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[Norway] Kindergartens in Norway - From care for the few to an universal right for all children Part3

Summary:

In part 3, we will discuss some issues that are debated in Norway; the content of the kindergarten, the staff and the staff competence, and some quality issues.

Keywords:
Norway, ECEC, kindergarten, universalism, welfare state
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Kindergartens in Norway - From care for the few to an universal right for all children

>> Basic Data of Norway Norway

Discussions on kindergartens

In this chapter, we will present two discussions on kindergartens. These focus on what may be the two areas receiving most attention today in Norwegian society.

1) Play, learning and formation

First, we will point to one consequence of the rapid growth of kindergartens in Norway; the increased weight put on learning. As the number of kindergartens has increased, it has been more important to secure the quality of the services the kindergartens offer. The issue of quality touches upon a theme which has been much debated during the past 20 years: namely, the role of kindergartens in a life-long learning perspective. This has led to emphasizing a pedagogical approach to everyday activities in the lives of children. But pedagogy, and the activities it leads to, represent only one side of what children need. It is also important to let the children play on their own conditions, and some writers and researchers have highlighted this issue. Voices critical of the governmental pedagogic policy for kindergartens have been raised on behalf of the children's need for play freed from the influence of adults having educational goals (see, for example Beck 2012).

Other researchers (Østrem et al. 2009) have voiced concerns about the increased focus on documenting and mapping individual children in kindergartens, e.g. assessment of language skills. They question whether it is consistent with the national curriculum guidelines, which places emphasis on documentation as basis for reflection and learning, and limits documentation of individual children. In light of this, the extent of an individual focus in the documentation and mapping is remarkable, the researchers claim (ibid.:148).

It can be argued that children learn and experience different things from free play and pedagogically organized activity. When children play freely, they take initiatives to the play themselves. In this type of play, their own reality is made visible. The play is often about taking roles, and this activity is open, without a purpose and pleasurable. Free play is spontaneous and fantasy-driven and provides a range of possibilities for children to experience emotions, relationships and the child's own reactions in "natural situations". Also, this type of play provides children opportunities for developing social and motor skills.

The more organized forms of play are often adult-led. Sometimes they give the children possibilities for calmer activities and contemplation. In this type of activities, children can learn in a more explicit way about group life, cooperation and social "rules". The cognitive element is clearly present.

This debate on free play versus organized adult-led activities concerns the degree of organization of the everyday life in kindergartens. Most people would probably agree that there should be an optimal balance between free play and organized, adult-led activities in the kindergarten. But there are today sharply contrasting views about which of the two should be emphasized. One view is that free play is most important for the younger children. This is often formulated as a warning against too much pedagogical orientation for the one and two year olds. When it comes to older children, there is much more agreement about what they need. For this group, there is considerable agreement that they benefit from pedagogical pre-school activities.

2) Staff and competence

In this section, we will focus on two challenges currently focused on quality in Norwegian kindergartens: the nation-wide shortage of kindergarten teachers and the ratio of trained versus non-trained personnel.

One challenge for the kindergarten sector is the shortage of kindergarten teachers. This challenge is related to the "explosive" growth of kindergartens over the last decade, which is a result of the targeted effort from the present government. As earlier noted, since 2009 the law requires that all children from one year of age shall have a right to a place in kindergarten. The growth of kindergarten places coupled with the shared belief in society at large that kindergartens are good for children has led to today's situation where almost all children aged 1 to 5 years in Norway (90%) have places in daycare institutions.

On the other hand, Norwegian universities and university colleges have not received sufficient funds to keep up with the growth in kindergarten places and they have been unable to graduate enough preschool teachers to meet these demands. Consequently, an emergency solution to this problem has been to make an exemption from the law requiring preschool teachers to function as leaders of kindergartens. Thus there are today in Norway over 4000 nationwide exemptions from this requirement . Some of these positions are filled with staff with other types of pedagogical education, and some with staff without formal qualifications.

In cooperation with educational institutions and local municipalities, the Ministry of Education and Research has tried to deal with this situation by starting a program for workplace-based preschool teacher education. This is a four year part-time bachelor degree program aimed at recruiting students from the large group of assistants without formal training. This educational model requires that students work a minimum of 50% at their kindergarten workplaces during the course of the bachelor program. This effort, along with the standard educational programs, is slowly helping to fill the nationwide kindergarten teacher gap. However, it is legitimate to raise the question whether this program goes too slowly. The children in kindergartens need competent staff here and now, they cannot wait.

The second issue related to the personnel situation is the ratio of pedagogically trained staff versus untrained staff in kindergartens. The normal situation is 1 kindergarten teacher and 2 assistants per unit. The kindergarten teacher is the pedagogical leader of the unit, responsible for the institution's pedagogic content and the children's play, learning and social development. She also has a commitment to the assistants, e.g. leading and tutoring them. This focus on building competence among the staff is an important issue in relation to the here and now situation of the children and also with regard to the lifelong learning perspective. According to the governmental framework plan for the content and tasks of kindergartens, the kindergarten shall "...lay the foundations for lifelong learning and active participation in a democratic society in close understanding and collaboration with the homes of the children. (...)". Further, the framework states:

As role models, staff has a particular responsibility for ensuring that the values of the kindergarten are adhered to in practice. Reflections on their own values and actions should be included in the pedagogical discussions of staff. Kindergartens must systematically assess whether their own practice and culture helps to promote the values that are supposed to form the basis for their activities (Ministry of Education and Research 2011b).

As we see, the pedagogical leader has great responsibility and many different tasks to carry out - concerning both children and staff. It can be argued that it is almost impossible for any leader to deal effectively with all these tasks during the course of a day. This creates a constant stressful situation for the leader and most probably produces negative consequences for all parts.

The staffing situation in Norwegian kindergartens has also been discussed by UNICEF. Their report The child care transition (2008) focuses on the fact that the younger generation spends much of early childhood in some form of institutionalized care. UNICEF has created a list of ten criteria that can be used to assess quality of care offered to young children. Norway meets eight of these ten criteria, f.ex. the length of paid maternity leave, the proportion of children below the poverty line and health services (UNICEF 2008).

But in regard to criteria related to caring for young children, Norwegian kindergartens stand out in a negative direction in comparison with many other European countries. Norway meets neither the minimum requirement of having at least 80% of employees with basic training in child care. Nor do Norwegian kindergartens satisfy the standard of having 50% of employees with at least three years of study of childhood education (UNICEF 2008).

Stronger focus on quality in Norwegian Kindergartens

This article's main goal was to present the Norwegian kindergarten and to discuss some of the existing challenges it faces. We have done so by viewing the kindergarten's development historically by connecting the growth of kindergartens to the welfare state values; by pointing out key elements of the contemporary kindergarten, and eventually by discussing some challenges related to quality in Norwegian kindergartens. From our point of view, these are all essential elements for understanding the kindergarten's importance when it comes to providing Norwegian children and their parents with high quality daycare. As we have tried to describe, the last decade has witnessed a growing concern with quality. This particular focus and desire for ensuring quality care represents many future challenges for elected politicians, researchers, kindergarten staff and others with an interest in the field.

There are as we have suggested different perspectives on the role of kindergartens in society. We have shown that a societal perspective has been important in developing kindergartens in Norway. Implementing kindergartens, and expanding the sector by increasing the number of kindergartens, has been desired and most Norwegians would agree a natural development following the entrance en masse of women into the workforce in recent decades. And, this has helped secure the growth and expansion of kindergartens in Norwegian society. Also, the role of the kindergarten in life-long learning has been important for Norwegian authorities. In addition, kindergartens have been regarded as a crucial factor in the integration of children and families from ethnic minorities. A societal perspective is therefore central in the debate about kindergartens.

From the parent's perspective, it has been crucial that kindergartens have made it possible for both mothers and fathers to engage in paid work, and that this has required securing beneficial placements their children.

Last, but not by means least, it is important to assess the value of the development of kindergartens from a child's perspective. This is perhaps the perspective that provokes the most hotly disputed views. Our experience is that once you put children on the agenda, different stakeholders with strong opinions become engaged. Many claim to know what is "best for children", but not everyone recognizes that this is a normative question with many answers. Our own view, as we have followed the development of kindergartens through the years, is that kindergartens are good for children if they hold high quality standards. And, also that it is important to try to achieve those developments which actually improve the quality of the kindergarten on behalf of the children, regardless of political views about the situation of children.

We would propose that a child's perspective should include everyday functions that children value, such as a safe and sound environment; enough other children to play with - but also possibilities to be by oneself during the day; positive and encouraging professionals who listen to children and are truly interested in the well-being of children; and days long enough to have time to play - but also days short enough to experience family life.

All of these perspectives reveal normative positions, and that shows the need for political debate around how the day to day child care should be solved within a certain society.


References

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Kristin_Holte_Haug.jpg Kristin Holte Haug
Kristin Holte Haug is Professor at Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences, Faculty of Education and International studies. She teaches pedagogy and ICT & learning at the Early Years Teacher Program. Her research topics are child welfare and ICT & learning, with a special interest in Digital storytelling. She has published books and several articles on these topics. Haug had 10 years practical experience with child welfare work.
Jan_Storoe.jpg Jan Storø
Jan Storø is a trained child welfare worker with 30 years' experience from working with children and young people, mostly in residential care. He is currently Professor of Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences, Faculty of Social Sciences. He has published five books and a number of articles on the transition from care to adulthood, social pedagogy and other topics.
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