THE GENERAL REFORM OF THE EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION AND CARE ACT IS AN IMPORTANT STEP FORWARD IN DEVELOPING THE WHOLE FIELD

Recently, wages and job requirements in early childhood education have been in the headlines a lot. The general reform of the Early Childhood Education and Care Act, which to a great extent affects the field, has gained less attention in the media. The bill has been circulated for comment. The bill is an excellent step in the right direction in developing early childhood education. However, there is still a lot to be done.

Up till now, bachelors of Social Services (from universities of applied sciences, UAS) and bachelors of Education specialised in Early Childhood Education and Care have been awarded the qualifications required of kindergarten teachers. With the new Early Childhood Education and Care Act, there would no longer be any kindergarten teachers, but the title would be divided into two new titles: teachers in Early Childhood Education and Care and bachelors of Social Services in Early Childhood Education and Care. Separating the titles according to the level of education is a long-awaited and necessary change. By separating the titles according to the level of education, the expertise of the specialists working in the field is recognised.

In the bill, a change in staff structure is also presented; kindergarten staff will mainly consist of teachers in Early Childhood Education and Care, bachelors of Social Services and childcare workers. By 2030, two thirds of the kindergarten staff will have to be teachers in Early Childhood Education and Care or bachelors of Social Services and at least every third will have to be teachers in Early Childhood Education and Care. In addition, the bill proposes a requirement of a Master’s degree for kindergarten managers. However, the length of the transitional period (12 years) for these changes raises questions. In its proposed form, the transition will be slow. Currently, up to 80 percent of kindergarten staff are bachelors of Social Services or childcare workers, which is a long way off when it comes to the objectives of the bill. The bill should be amended so that municipalities would have an obligation to immediately regulate the staff structure when the bill enters into force. The changes should be made through natural rotation, both when it comes to the staff structure and the degree requirements for kindergarten managers. New staff who fulfil the requirements should be employed to take the place of departing staff until the objectives of the bill are achieved.

The long-term goal is that teachers in early childhood education should also have a Master’s degree. Generally, teachers are required to have a Master’s degree in Finland. Kindergarten teachers have been an odd exception because they are required only to have a Bachelor’s degree. In early childhood, a person goes through some of the most important stages of development in their lives. It is extremely important that high-quality education and teaching can be guaranteed during the early years. Universities should be offered financing for making high-quality education possible also in the future when the present fixed-term extra financing ends. The objectives of the bill cannot be achieved if we cannot afford to invest in employees.

The bill states the following regarding the definition of early childhood education: Early childhood education denotes a systematic and purposeful entity formed by education, teaching and care with the main emphasis on pedagogy. This definition is narrow and pedagogical early childhood education should be defined more precisely, in other words, how, by whom and where early childhood education is organised. Family day care, for example, does not correspond to early childhood education provided by experts in kindergartens.

The bill includes almost no statutes on how support for children should be organised. The Ministry of Education and Culture has announced that it will set up a working group to prepare the piece of legislation which applies to organising support for children in early childhood education. The purpose of the working group is to ensure that the legislation provides an administrative framework for organising support and that the framework considers the needs of early childhood education. Support is most effective during the early years (e.g. Doyle, Harmon, Heckman & Tremblay 2009), and therefore the child’s need for support should be acknowledged with sufficient resources in early childhood.

To sum it up, the bill for a new Early Childhood Education and Care Act will bring about welcome changes in the staff structure of kindergartens, in titles and qualification requirements for staff and in communication between home and kindergartens. However, a careful reader seeks clarification on some points. Motivations for the long transitional periods for the changes regarding the staff structure and the qualification requirements are not especially convincing. There is a need to more precisely define the operation methods that are required of municipalities in implementing these changes. Likewise, early childhood education should be defined more precisely, and, in addition, the bill should include a suitable administrative framework for support in early childhood education. In this statement, we have offered some concrete suggestions for solving these problems. We have also submitted our comments to the Ministry of Education and Culture.