the factors leading to personnel discontent must be studied further, and bold political decisions are needed to tackle the crisis in the ECEC field for the Finnish educational equity to remain strong in the future.

 

References

Act on Early Childhood Education and Care 540/2018. Retrieved October 16th, 2020. https://www.finlex.fi/fi/laki/alkup/2018/20180540#Pidp447348592


Kalland, M., Heilala, C., Lundkvist, M. & Forsius, M. (2019). Nauti työssäsi Kohti saumatonta moniammatillista tiimityötä varhaiskasvatuksessa.


Kumpulainen, K., & Lankinen, T. (2016). Striving for educational equity and excellence. In H. Niemi, A. Toom & A. Kallioniemi, (Eds.), Miracle of education: The principles and practices of teaching and learning in Finnish schools (pp. 71-82). SensePublishers, Rotterdam.


Melhuish, E. (2017). Reflections from Europe on ECEC Pedagogy in the Nordic Countries: A Critical Friend’s Views on the Way Forward. In Ministry of Education and Culture with K. Karila, E. Johansson, A-M. Puroila, L. Lipponen & M. Hännikäinen (Eds.), Pedagogy in ECEC: Nordic Challenges and Solutions: Seminar Report, Helsinki Finland, 22 September 2016, (pp. 38-41). 26-Nordic Council of Ministers, Copenhagen.


Finnish National Board of Education (2018). National core curriculum for early childhood education.


Finnish National Board of Education (2014). National core curriculum for pre-primary education.


OECD (n.d.) Teachers' statutory salaries. Retrieved October 17, 2020.


Onnismaa, E., Tahkokallio, L., Reunamo, J., & Lipponen, L. (2017). Ammatin induktiovaiheessa olevien lastentarhanopettajan tehtävissä toimivien arvioita työnkuvastaan, osaamisestaan ja työn kuormittavuudesta. Journal of Early Childhood Education Research, 6(2), 188-206.


University of Oulu. (2020, September 29). Varhaiskasvatuksen opettajapulaa helpotetaan monimuotokoulutuksella. Oulun yliopisto.