Kindergartens in Norway - From care for the few to an universal right for all children
The contemporary kindergarten
When describing today's kindergarten in Norway, two other general measures should be mentioned: parental leave and the cash benefit.
Parental leave for both mothers and fathers after childbirth has been seen as an important way of supporting young families. Today, parents can receive 100 percent of their parental benefits for a period of 47 weeks or 80 percent for a period of 57 weeks. There are some regulations on these benefits. The mother must take her leave at least 3 weeks immediately before birth and 6 weeks immediately after birth. In addition to this, the father must take at least 12 weeks (the so-called "daddy quota"), if not, the couple cannot claim these 12 weeks . The rest of the benefits can be shared between the mother and the father.
In 1998 the Norwegian Parliament enacted legislation providing a cash benefit for families wanting to keep their children at home after the parental leave. It was decided that families with children between 1 and 3 years old who did not place their child in a kindergarten, should receive a monthly sum from the state. This measure has been hotly debated since its proposal by the Christian-democratic/right wing coalition government who argued that it would strengthen the family and the parent's ability to bring up their children outside institutions. This government also framed the benefit as measure strengthening freedom of choice for the parents.
The last decade has witnessed a number of critical voices about the negative consequences of the cash benefit - especially for immigrant families. It has been pointed out that it impedes integration in many ways: immigrant mothers stay home, their children's Norwegian language development is hampered by staying home with their non-Norwegian speaking mothers instead of participating in a stimulating and Norwegian language environment in kindergarten. Instead of paying parents not to use day care as an integrative public welfare, many voices including most researchers in the field have proposed that the cash benefit funding should be used instead to strengthen the kindergarten as an arena for care, social inclusion, play, learning and education (Haug & Koritzinsky 2011).
It is also claimed that the cash benefit impedes gender equality since mothers stay home instead of having paid work. A recent doctoral dissertation found that cash benefits meant that Norwegian mothers continued to be slow to return to work. It was also found that many women work part-time or less than a full work week, a number of years after the cash benefit period is over (Drange 2012). The current Labour party/Social Left/Green coalition that took power in 2005 and still governs has argued against cash benefits pointing out that children in a modern society need more than a family can provide them with. The government further claims that women are held back from paid work through this measure, and that children living in deprived families further suffer when they are kept out of kindergartens. The government has gradually reduced the cash benefit sum from the state and made the measure less attractive by excluding the parents of 2-year olds from receiving it. From August 2012 the parents of the children 13 to 18 months will begin to receive NOK 5000 ($ 836) per month, and the parents of the children 19 to 23 months will receive NOK 3303 ($ 552) per month. In September 1999, 73% of all parents of the 1-2 year olds received cash benefits, and in September 2010, the percentage was reduced to 22%. It should be noted that during these years, the numbers of kindergartens in Norway increased and it became easier for parents to get a placement for their child.
Adjustment to international regulations on children's rights
The development of the kindergartens has paralleled developments by the Norwegian state to make secure the situation for all children. With kindergartens it has become possible to secure similar living conditions for all children, regardless of their family situation, their ethnic origin and their parent's economy. The UN Convention of the Rights of the Child was implemented in Norwegian legislation in 2003. The regulations of the convention have had considerable influence on the development of all institutions involving children. For example, article 12 that states:
Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.
This article not only secures the child's right to express views. In practice it is a constant reminder that the best interest of the child should also be an active factor in national planning, kindergarten administration, pedagogical planning and so on.
In Norway, one well-known paradox is still newsworthy. In 2007, only 3% of the reports to child welfare services on children (of all ages) living in conditions that were damaging to their health and development came from kindergartens (NOU 2012:1). It should be noted that 15% of the reports concerning only children under school age, come from kindergartens. Nevertheless this gives a certain reason for worry, since nearly all pre-school children in Norway meet kindergarten staff on a daily basis. Research shows that there is a need to develop cooperation between kindergartens and the child welfare services (Backe-Hansen 2009).
A newly published government document (NOU 2012:1) which can be understood as being a forerunner to a new Kindergarten Act contained a number of important suggestions. This impending legislation is called for since most children in Norway today spend a large part of their early lives in kindergartens and this fact leads to an increasing need to secure good quality of content and tasks. Central among the proposals in this document were:
- Strengthening national regulation of the kindergarten sector. The reason for this is that there exists considerable variation in how kindergartens currently are being run and staffed. The keywords behind this suggestion are quality, equality and the best interest of the child.
- Strengthening the rights of children. The focus is on securing (by introducing a legal right) the physical and psychosocial environment of the children. The keyword here is also the best interest of the child.
- Strengthening the inspection system. The keywords are preventing violation of the law and securing the quality of childcare.
- Requiring that every kindergarten should have 1 kindergarten teacher per 6 children under 3 years of age and 1 kindergarten teacher per 12 children for more than 3 years of age. The keyword is sufficient pedagogical staff.
- Strengthening and increasing capacity in the education of kindergarten teachers. The keyword is higher level of competence.
- Supporting more research on kindergartens and issues connected to this sector. The keyword is updated knowledge.
From "preschool teacher" to "kindergarten teacher"
In Norway, kindergarten teacher education has evolved from short "Fröbel-seminars" given in Sweden, Denmark or Germany up through the 1930s, to 2 year studies at private institutions for a number of years and finally to a study program at university college level from 1980 (Furu, et.al. 2011).
At present, kindergarten teacher education is a 3 year full time bachelor or a 4 year part time bachelor. The universities and the university colleges offering kindergarten education are allowed considerable freedom to run pedagogic programs and to establish ties to various organizations, e.g. workplace-based preschool teacher programs. Workplace based studies represent a modern way of gaining a degree at undergraduate and postgraduate level using experiential knowledge gained through working with children as the basis of an individual study program. Teaching methods, course requirements and examination arrangements are experience-based, practice-oriented, and in line with current challenges in the field of practice. These objectives require educators to seek tools and methods appropriate for both campus and kindergarten activities having potentials for "bridging the gap" between campus activities and the professional field.
In June of 2012, the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research established new national regulations and curricula for kindergarten teacher education. Compared to the previous regulations, a major change introduced was consolidation of 10 different subjects into a smaller number of "knowledge areas". The academic content of kindergarten teacher education is now organized into six knowledge areas. Within each knowledge area, academic subjects, didactics, pedagogy and practice are closely connected, both in terms of content as well as organization. Also, this new form of organizing studies stresses the importance of clearly presenting pedagogic topics to students.
Amongst other changes, the title "preschool teacher" is changed to "kindergarten teacher". This can be seen in the light of a political and a professional agreement that the kindergarten as such is an important arena for children aged 1-5, not to be regarded solely as a stepping stone and preparation for school. It may therefore be seen as a paradox when the government argues that it aims to secure all children good possibilities for development by strengthening the kindergarten as a learning arena while also providing them with a common platform and a good start for their lifelong learning (Norwegian ministry of education and research 2009b).
Research and development work
Earlier, individual researchers tended to confine their investigations to kindergartens and early childhood education in Norway. During the past decade, this previously rather narrow research field has expanded considerably as new topics have emerged and been developed. As a consequence of the growth of the field, research on kindergartens has been recognized as part of the pedagogical research. Also the governmental provision that kindergartens should be seen as an important part of childhood education has had a major influence on research and development work.
The increased numbers of kindergartens in Norway have called for ongoing efforts to secure and to improve the quality of the work done in and with kindergartens. Two key goals in this respect are equality and high quality in all kindergartens. In 2011, the Minister of Education, Kristin Halvorsen, announced funding to be given through the Research Council of Norway to expand research in this field. The most recent project of the research council is described this way on their website:
The Programme for Practice-based Educational Research (PRAKUT) has a primary objective to enhance the quality of early childhood education and care (ECEC), basic education (primary and secondary education) and teacher education (RCN 2012).
This may be understood as aiming to create connections between kindergarten and school in a longitudinal learning perspective.
But, even though the research field has grown, kindergartens are still under-researched and the research base of the field is in need of much more knowledge (NOU 2012:1). There are many potential research areas proposed in different publications. Some of these are:
- The organization of kindergartens, including economy, staff, ownership, quality work
- The influence of kindergartens on children's social, emotional, behavioral and motoric functions, and their cognitive and mental health
- The stage between 1 and 3 years of age
- Children's everyday life - in kindergartens
- Early childhood learning, in its own right and as a preparatory phase for schooling
- Children's participation in kindergarten
- Inclusion and diversity
- Friendships among children
- The use of digital media and digital tools among preschool children
- Transition from kindergarten to school
Research in this area should be further developed, and the list of topics could be expanded. Therefore, Norwegian national authorities have given support to strengthening research conditions and research competence (NOU 2012:1).
Norwegian researchers are contributing to the international ECEC sector by participating in a number of networks, both within and outside Europe. Researchers in the Nordic countries have developed an open access publication "Nordisk barnehageforskning" (Eng.: Nordic research on Kindergartens). In their website, they state that:
Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) is expanding in the Nordic countries today, and also staff training and education. At the same time the sector is in a period of change, and it is important to publish research. The idea is to give researchers and doctoral students in the Nordic ECEC field a good platform for publication in all Nordic languages: Danish, Finnish, Icelandic, Norwegian, Sami, Swedish and also Faroese and Kalaallisut together with English.
The focus is on Early Childhood Education and Care institutions, children and parents. Different academic fields may contribute, not only education, but also philosophy, psychology, history and sociology etc, as long as the focus on ECEC is not lost - we aim at the whole knowledge universe of ECEC, families and society at large will not be forgotten (NBF 2012)*1 .
Some writers are critical to kindergartens as well as to research on kindergartens. Beck (2012) calls for studies that compare children in kindergartens with children who do not attend the kindergartens. He admits that such studies are hard to conduct, because most Norwegian children attend kindergartens. Beck also criticizes Norwegian kindergarten researchers for not using research from countries outside Scandinavia. He suggests for example that more research should be done on possible stress among children staying in kindergartens for long hours (ibid).
- *1 The articles in this publication are written either in English, or in a Nordic language with an abstract in English.
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