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In a report released last December, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) provides countries with a toolbox of strategies to develop a policy framework for improving the quality of early childhood education and care (ECE).

Starting Strong III: A Quality Toolbox for Early Education and Care provides ECE recommendations for countries in five policy areas including:

  • Setting out quality goals and regulations;
  • Designing and implementing curriculum and standards;
  • Improving teacher qualifications, training and working conditions;
  • Engaging families and communities; and
  • Advancing data collection, research and monitoring.

In conjunction with the Starting Strong series, the OECD has begun publishing a number of country-specific reports on ECE.  Each of these country reports is organized around one of the policy levers identified above, depending on what the country has prioritized in its ECE agenda.  So far the OECD has released country studies for Finland, the Slovak Republic, United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, Korea, Portugal and New Zealand.  We feature Finland, Korea and New Zealand here.  Each is a top performer in the education league tables.

New Zealand and Korea both focused on implementing curriculum standards.  Creating and implementing a common curriculum framework and learning standards is just as important in early childhood education as it is for compulsory education systems.  The framework can ensure quality across different settings and can promote continuity between ECE and primary schooling.  A well laid out curriculum framework with accompanying learning standards can help teachers prepare lessons and give parents direction on how to develop a stimulating home learning environment.

Finland focused on improving qualifications, training and working conditions for ECE professionals.  One of the factors that matters most in early childhood education is the quality of the workforce, measured by their initial education, qualifications and professional development.  The OECD is careful to note that it is not qualifications per se that have an impact on child outcomes, but the ability of better educated staff to create a high-quality learning environment.  Just as in compulsory schools, better working conditions have been shown to improve staff job satisfaction and retention.  The OECD identifies good early childhood education working conditions as high staff-child ratio and low group size, competitive wages and other benefits, reasonable schedules and workloads, a good physical environment and a competent and supportive manager.

So what are the strengths of the early childhood services offered by Korea, Finland and the Netherlands?  New Zealand has created a common, national curriculum framework for early childhood education providers called Te Whāriki in New Zealand.  This document clearly lays out the aims of ECE including what is expected of staff and children at each stage of development along with useful examples.  The curriculum strongly focuses on well-being and learning and emphasizes the importance of tolerance and respect for cultural values and diversity.  The Te Whāriki also provides explicit links to the primary school curriculum, describing what children are expected to do at future levels, how this relates to the experiences in ECE and what activities staff can implement to facilitate a smooth transition. While many countries still use a split system where child care and early education are governed by different ministries or agencies, New Zealand has integrated early childhood education and care under one lead ministry.

Korea, too, chose to focus on curriculum.  This country has created the Standard Child Care Curriculum, which covers children ages zero to five.  Implementation began in 2007 and was revised in 2010 to improve the quality of child care services, extend operating hours to accommodate family needs and strengthen the link between child care and elementary schooling.  In addition to this child care curriculum, Korea has developed a National Kindergarten Curriculum for children ages three to four. Based on research undertaken in 2010, this document provides common standards for organizing and implementing the kindergarten curriculum and places a heavy focus on creativity and character.  In September 2011, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology and the Ministry of Health and Welfare developed and launched the Nuri Curriculum for all five-year old children participating in early childhood education and care.  It is focused on five distinct objectives: developing basic physical abilities and establishing healthy and safe routines; learning how to communicate in daily life and developing good practices in language use; developing self-respect and learning how to live with others; developing interest in aesthetics, enjoying the arts and learning how to express yourself creatively; and exploring the world with curiosity and enhancing children’s abilities to solve problems by applying math and science in daily life.  Starting in March 2013, the government has plans to extend this curriculum to three- and four-year olds, which is a step towards streamlining the overall ECE curriculum framework in Korea.

Choosing to focus on the early childhood education and care workforce made sense for Finland, a country that puts a strong emphasis on recruiting, hiring and supporting the ECE workforce.  The qualifications for teaching staff, professional development opportunities and favorable working environments make Finland’s ECE workforce one of the best in the world.  Finland requires ECE teaching staff to have at least some post-secondary education as in the case of New Zealand and Sweden.  Professional development is mandatory and individuals do not have to shoulder the full costs as the government and the employer contribute.  The maximum number of children per early childhood professional in Finland is among the most favorable in the OECD with one staff member to four children ages zero- to three and 1:7 for older children in early childhood education or care.  New Zealand has slightly less favorable minimum ratio standards and Korea, at the other end of the spectrum, allows a 1:25 ratio for four-year olds.

In each of the Quality Matters studies, the featured country is evaluated against how it has responded to a number of challenges that commonly arise in the selected policy area of focus.  In enhancing ECE curriculum, those common challenges include defining goals and content; aligning curriculum for continuous child development; implementing effectively; and evaluating systematically.  Korea has made some progress in tackling these challenges.  To develop the Nuri curriculum the government formed a task force, including stakeholders from early childhood education and childcare sectors and ministry officials, charged with collaborating on the design and content of the curriculum.  To help ease implementation efforts, Korea held large-scale public hearings and seminars before and after announcing the revised versions of the National Kindergarten Curriculum and the Standard Childcare Curriculum.  Twenty thousand ECE professionals were trained in 2011 to implement the Nuri Curriculum in 2012.  The OECD suggests that the country could further enhance quality in its ECE agenda by developing one curriculum for children in the whole ECE range and ensuring that assessment practices meet the aspirations of the curriculum.

New Zealand has also made significant headway in facing these common curriculum challenges, most importantly by covering the entire early childhood education and care age range as an integrated system with one national framework.  The Te Whāriki is developed for children from birth to school entry but, to ensure the framework is age-appropriate, the content of the curriculum is divided into three age groups: infants, toddlers and young children.  To answer the evaluation challenge, New Zealand has implemented the Assessment for Learning, which requires teachers to develop effective assessment practices aligned to the curriculum.  The national government offers regular training on this practice.  The Te Whāriki states that “assessment of children’s learning and development should always focus on individual children over a period of time and staff should avoid making comparisons between children”. The OECD suggests that the Te Whāriki place a greater emphasis on strong communication skills for ECE staff so they can effectively work with colleagues on job issues and with parents on child development issues.

As already mentioned, Finland has made several efforts to answer the common workforce challenges highlighted by the OECD report (improving staff qualifications, securing a high-quality workforce supply, retaining the workforce, workforce development and managing the quality of the workforce in private ECE organizations).  Their responses include their efforts to set minimum qualification standards for ECE staff and to encourage professional development.  Additionally, in the mid 1990s, Finland moved kindergarten teacher education to the university level where classroom teacher training was already established.  Once kindergarten and primary teachers were trained, they were better able to support children’s transition from pre-primary to primary school.  The OECD made several suggestions to Finland.  First they observe that the country does not have licensing renewal requirements in place whereas staff in New Zealand must renew their license every three years.  Second, they recommend further developing leadership and computer skills for ECE staff.  And lastly they point out that Finland’s ECE workforce is highly female and the majority is above the age of forty.  An effort to attract more diverse and younger staff to the field is needed.

Additional country reports are expected for Canada, Japan, Norway and Sweden in late September 2012.  Starting Strong III examines ECE through a broad lens and provides a roadmap for anyone with a role to play in developing ECE policy.