Decent work for early childhood personnel: 10 years since the adoption of the ILO Policy Guidelines and the way forward

published 12 December 2023 updated 20 March 2024

On November 30, Education International hosted an online event to assess the progress made in implementing the International Labour Organization Policy Guidelines on decent work for early childhood education personnel 10 years after their adoption and reflect on new developments in the sector. The discussion was informed by the special edition of the I-BEST survey that explored the health and well-being of early childhood education workers across 9 territories in 2023.

The majority of early childhood educators feel undervalued and underpaid

The 2023 edition of the International Barometer of the Health and Well-being of Education Personnel (I-BEST) provides fresh insights into the main challenges facing early childhood educators. The I-BEST is a semiannual global study conducted by the Education and Solidarity Network and the MGEN Foundation for Public Health, in collaboration with Education International and the UNESCO Chair Global Health & Education. A total of 4,254 ECE personnel from France, Spain, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Belgium, Argentina, Quebec, Canada, and Cameroon responded to this survey. Of those, 80% are teachers, 90% are women, and 90% work in the public sector. All work with children aged 3 to 5.

The results reveal educators’ dissatisfaction with their quality of life and work-life balance. Over half of respondents reported high levels of stress. The lack of opportunities for promotion, low salaries, and the perceived low status of the profession in society also emerged as serious challenges for the sector. Alarmingly, more than a third of participants in most countries have been victims of violence in the past 12 months.

“Early childhood education must no longer be something for the privileged but should be a right for all. To ensure that every child receives quality early childhood education, we need highly qualified and motivated personnel that enjoy decent working conditions.”

Haldis Holst | EI Deputy General Secretary

Maximising the impact of the ILO Policy Guidelines

In 2013 the International Labour Organization (ILO) brought together government, employer, and worker representatives to agree on a set of policy guidelines to promote decent work for early childhood education (ECE) personnel, with the aim of ensuring universal access to quality ECE.

Since then, several developments have had a significant impact on the working conditions of those who work with the youngest children. ECE personnel have been among the education workers whose employment conditions were most affected by the pandemic, facing dismissals, loss of income or being forced to take annual leave.

In her opening remarks, Haldis Holst, Education International’s Deputy General Secretary, noted the progress made in the sector over the last decade and stressed the connection between decent working conditions for educators and the quality and accessibility of early childhood education. “Early childhood education must no longer be something for the privileged but should be a right for all. To ensure that every child receives quality early childhood education, we need highly qualified and motivated personnel that enjoy decent working conditions,” Holst highlighted.

Moderated by EI’s Director of Policy, Research, and Advocacy, Antonia Wulff, the panel included

  • Mathias Urban, Desmond Chair of Early Childhood Education, and Director of the Early Childhood Research Centre at Dublin City University;
  • Lasse Bjerg Joergensen, Head of International Relations of BUPL, EI member organisation representing education workers in Denmark;
  • Oliver Liang, Head of Public and Private Services unit at the ILO;
  • Carlos González-Sancho, Policy Analyst of the Early Childhood Education and Care Division at the OECD;
  • Rolla Moummé, Coordinator of the Programme on Right to Education at UNESCO.   

Panelists discussed the importance of the ILO Policy Guidelines and the progress made over the last decade in the sector, notably the broad international consensus on the importance of early childhood education. The adoption of Sustainable Development Goal 4 on education with target 4.2 on early childhood education specifically is a testament to this important change of mindset.

Notable challenges remain, including the fragmentation of the sector, the high teacher to pupil ratio, the shortage of qualified teachers, low salaries compared to other sectors of education, and poor working conditions.

Panelists welcomed the attention given to early childhood education by the United Nations’ High-Level Panel on the Teaching Profession which is working to put forward a set of recommendations to address the global teacher shortage.

Panelists also warned that the ILO Policy Guidelines on the promotion of decent work for early childhood education personnel are not widely known and used by relevant stakeholders. While some education unions such as BUPL have championed the Guidelines throughout their work, many unions and stakeholders remain unaware of this important international instrument.

Education International has commissioned a report on the implementation of the ILO Policy Guidelines and is working closely with researchers Mathias Urban and Mercedes Mayol Lassalle and their team on this project. Preliminary findings indicate that more needs to be done to promote the Guidelines among education unions and international organisations. Going forward, it is essential that relevant data on the sector is collected and a mechanism that monitors and evaluates the implementation of the Guidelines is agreed and deployed.

The report will be launched in 2024. Education International will host an online event to discuss the findings.