Education International
Education International

Early Childhood Education: Quality versus quantity?

published 4 September 2008 updated 4 September 2008

It’s 9:30 on a grey day in Brussels. In the colourful playground at the crèche Cardinal Mercier, 15 toddlers are giggling and running about or playing on a slide, oblivious to the imminent rain. Severine Ndeye, one of the three educators carefully watching over, calls her infant class inside to start their morning activity. “It will be raining in the classroom!” she says, pointing to five big basins filled with water and a variety of containers and toys.

For more than a decade, EI has worked to affirm and promote all children’s fundamental right to quality early childhood education. And this Belgian “crèche,” a nursery for newborns to three-year-olds, proudly abides by the Code of Quality for child care centres established by the government of the French community: adequate premises, qualified staff, in-service training, health assessment and equality of access. A healthy diet, sleep, physiological needs and play are all part of the children’s affective, intellectual and social development. Early Childhood Education (ECE) has the purpose of preparing children not only for primary school, but also for life in the same way as all other phases of the educational process. In developing countries, where Education For All is still far from reality, the provision of ECE is very limited. It is mostly organised on a private basis, and therefore only available to children from the wealthiest families. In other words, there is flagrant inequality of access. ECE is certainly a primary target for initiatives aimed at the privatisation of education. While the situation varies from country to country, it is clear that there is an upward trend in the enrolment of children in private early childhood establishments. In industrialised countries, demand for such services is on the rise as more women of child-bearing age are also holding down jobs in the work force. However, demand has so far outstripped supply that unlicensed care givers have moved in to profit from the situation. Recent research in Spain revealed more than the half of the spaces available for newborns to 6-year-olds are in the private sector. The national study, on Quality in Services for Early Childhood and Assessment of Demand, found that nearly 400 private day care centres were operating without authorization, therefore not complying with the minimum requirements for care of the youngest infants. Understandably, this news caused considerable controversy over the proliferation of unlicensed nurseries. A lack of proper supervision, qualified staff or sufficient space can have an impact on children’s health and development. That is why improvised centres with too few or unqualified care givers cannot guarantee the quality of the services provided, let alone the safety of children. The study also highlighted a severe shortage of qualified early childhood educators, who represent only 34% of staff in public institutions and almost 36% in private centres. The researchers found that 60% had undergone some vocational education and many had taken a one-year training course, but the majority of staff working in private nurseries had absolutely no qualifications. Some companies are opening kindergartens for their employees’ children without specific authorization. Other private initiatives called “ludotecas” are mere recreational centres welcoming children of any early age from 8 am to 8pm. Even unregistered private nurseries are set up in people’s apartments to host groups of children while their parents are at work. Spanish affiliates have alerted the government that the quality of ECE should not be compromised by an increase in unregulated centres. José Campos, General Secretary of Federación de Enseñanza de Comisiones Obreras (FE-CCOO) and a member of the EI Executive Board, is critical of this disturbing trend: “In the past years, there have been numerous political promises to increase provision of ECE, but the government has failed to allocate the necessary resources.” Removing the educational aspect of ECE reduces costs and helps authorities meet the increasing demand. However, ECE is not simply day care, says Carlos López, General Secretary of Federación Española de Trabajadores de la Enseñanza de UGT. “Rather, it is an essential stage in the child’s development, the first steps in the learning process,” he insisted. López explained that FETE-UGT’s position is that, for the sake of quality, all 100 million Euros recently allocated for ECE should be administered entirely by the education authorities, not shared with social services. To get a broader picture of the issues and challenges facing this important educational sector, EI has commissioned a study on the organisation and funding of ECE in Europe. It is being conducted by Dr Mathias Urban, Director of Early Childhood and Profession at International Centre for Research, Studies and Development at the Martin Luther University in Germany. The findings will be presented at the EI Pan-European Round Table on Early Childhood Education to be held in Malta in October, and will enable EI members to more effectively advocate for early childhood education services across the EU. There is much work to do, for the EFA Global Monitoring Report 2007 reveals that the comprehensive care and education of children below age 3 remains a neglected area. In countries where pre-primary education systems exist, too often they combine very low enrolment ratios with insufficient teachers, and even fewer trained professionals. At the district nursery in Brussels, it doesn’t seem to be the case. Séverine and her colleagues smoothly guide their infant class through the storm created by their water play. “We’ll need more people to help dry the room though!” By Eva Gorsse This article was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 27, September 2008.