Kindergartens in Norway - From care for the few to an universal right for all children
In today's Norwegian society, kindergartens are regarded as important by most people, by the authorities, by politicians, by professionals and researchers and by most organizations. In the course of the last four decades, the kindergarten sector has developed from being a possibility for few to a universal right for children (Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research 2009a, 2009b). That does not imply that Norwegians in society at large and their political parties agree on all questions involving kindergartens. On the contrary, debates about kindergartens are often sharp, loaded with values and priorities, ranging from whether parents shall receive cash benefit for not using the kindergarten to questions concerning the kindergarten's content. As we will point out in this article, today's kindergarten sector faces major challenges. How children should be brought up is actually one of the most popular political debates in Norway. This has led to political focus on both kindergartens and schools.
In this article, we will present the Norwegian kindergarten, as it is today, and how it has developed through the years. We regard kindergartens as an integrated part of the type of welfare state shared by the Nordic countries. Esping-Andersen (2006:168) categorizes this as the "social-democratic" regime type, and describes it as a model that builds on the principles of universalism and de-commodification of social rights. This is the back-drop of what perhaps is the most typical feature of Norwegian kindergartens in today's society - namely that they are seen as a matter of course.
Further on we will describe some issues connected to professional standard of kindergartens, and research on them. We will also touch on two discussions about kindergartens focused on the dimension of quantity (numbers of kindergartens) versus that of quality (the kindergarten's content and tasks). This latter dimension is central to the present government's White Paper focusing exclusively on the Quality of Kindergartens in Norway (Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research 2009b).
The Norwegian kindergarten - some key aspects
Kindergartens in Norway are for children up to the age of 5 years and are integrated into the national educational system. While enrollment in kindergartens is optional, education for all children over the age of six years is compulsory. A keystone of Norwegian educational policy is that children and young people have an equal right to education, regardless of where they live, gender, social and cultural background or any special needs. All public education in Norway is free of charge, while kindergartens have parental fees (Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research 2011a).
Kindergarten in today's Norwegian society is viewed as beneficial for all children. Consequently, nearly all children growing up in Norway have been enrolled in kindergartens. In 2011, 89.5% of all children in Norway under the age of 5 were in kindergartens, and as many as 96.5% of 3 to 5 year olds were in kindergartens (SSB 2012).
In the course of the past 40 years, child-care in Norway has become accepted as a public responsibility. Parents feel that kindergartens are a natural part of caring for children. It has been found that most adults in Norway today feel that infants under 1 year of age should be cared for by their parents, and almost just as many adults feel that kindergartens represent the best form of care for children between 3 and 5 (Ellingsæter & Gulbrandsen 2003). In 1979, 12 % of the parents in a survey meant that the children should not attend a kindergarten (Ellingsæter and Gulbrandsen 2003). In a follow-up in 1992, and further in 1996, this proportion had fallen to 2%. There are two main reasons for parents wishing to have their children in kindergartens: firstly it gives both parents the possibility to have paid work, and secondly, it is believed that the child profits from being with other children in safe surroundings with adult control.
Some parents choose not to send their children to kindergartens, and the main reasons for this are most often economical or value-based (NOU 2012:1). Some parents do not want to pay the monthly fee that parents are obliged to pay. Others have decided that their children in pre-school age should be with their parents all day, and want the freedom to make this choice. Some parents feel that it is important that children should be protected against what they consider as an organized and stressful life at an early age, and therefore choose to keep them at home for as long as possible.
In 2005 the Government decided that the fee for having children in kindergartens should not exceed a certain sum. This sum is set in the national budget every year. Normally the second child from the same family gets a 30% discount, and the third (or more) a 50% discount. According to Statistics Norway the lowest average fee in 2010 was NOK 1,573 ($ 263) per month, and the maximum national fee for one child in public kindergartens was NOK 2,297 ($ 395) (SSB 2012). Food and additional costs are excluded from these figures. Parents pay fees for 11 months a year. The last month, usually July, is regarded as summer holiday.
99% of all kindergartens are open five days a week (SSB 2012). Normally, the kindergarten is open for ten hours each day. In 2010, this was the case for 89% of the kindergartens. For the remainder, opening times varied between 4 and 18 hours. About 80% of the staff works between 10AM and 2PM. Before 8.30AM and after 3.30PM far less staff members are at work.
In 2011, children on average were in kindergarten 35 hours a week. Less than 20% of the children were in the kindergarten 41 hours or more (SSB 2012).
The size of the groups of children enrolled in each kindergarten has been - and still is - a matter of debate in Norway. Statistics show that there are on an average 3.4 children per staff member for groups of children up to 3 years, and 5.5 children per staff member for children from 3 years and upwards (NOU 2012:1). Most groups of children in Norwegian kindergartens consist of between 13 and 18 children. The variation is connected to several reasons, but usually the age of the children is used to decide on group size. On average, the size of young children's groups is 12.4, and for older children, the group size is 18.6.
Approximately 50% of the kindergartens are privately owned (SSB 2012). The same act and the same national framework regulate public and private kindergartens.
The Kindergarten Act - purpose
The Kindergarten Act, which was implemented in 2005, incorporated strict regulations for how these institutions are to be staffed and operated. In 2006 The Ministry of Education and Research laid down regulations providing a framework for the content and tasks of kindergartens. This was later amended in 2011. The purpose clause of the Kindergarten Act presented below spells out the social mandate and the basic values that should form the foundation of the kindergartens (The Ministry of Education and Research 2011b).
Kindergartens are seen as an important measure in society for the formation (Norwegian: "danning")*1 of children into citizens of the society. As we can see in Section1, some of the main concepts in this process are development, play, activity, learning, formation and participation. The double challenge of seeking to ensure the children's possibilities for play and also for adult-led activities having pedagogical aims is an interesting one. We will come back to this later.
The Norwegian kindergarten's history*2 goes back to the 19th century. It began with the asylums (Norwegian: "barneasyl"), the first one was established in Trondheim as early as 1837. These were established for poor children, and their growth in Norway was part of European and North American traditions of private charity expressing strong philanthropic thinking. Children were considered to be malleable and the philosophy was that investment in this group would yield future benefits for society. Important activities were educational, religious and moral upbringing and training to practical work, e.g. art and craft-production.
The contents were to be divided between work and teaching. This included play and leisure in order not to weary the children (...) the youngest should be employed with sedentary activities, the elders should be taught (Balke 1995:76).
Later in the 1840s, crèches providing childcare for children under 3 years of age were established. These were influenced by developments outside Norway, chiefly in France where the first crèches had been opened in Paris in 1844. They were intended for poor children of unmarried mothers, in need for care while their mothers had to work to make a living. The asylums and these crèches were eventually converted into nurseries or kindergartens.
From the mid 19th century, the first kindergartens inspired by the German pedagogue Frederich Fröbel were established. The word "kindergarten" can be seen as a metaphor: in a "garden" the child shall have good conditions for growing, maturation and learning. This has influenced our view of what these childcare institutions for the youngest children should be - up to the present (Furu, et al. 2011). Fröbel's main idea was that the children should be stimulated to motoric and intellectual development. The child was to be seen with new eyes, there was to be a shift from teaching to play, from training to practical work to stimulation of skills, physically, socially and emotionally. We still recognize this ideological foundation in today's Norwegian kindergarten with its focus on the child, the childhood's importance and attention to play and enjoyment as important elements in child development.
Acknowledging that work in kindergartens demanded more than motherly knowledge led to the establishment of new institutions. In developing qualifications to work in kindergartens, a number of schools were set up, first those privately run by women which eventually were taken over by the government.
In the second half of the 20th century, the development of kindergartens in Norway accelerated. This was during the Norwegian welfare state's classic era lasting from the 1920s to the 1970s. The first state regulation of kindergarten took place in 1945 after the end of World War II. This was a period characterized by reconstruction, optimism, social democratic governance and the Labour party's dominance. During these years and continuing until 1975, the kindergarten was regulated through procedures and development plans, but not by law.
The year 1975 stands as a watershed in Norwegian kindergarten history because it marked the first legal act to regulate kindergartens. This law was required owing to the rapid growth of kindergartens throughout Norway as well as a massive number of fragmented regulations. The Kindergarten Act of 1975 launched a new phase for Norwegian kindergartens. When it was passed, only 7% of all children were in kindergarten. The new law initiated a major expansion phase financed by an economic boom and oil money from the Norwegian continental shelf. Also, the Social Democratic government then showed great willingness to reform.
Following 1975, there has been a growing involvement from the welfare state in the development of kindergartens and this has been accompanied by equally growing public interest in issues involving these institutions. The original Kindergarten Act has been revised several times, but in the main without significant changes. One exception is the law of 1983 when the institution's mission statement was changed. In 1995, another law amending the Act was passed. Major changes included the regulation of day care content in the form of a national curriculum, and the introduction of compulsory school for 6-year-olds. The present law was launched in 2005. In 2010, the mission statement was changed once again. The changes were implemented to the national curriculum in 2011.
On 1 January 2009, the government introduced the legal right guaranteeing each child a place in kindergarten. This reform was meant to connect kindergartens even closer to the general system of education. With the reform the government wanted to secure that children were ready for school attendance when they turned 6. There was a special focus on ethnic minorities in the discussion that led up to the reform. Research had shown that not all children from ethnic minority families spoke Norwegian well enough when they started attending school. Another important reason for the reform was that it should contribute to women's participation in work life.
These relatively frequent changes in laws and framework can be considered as an expression of the Norwegian kindergarten's strong position, and an acknowledgement of the necessity to adapt the kindergarten's content and tasks to social changes in the Norwegian community. Today's kindergarten is a key social institution that is very important for children, parents, communities, work and development in the country - both in the short and long term. The Kindergarten has a complex and profound social mandate which states that the mission involves both self-expression and learning for kids - a voluntary first step in the education system, a phase of life with great intrinsic value. Kindergarten is also a welfare offer to ensure high labor force participation, which proves particularly in the labor participation of Norwegian women (Bjerkestrand 2012).
As earlier noted, the growth of kindergartens in Norway was inspired by developments elsewhere in Europe and North America. Moreover, the Norwegian kindergarten as a child care institution dovetailed neatly with many of the ideals of the Nordic welfare state model. There are four characteristics of this model represented by the goals and operations of the kindergarten in Norway (Korsvold 2005):
- 1) Equality with social egalitarianism as a goal
- 2) Universalism understood as meaning that all children should be integrated within the same institutional framework
- 3) Independence from the school sector, with focus on play, not on teaching
- 4) The home as a model
In the Norwegian kindergarten development, women have played an important role, both in terms of commitment and concrete work. Women were active agents of the kindergarten long before the government involvement began. Their active and creative roles in the new arena between the private and public, between home and school, between education and care, contributed to knowledge, not just about the kindergarten, but also knowledge about women's history (Korsvold 2005). The perception of women, their work and activities have changed in line with trends in society and these developments too have been mirrored in the kindergarten sector. Still, it is thought-provoking that more than 150 years after the first child asylum was established in Norway, 90% of all employees in Norwegian kindergartens are women.
- *1 The Norwegian term danning is difficult to translate, as there is no English term that covers this educational concept. The German term Bildung is used internationally. The word formation is used in the English translation of the Norwegian Education Act, and is therefore also used in the translation of the Kindergarten Act.
- *2 The historic backdrop is based on: Balke 1995; Furu, et al. 2011; Korsvold 2005.
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