WHAT IS A WORLD CLASS EARLY YEARS SETTING? THREE STOCKHOLM EARLY YEARS TEACHERS VIEWS.
Dissertation submitted in part requirement for the MA in Early Childhood Education of the University of Sheffield.
Stockholm City Council is, as many other ECEC providers around the world, aiming to provide high quality early years settings, their slogan being “a world class preschool”. However, there is at the same time a clear lack of information of what a high quality preschool really involves and whether the early years teachers believe that they have the means to reach this goal. Three early years teachers in Stockholm have been interviewed to discover what they believe is a “world class preschool”, which was later related to the literature of what world class/high quality teaching really is perceived as. By reviewing the literature it becomes clear that defining what is world class/high quality is far from easy, but much of the dialogue in this area is centred around the size of the group, staff ratio, staff education/training, play and documentation. The interviews revealed similar findings as the literature and the teachers raised the same issues. All three teachers were unable to explain what Stockholm implied by “world class” but all had very clear views as to what they perceived it as. The surprising element of the study was the obvious difference in attitude in whether the resources available to them in Stockholm would allow them to achieve what they perceived as “world class”.
- INTRODUCTION & AIMS 3
- Swedish Early Years Curriculum 4
- Stockholm Early Years Plan 5
- Early Years Settings in Stockholm 6
- Aims 7
- LITERATURE REVIEW 8
- Global Pedagogical Overview 8
- World Class = What is Quality? 9
- Measurements of Quality 10
- An Image of Quality 11
- The Universal Preschool 13
- Human Resources 13
- The Child 15
- Physical Resource 17
- Play 17
- The Literature Reviewed 17
- METHODOLOGY 19
- Methods and Methodology 19
- Ethical Considerations 23
- Analysis 23
- ANALYSIS 25
- The Views Raised by All 25
- Individual Views 30
- Wider Implications 31
- DISCUSSION 33
- CONCLUSION 38
- Limitation of the Present Study 39
- Areas of Future Research 39
- REFERENCES 42
- Interview Questions 47
- Sanna Lundell 48
- Ethics Approval 49
- Shifts at Early Years Settings. 33
- Opening hours/Staff hours. 36
- INTRODUCTION AND AIMS
Last autumn the revised Swedish early years curriculum (Lpfö 2010) was presented in order to clarify and improve the various pedagogical roles in early years settings, this has come into effect on July 1st 2011, fitting in perfectly with my research project into what is a world class early years setting.
Stockholm City follows the Swedish National Early Years Curriculum, but also has its own early years plan to define citywide aims - this plan has been entitled “Förskola i Världsklass” (World Class Preschool) and came into effect in 2009 (Stockholm Stad).
My aim has been to investigate Stockholm City’s statement of a world class preschool and moreover explore whether early years teachers in Stockholm understand what it refers to and whether they feel they have the resources to achieve this. I am not setting out to prove that Stockholm, has, or has not, early years settings that are world class, but wish to enquire into what is perceived as world class and how this assertion by Stockholm City, is perceived by some of its teachers.
I have been recently assigned the post of head teacher for a new bilingual, English/Swedish, early years setting in central Stockholm – which makes my enquiries more pertinent about what a world class preschool actually is. If Stockholm has assigned for their preschools to be world class and I am unsure of what they mean with this, then I assume there are other early years teachers who ponder its meaning too. Nutbrown and Clough (2008, p.10) state, “clarity about research purpose is also essential in making decisions about methodology”. The purpose of my research is to not only aid me to adequately support my new team of staff as we embark on our first year of the early years setting, but to also provide some clarity about what is considered world class in the early years settings in Stockholm. The data I present is primarily not to set any recommendations but to start a dialogue about how we embark on a quest for quality.
In this dissertation I will first shed some light on the Swedish preschool curriculum, Stockholm’s preschool plan and the various kinds of early years settings available in Stockholm before delving into my literature review to reveal some opinions as to what quality is and what areas are considered “world class” in early years education and care (ECEC). In my methodology I will present the reasons for choosing to interview three early years teachers in Stockholm before presenting the results and forming some conclusions.
1.1 Swedish Early Years Curriculum
Pramling Samuelsson et al (2006) describe a curriculum as a framework to guide those working in early years settings and not a restrictive step-by-step sequence of pedagogical activities. This description of a guiding pedagogical framework fits the Swedish National Curriculum, which first came out in 1998 and was revised in 2010. The OECD (2006) notes the Swedish preschool curriculum (Lpfö 1998, 2010) ”specifies only broad goals and guidelines, leaving open the means by which these goals should be achieved.” In my first assignment (Axelsson, 2009), I referred to how the Reggio Emilia Approach had influenced the Swedish preschool curriculum viewing the child as competent and active in their own learning also seen in Bondesson et al (2007) and Rösne and Sköldfors (1999).
Skolverket (The Swedish National Agency for Education) has published in 2010 why the curriculum needed to be revised, they believe that early years settings have not reached their full potential to stimulate children’s natural enthusiasm to learn and that the role of maths, science and language should be reinforced; the roles of those working in early years settings have also been defined further with the responsibilities of the team, early years teacher and head teacher being broken down into their areas of responsibility. They describe quality as “how well the preschool responds to the national aims and the demands and guidelines which are in accordance with the national aims, as well as to what extent a setting strives towards improvement” (p. 25). They make it clear that the aims are not set out for the children to achieve, but for the setting - by observing the learning processes of the children the aim is to adapt the setting after their needs.
“The curriculum contains no aims for what individual children should have attained at certain points of time or at certain ages. There are not any defined norms or levels for children’s abilities or knowledge. Knowledge about every child’s learning and development shall not be used to categorise, sort or compare the children, but to form the basis for the planning of the setting with the children. The main purpose of the observations and evaluations are to contribute to the development of the setting to benefit the development and learning of all the children”.
This contrasts sharply with the Early Years Foundation Stage (2008) where the learning and development guidelines are written as a chart with ages in months that children should reach, even if some of these aims are basic such as “16-26 months – listen to and enjoy rhythmic patterns in rhymes and stories” (DCSF, 2008 p.52). What I have experienced here in Sweden is almost a kind of fear of setting goals for children in case a child does not attain this. This is also reflected in the film contrasting English and Swedish settings (Teachers TV., 2010) where the interviewed early years teachers mention that they would not like a UK style curriculum. I wonder, though, just how many of these teachers actually know what this curriculum they are criticising contains? Play is an important part of the Swedish Preschool Curriculum (1998, 2010) and Synodia (2010) writes that there is evidence of the three forms of play necessary to form a pedagogy of play in the Swedish preschool curriculum and that the “Swedish curriculum takes a holistic, integrated and responsive perspective on play, learning and teaching” (p.196). Pramling, Sheridan and Williams (2004) also acknowledge that a curriculum should be based on learning through play.
1.2 Stockholm Early Years Plan
The Early Years Plan written by Stockholm Stad (2009) is called “Förskola i Världsklass” which translates as “ A world class preschool”.
“ To summarise, the administration means that the proposed new preschool plan, that part which refers to the pedagogical work, is well formulated and the preschool plan will form a good base for the priorities and self regulation by those responsible for settings. It will, therefore, be a working tool for owners, management and pedagogues to attain the city’s ambition to achieve a world class preschool.” (Utbildningsförvaltningen, 2008, p.4)
It is partly this statement that has been a driving force for my research – does the eight page preschool plan provide the tool to create world class preschools? I have chosen not to analyse the effectiveness of the preschool plan instead my research question will focus on whether the early years teachers are familiar with the Stockholm’s preschool plan and what it means by world class, what their own perception of world class is, and whether they feel they can achieve this in their setting.
Just like the National Curriculum (2010) Stockholm’s Preschool Plan (2009) focuses upon the competent child, learning through play and individual development. They also mention the importance of cultural experiences for children - “ a co-operation between preschool and cultural life” (p.3). It goes on to describe well educated teachers as a condition for high quality preschools and that there should be adequate time for planning and reflection, as well as continuous opportunities for further training. The size and form of the group of children is stated as a pedagogical tool, but does not state what size or form is optimal for a world class early years setting. This is in contrast with Stockholm’s Preschool Plan from 2003 where it clearly stated that they hoped to reduce the size of groups for the sake of learning as well as for hearing related issues – they recommended “ the number of children in the younger groups (1-3 years) should not exceed 14 children per group with the aim of 12 children. For the older children (4-5 years) the groups should not exceed 18 children per group with the aim of 16 children” (Stockholm Stad, 2003, p 12). It also states that the variety of types of early years setting is another world class area that Stockholm provides – allowing parents the choice of a variety of pedagogical styles and early years settings. By exploring the perceptions of the three early years teachers I will gain an insight into how the teachers not only view what is world class, but also whether they feel Stockholm City is providing them the resources to create this.
1.3 Early Years Settings in Stockholm
As mentioned there are a variety of early years settings available in Stockholm, but all preschools are available to children between the ages of one and six who have parents that are working or studying. Parents who are on parental leave with a younger sibling or are unemployed are entitled to 15 hours a week at an early years setting (Folke-Fichtelius, 2008). In Stockholm children with younger siblings at home are entitled to 30 hours a week and children of unemployed parents are allowed to attend fulltime (www.stockholmstad.se).
Parents can decide whether they would like to place their children in a preschool or a family childminder where the service is found in the home of the provider. Early years settings can be run by the state (communal) or privately, and neither form is allowed to run for profit, and all settings must be approved by the commune (Gunnarsson and Rehngren, 2007, p.18). The private sector can comprise of parent cooperatives, staff cooperatives as well as private owners. There are many different pedagogical styles to choose from, by browsing the early years setting website provided by Stockholm City (www.stockholmstad.se) one can choose between traditional Swedish pedagogical style, Reggio Emilia Approach, Montessori, Ur och Skur (similar to Forest school) and Waldorf Steiner. There are also special focus areas that certain settings promote – such as language, bilingual, or even gender neutral. Settings can be arranged in different ways too, they can be small in size with just one department of mixed age group, or they can be arranged into sibling groups where the children are divided into two groups 1-3 and 4-5 years; another option is to choose a larger setting where each age has its own department and the children progress through the preschool like they would in school from “class to class” but in this case from department to department, often with the same teachers or at least one of their teachers following them. This great variety of settings is one of Stockholm’s assets, but could also make it more difficult to maintain world class throughout all its many types of settings. I was interested in exploring whether the teachers felt they could deliver a world class service and if there were differences in their satisfaction in the level of quality achieved. If there were differences I wanted to know if there were any obvious underlying reasons and if any recommendations could be suggested.
The maximum fee reform allows parents to place their child in a setting for the maximum fee of 3% of the family’s total income for the first child, a maximum of 2% for the second child and a maximum of 1% for the third child (Pramling Samuelsson and Sheridan, 2004). There is a “ceiling” for the maximum amount that a family will pay for each child – 1,260SEK/month for the youngest child, 820 SEK/month for the next youngest 420 SEK/month for the next child – subsequent children do not have to pay a fee (www.stockholmstad.se), this makes attending early years settings in Stockholm accessible to all who require it, as it is affordable. Accessibility is another area Stockholm prides itself on – having a placement guarantee - a place in a setting should be provided within three to four months of parents notifying they need a place (Martin Korpi, 2000, p.4).
Exploring what a world class early years setting is, through the eyes of three teachers, will allow a greater understanding of what is needed for it to be created. I was also interested to find out more about the relationship between early years teachers and the city and whether the teachers feel they have the same perception of “world class” as the early years authorities in Stockholm. In the Preschool Plan (Stockholm Stad, 2009) the city weave the words “world class” and “quality” into the text without actually defining what they mean by world class, or that world class and good quality are one and the same, although the whole plan tends to imply this. This is why the phrase “world class” needs to be researched – to offer clarity to the teachers and assistants working in early years settings in Stockholm.
The main aim is to investigate how preschool teachers understand a high quality early years setting in a city where the provider (Stockholm city council) has a slogan/goal to provide “a world class preschool”. A secondary aim is to discover what the preschool teachers consider “world class” and whether they feel they are able to create this with the resources Stockholm provides. Furthermore, the teacher’s perception of quality is discussed in relation to what is being presented as high quality ECEC in the literature.
- LITERATURE REVIEW
The review will shed some light onto what is happening in Stockholm from a global perspective; how the Swedish early years curriculum is viewed, how the words “world class” and quality are perceived, as well as looking at the accessibility of early years services and how this effects the quality of children’s lives. This review presents information from literature including pedagogical philosophies, settings in various countries around the world, research into the term quality and what constitutes quality as well as information from newspapers and websites to gleam information about what is generally considered world class. The literature reviewed has been in both English and Swedish to allow me a better understanding of the language of quality in Sweden. All texts in Swedish I have translated myself.
2.1 Global Pedagogical Overview
Globally there are a great variety of pedagogical styles and curricula for the early years sector. To make sense of the “world class” element of what is offered in Stockholm it can be useful to take a brief look at what is on offer internationally. Haddad (2002, p.39) writes that internationally the “educare” model used in Stockholm has been labelled a “success”, that it provides a quality service for parents and children. Educare was coined to describe the mix of education and care in the setting as Drummand and Nutbrown (1992) explain
the care and education of young children are not two separate activities. In our work as educators, we both care and educate. Quality care is educational, and quality education is caring (p.103)
Dahlberg and Moss (2005) have raised the educare model as a positive example of international research, but as Persson (1991, p.44) writes it is not without its own problems, as financial and pedagogical needs do not always go hand in hand. Many pedagogies and early years programmes have gained international recognition, gaining the attention of researchers, including the Reggio Emilia Approach and Montessori from Italy, High/Scope from USA, EXE from Belgium, Té Whärika from New Zealand, Schemas and Sure Start from the UK and Steiner-Waldorf from Germany (Nutbrown et al 2009; Nutbrown 2006; Pramling Samuelsson et al. 2006). There is little information about early years settings from the rest of the world, and what is found tends to be an almost anthropological view of ECEC rather than presenting pedagogical philosophies. Jalongo et al, (2004) refers to a wealth of literature with short descriptions revealing just this point.
Newsweek (1991) hailed early years settings in Reggio Emilia as the best in the world, and already three years before this the Stockholm Project had started and was working together with Malaguzzi in Reggio Emilia (Dahlberg et al, 2006). Malaguzzi’s advice had been not to merely start a project about just pedagogy but to involve the whole system – the authorities as well as the settings. There was also the drive to continue to develop and not to stick with a ready made method or organisation (p.192). Here I have briefly presented some of the pedagogies that could be considered “world class”, the question remains, how is world class defined?
2.2 World Class = What is quality?
What is world class? Woodhead (1999) considers the fact that the term “world class” might not necessarily mean better but might instead refer to a kind of standardisation – our view of the child, often the Western world’s view, being placed in a melting pot and something average comes out rather than something unique. How are we able to retain the uniqueness of a child as childhood becomes a more global concept with less scope for regional differences and needs? For example, as Moss (2001) suggests, the Reggio Approach cannot simply be transferred from Italy to another country and expected to work. The Reggio Approach has been designed to work in Reggio Emilia with the needs of the children and society there and to use it elsewhere it must be adapted to suit the needs of a different culture with different work ethics and family life ethics. To create “world class” does not mean making a one size fits all setting, but settings that can respond to the needs of the children, staff, parents and culture of the part of the world it is located.
I would like to use “world class” as analogous with high quality, as these are the phrases woven into the Stockholm Preschool Plan (2009) implying that world class and high quality derive from the same meaning in the plan.
What is high quality and how can it be measured? Nutbrown (2006, p. 110) writes, “Quality” has evolved as the term used to describe merits of provision and practices in early childhood education and care. It is a term that evades precise definition”. Moss, (1994, p.1) describes quality as “… an international buzz word, not only in early childhood services but in connection with every kind of product and service. Yet in its mantra-like repetition, the word is in danger of being rendered meaningless”. There is a growing branch of research and supportive material for teachers into what “quality” is and how it can/should be measured, both in global literature and in Sweden (Rosenthal, 2003; Dahlberg, Moss and Pence, 2006; Roach, YaeBin and Riley, 2006; Sheridan, 2007; Skolverket, 2008; Mohammed and Lissaman, 2009; Alexander, 2010 etc)
Dahlberg, Moss and Pence (2006) write that much of the research into quality has been carried out in the USA, which will the effect the language of quality. In other words the description of quality will be American in tone. Woodhead (1999) also comments on this and raises the question that these issues of quality raised in the western world does not reflect how quality is viewed elsewhere in the world. To illustrate he describes four year old Henry in Nairobi perceiving a quality early years setting as “sharing a classroom with 50-60 other children, much of the time with just one adult. There is no play equipment or learning materials to speak of.” (p. 7). Should this kind of early years setting be compared to what is available in Stockholm as Woodhead writes “to do so would logically entail condemning perhaps the majority of the world’s early childhood education” (p.7). This indicates that technically I should not be comparing the quality of the early years settings in Stockholm with those from the rest of the world, or, perhaps, even the rest of Sweden, but that it is enough to focus on the quality of settings within Stockholm and that “world class” is, perhaps, measured by the fact there is little deviation between the settings perceived as high-class and those perceived as low-class services. This, opens up the question to whether it is possible to categorize aspects of quality that may be more general across cultures, and which aspects that more often differ on a local level.
Through the literature I have showed how “world class” can be viewed as high quality, and that it is a culturally perceived trait. I will go on to explore what high quality is and whether it can be adequately defined.
2.3 Measurements of Quality
The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study in USA and EPPE in the UK have shown that children attending preschool made more cognitive and social progress than those remaining at home. They also showed that duration and quality of the early years setting are vital for the child’s development (Siraj-Blatchford and Woodhead, 2009). One of the most recognised and used examples of measuring early childhood settings is the Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale (ECERS) (Dahlberg et al 2006, p. 148). In 1989 Kärrby translated 28 of the 37 original items of the ECERS in order to adapt to Swedish early years conditions (Sheridan and Pramling Samuelsson, 2001, p. 173). Alexander (2010, p.108) writes that quality is measured differently according to who is doing the measuring,
Quality in the eyes of a practitioner, perhaps couched in terms of resources, environment or pedagogical approaches to learning, might contrast with the elements of quality that matter to a harried parent, who might prioritise opening hours and convenience. The perspectives of local authorities with constrained budgets or politicians accountable for spending public money are further complicating dimensions to notions of quality.
Penn (1994, p.18) confirms this difference in measuring quality in her research
“We feel as a staff we are providing the best service suited to the needs of the community”. The difficulty was that those arguing for a very different kind of service made equally assertive claims”
This makes measuring quality complicated, as what works in one setting might not in another. In order to make sense of the opinions the three early years teachers I interviewed expressed about what they perceived as world class/high quality I needed to have some kind of reference as to what is generally considered world class/high quality. By referring to the literature I was able to create an image of quality presented in UK, USA and Sweden, using the interviews as a guideline for the areas to look more closely at.
2.4 An Image of Quality
Nutbrown (2006, p110-118) presents a description of quality in relation to ECEC providing alternative names – “effective” and “best practice” as well as providing a list of factors included in discussions of ECEC good quality
- The involvement of parents;
- Liaison between a range of agencies and sectors;
- The rights and needs of children;
- Environment, equipment and resources;
- Health, safety and protection;
- Curriculum and learning opportunities;
- Roles of professionals and responsible adults;
- Management and organisation;
- Observation, assessment and recording achievement;
- Evaluation and review of provision.
She goes on to describe six areas of research within the field of quality including coordination of services, consistency, continuity and progression of pedagogy and equality of opportunity. Pramling, Sheridan and Williams (2006, p.11) state that high quality means giving children a good start in life and that mandatory guidelines are seen as quality improvement and go on to write (p.24) that high quality programmes are closely linked to the competence and professionalism of the teacher. Dahlberg, Moss and Pence (2006) describe in their discourse about quality in early years settings three necessary criteria – structural, process and result criteria. The structural criteria include group-size, level of staff education, staff/child ratio and the implementation of a curriculum. The process criteria include activities and interactions between staff, children and parents. The result criteria include aspects of child development as well as customer satisfaction. The Swedish School Law (1997:1212), in the so-called “Quality Paragraph” quoted by Skolverket (2005, p.8) states (own translation)
The objective of preschool settings is to offer guidance and care in a pedagogical organisation /…/ to run a preschool setting /…/ there should be staff with such education or experience that the child’s need of care and a good pedagogical organisation can be met. The groups of children should have a suitable formation and size. The premises should serve the purposes of a preschool setting /…/ The setting should proceed from the needs of every child. Children with physical, psychological or some other reason is in need of special support for their development shall be given the care that their special needs requires.
Despite writing that the education of staff and the size and composition of the groups are important for the quality of the early years setting – it does not specifically state what kind of education, how many should be educated versus have experience, or what size a group should be for optimal quality. This, Skolverket (2005, p.15) explain, is not necessary – as group size varies from setting to setting and from time to time, although they do suggest that a size of about 15 children is preferable and that groups containing younger children and children with special needs should be less. This is all well and good, but does not translate into reality – as just as quality is subjective so can the suitability of a group size. I have worked in a group of 15 children aged three where one child had diabetes and required medical assistance during the day to prevent any health risks including coma, one child had a severe language delay with the possibility of autism, two children showed indications of aspergers and another had selective mutism. We requested that the group size should not be increased so that we were able to meet the needs of all the children without the need of a further assistant. This was denied and we had to take in three more children, we were also denied another assistant for the children with learning difficulties despite having letters from speech therapists and doctors expressing the need for such assistance. More guidance in optimal sizes of groups needs to be expressed; had these children with special needs attended a setting with smaller groups they might have had the opportunity to thrive better, but there was the chance they might have ended up in a bigger group still. Should Stockholm specify an optimal group size to ensure the quality of settings? Barnverket (2005) certainly think so, their recommendations being 15 children for three-five year old group, with an acceptable range of 12-17 children, and ten children for a one-three year old group, with an acceptable range of 9-12 children. (Barnverket is a politically independent organisation for parents and adults interested in promoting quality issues in preschools and schools throughout Sweden.) Having taken a look at what quality can be viewed as it becomes clear that early years settings offer benefits for children who attend. In Sweden the maxtaxa, explained below, gives the opportunity for all children to access those benefits of a quality service.
2.5.1.The universal preschool
When reading many of the articles from UK and USA I realised there was a focus on early years settings being a method of evening out the differences caused by poverty (Alexander, 2010; Siraj-Blatchford and Woodhead, 2009) something that is not really found in Swedish literature as all settings are affordable and there is no difference in cost for parents between state-run and private-run settings. This means that families that are financially worse off are not forced to place their children in a low quality setting because that is all they can afford. This concept for an early years setting for all is not restricted to children from financially different backgrounds but also for children classified as having “special needs”. Dahlberg et al (2006, p.187) describe how in Sweden there has been a desire to avoid the term “special needs” since the 1960’s, the focus being upon a competent child who can require different strategies of support similar to settings in Reggio Emilia.
The Maximum Fee Reform (MaxTaxa) has created a change in how early years settings are used. Pramling Samuelsson and Sheridan (2004) point out that teachers view this both positively and negatively – firstly teachers no longer need to feel they have to play time keeper, ensuring children are picked up on time, but on the downside teachers are feeling less able to meet the individual needs of the child as groups have become larger and the days have become longer. The fact that children are spending longer days at settings has contributed towards it becoming harder for teachers to find the four hours a week of planning and documentation that they are entitled to which Pramling Samuelsson and Sheridan consider a “serious threat towards quality” (p.12). They go on to describe the increase in the number of special needs children might derive from the fact that these children can no longer have their individual needs met in the large groups as they once did when the groups were smaller. Jensen (2002, p. 148) comments “having widespread child care services says nothing about the quality of life for children using such facilities. Quantity is not the same as quality”. If quantity is not necessarily quality then there is a need to look closer at the resources that create the quality regardless of quantity.
2.5.2 Human Resources
Pramling Samuelsson et al (2006, p.20) describe a teacher’s competence in two ways – firstly their competence based on their education, but also their competence to question their ability to relate and communicate with children. They feel that there needs to be both the right education and attitude to be able to be a quality teacher. Sheridan (2007) writes about quality enhancement being achieved in settings through competence development programmes for the teachers. That teachers need to be aware of changes, requirements in society, modern theories of child development as well as understanding the importance of their own role. She goes on to describe that children in settings, perceived as high quality, believed their teacher knew what they liked more than those children from settings perceived as low quality. This indicates that the attitude and involvement of the teacher with the children is crucial to the perceived quality of the setting. Johns (2005, p.31) writes, “well-trained teachers are a critical component of a high quality preschool program… It is the teacher’s ability to implement the curriculum and to use effective instructional approaches that result in a long term difference in student learning”.
But in order to develop as a teacher, and to be able to respond to the needs of the children there needs to be time for planning, documentation and reflection. Moss (2000) writes that teachers in parts of Italy and Spain are able to take 6 hours from their 36-hour week for childfree documentation, in-service training and parent contact time. In publicly supported services in Germany it is 20% of their working week. In Sweden teachers are allocated 4 hours child-free planning of their 40 hour week – part of those hours are often unscheduled so that they can cover staff planning meetings in the evening.
The status of the early years teacher is also an important factor in the discussion of quality. It is much easier to feel that you are part of a quality system if your role is valued.
Professional identity linked to organisational culture in settings clearly plays a part in how quality is understood, perhaps more so because of the way that services for children and their families have developed in recent years. These considerations of professional identity, status and the culture of early years settings are of much greater significance in the current climate of regulation and accountability. Alexander (2010, p. 114)
Pramling Samuelsson et al (2006, p. 24) describe “valued ... high quality practitioners” as teachers who organise appropriate activities, interact with the children and act in accordance with the programme’s aims and value orientation.
2.5.3. The Child
Alexander (2010) and Dahlberg et al (2006) all pose the same question - “what kind of child are you trying to produce in your early years setting?” This is a fundamental question to ask – as the answer will in part be crucial to the definition of quality in reference to the results criteria. If one chooses a child ready for school, then success will be measured by how many children leave the setting ready to start school. Perhaps Stockholm has an advantage over the UK here, in that the children leaving early years settings to start school in the Preschool Class are between the age of 5.5 and 6 years of age which is considerably later than in the UK when school starts much earlier for children – at the age of four/five (NFER, 2010). I believe this increases the feeling of school readiness possessed by the children in Stockholm, and for those children who are not ready, there is an option to stay another year in the early years setting. Alexander (2010) continued her questioning by asking what a successful child is and was surprised that all 65 participants answered, “a successful child is a happy child” (p.110). She believes that the term “happy” is as elusive in it’s meaning as is the word “quality”, with each participant having their own understanding of what a happy child entailed. It also leaves open the fact that an unhappy child is possibly an unsuccessful child.
In Sweden child participation is seen as an important aspect of a good quality setting (Sheridan 2007; Pramling Samuelsson and Sheridan, 2003) and section 2.3 in the Swedish early years curriculum (2010) is dedicated to how children can influence their own learning and development – “In the preschool the foundation is laid so that children can understand what democracy is. The children’s social development allows, according to ability, to take responsibility for their own actions and the settings environment. The needs and interests the children express in a variety of ways should lay the foundation for the formation of the environment and the planning of the pedagogical organisation.” (Lpfö 2010, p. 14). This means that to create a world class setting in Stockholm the needs of each child must be listened to and the setting adapted to meet these needs. The participation of each child is important in Sweden and Sheridan and Pramling Samuelsson (2001) describe high quality as a setting that have children who are listened to and actively deciding with the teachers. When they interviewed children about their participation it became clear that making decisions at the setting was not as easy as it was at home – “because then… then … there are only two children at my house, my big brother and I.” (p. 185) which indicates that the more children there are the less opportunity there is to participate in the decision-making. The size of the group effecting the individual experience and development of the child is discussed in much research (Skolverket 2005; Moss, 2000; Berntsen, 2003), and of course having a high staff ratio does not guarantee high quality if the staff have neither training and/or access to sufficient child-free time to plan and document (Moss, 2000, p.14).
“Children are at the heart of all that happens” (Ofsted, 2008, p.15) is a concept in UK early years settings, but also High Scope, Montessori and Te Whäriki (Nutbrown, 2006). Asplund et al (2001) suggests that group size is important when placing the child at the centre, as the more children there are in the group, the more rules are necessary for the group to function. Moss (2000, p. 14) describes how in Japan large class sizes and low staff ratio are preferred as a strategy for promoting the Japanese values of groupism and selflessness – as there will be thirty children of 4-5 years old with one teacher. To me this is an example of how a large group needing more rules turns individual thinking and learning to collective thinking and learning – this collective thinking is not part of the Swedish curriculum. The early years curriculum (Lpfö 2010) is very clear that it is the individual needs and the individual interests that teachers are to support – this would be hard to do in a group where rules are needed to such an extent that there becomes a collective thinking instead.
Sheridan and Schuster (p. 114) describe a low level of quality as where the routine care take up too much of the day, the schedule is either too rigid or too flexible and that there are hardly any planned activities, this is more likely to happen in groups that are large where more time is needed to change the volume of nappies and other routine aspects of the day.
Another area where the child’s right to preschool emerged in 2001 with a piece of legislation that allowed children of unemployed parents to continue at preschool for at least three hours a day. Six months later this was followed by the rights of children with siblings that they too could continue at preschool (3hours a day) when they would have previously have been taken out when their parents were on parental leave (Lenz Taguchi, 2003). As already mentioned – in Stockholm this has been increased to six hours a day, not all areas in Sweden have followed Stockholm’s example.
2.5.4. Physical Resources
Brophy and Statham (2002, p.70) state that the environments “create an important potential for good quality individual experiences, but they do not necessarily ensure it”. As Sheridan and Schuster (2001) note high quality settings are not just measured by the presence of physical resources but, more importantly, how these resources are used and made available to the staff and children. I have already mentioned that a part of the curriculum entails listening to the individual needs of the children and to adapt the physical resources to these needs. The planning, documentation and reflection time allocated to early years teachers must include time to rearrange the setting to optimize learning situations.
The importance of the pedagogical value of play is a well-researched area in ECEC (Moyles, 1994; Skolverket 2005; Nutbrown, 2006; DCSF, 2008). Skolverket (2005, p.27) write that all children play, but that play does not develop by itself – to be able to do that children need the space to play, the time to play and resources indoor and outdoors to play. They also need engaged teachers who are able to inspire the children to develop their play and create a learning experience without the children realising. Synodia (2010) agrees, believing the pedagogy of play does not deny children from teacher directed play as long as the children do not perceive it as a lesson and that it is based on the children’s interests. Siraj-Blatchford (2010, p149-53) discusses the importance of play and that teachers need to provide opportunities for both child initiated and teacher initiated play pointing out that learning through play requires interaction with adults and that the best learning occurs when there is a high ratio of teachers to extend the children’s thinking based on their play.
2.6 The literature reviewed
There is a great deal of literature that raises dialogues about the meaning of “quality” if and how it can be measured and how the definition should be flexible and allowed to develop with social changes (Moss and Pence, 1994; Kärrby, 1997; Skolverket, 2001; Dahlberg, Moss and Pence, 2006). This has made me realise that probing the opinions of the early years teachers could result in three very different results and therefore not allow me to discover a definition of world class. The potential size of the research question “What is a world class early years setting?” has meant that I have had to structure my interview questions to ensure that their views are adequately lifted without throwing them into a great abyss of potential answers where finding a focus would be complicated. The literature reviewed has shown how the universal preschool found throughout Sweden has its benefits and disadvantages (Pramling Samuelsson and Sheridan, 2004) influencing my questions to explore how the three teachers felt about this.
Although there is a great deal of literature concerning group size, staff-ratio, teacher education and availability I could not find the answer to my question - what does Stockholm mean by “world class”, and do the teachers feel they have the resources to achieve this perceived idea of “world class” fuelling my research with the knowledge that I could discover something new. This leads me to my methodology and how I chose an optimal method to obtain some answers to clarify what is a world class early years setting in Stockholm.
Finding the right method to answer my research question, what is a world class early years setting, three Stockholm early years teachers views, has taken time and careful consideration as I wanted the answers to enlighten whether or not the teachers were familiar with the Stockholm Preschool Plan and what it meant, as well as exploring what they personally considered “world class” both theoretically and within their daily work. Another answer I was striving to find is whether or not they perceived Stockholm provided the resources to create a “world class” service. This chapter will reveal how I came to the decision to interview three early years teachers by firstly presenting my methods and the reasons for these choices, secondly presenting the ethical considerations taken and finally presenting an analysis of the methods used.
3.1 Methods and methodology
The interpretive paradigm, as described by Cohen et al (2010, p5-26), is the foundation of my research, as I wish to gleam more understanding of what is perceived as world class in Stockholm grounded on previous global research in the areas of quality. I am not looking for a simple answer but a “multilayered and complex” result that reflects the teachers’ opinions, as they perceive them. A positivist approach would not allow me to unravel the opinions from the inside, as I would be an objective observer testing a hypothesis. I have no hypothesis to test or measure; the research is exploratory and therefore it is the voice of the teachers that is essential to gathering the data in order to better understand what a world class early years setting is.
My decision to interview just three early years teachers in Stockholm was fuelled not only by my desire to learn about their opinions about a world class early years setting, but also by the fact that my newly assigned post to start up a new preschool was time consuming. Despite being limited by time constraints, the focus was on the perceptions of the teachers, and by opting for just three teachers I could gain a depth of understanding whilst the quantity of data remained manageable. I opted for quality rather than quantity, but understand the limitations by doing this. I had originally considered using a questionnaire to enquire what is a world class early years setting, and to not limit the questionnaire to just Stockholm, but to probe the opinions of early years educators around the world. As I explained in my module four assignment (Axelsson 2010) I applied Clough and Nutbrown (2008, p.88) “Russian doll principle” to peel back the layers of dolls to get to the tiny doll in the middle – my research question. Despite the fact that discovering the difference of opinions of what is considered world class across the globe would be extremely interesting, including the fact that it could be subjective to where you find yourself, as Woodhead (1999) writes, it would make the research too large and too multi-layered. Choosing a questionnaire to gather data for my refined research question, as Nyberg and Persson (2009) discovered, does give breadth but not depth. They realised their open-ended questions had a tendency not to be answered, possibly due to “questionnaire fatigue” (Åsén, 2002, p.35). Since it is these more detailed responses to open-ended questions I am looking for in my research, the questionnaire therefore, is not my optimal tool.
Nutbrown’s (2008, p.88) description of focus groups almost convinced me to use this method to collate the opinions of the early years teachers in order to gain a “collective experience” of world class settings, as I explained in my module four assignment (2010). My main concern was that a group discussion of this kind despite benefiting some of the teachers, it might also cause some of the teachers to either partake passively or concur with opinions that were not their own. By choosing not to use a focus group would mean missing out on the social encounter described by Cohen, Manion and Morrison (2010, p.350) as well as an opportunity to offer an inspiring experience for the teachers involved (p.355) as it would offer the opportunity for the teachers to consider and discuss opinions that they might not have at first considered. As I wrote in my previous assignment (2010) that despite the temptation to use a focus group, my aim was to collect as much quality data as I could and since Cohen et al (p.376) point out that focus groups tend not to produce as much data for the same number of individuals as it would if I interviewed the teachers separately the negatives of using focus groups outweighed the positives for this particular research.
Using interviews as a source of data collection allowed me access to their individual thoughts and experiences and also, as Åsén (2002, p. 34) writes, a detailed description of what I am researching. His description of adjusting the questions and using follow up questions to attain clarity of the answers given convinced me that individual interviews were the right method for this research. Of course interviewing is by no means a simple option as Cohen et al (2010 p.362) point out it is important to be respectful of the interviewee, to not show facial and body language that may restrict the flow of the discussion and to being sensitive to their opinions and allow them to be lifted rather than my own.
The interview questions were semi structured, so that I could ensure each interview was similar but allow each teacher to pursue their own avenue of opinions. The interview started off by asking how long they had worked as an early years teacher and some background questions about their setting. The first question relating to world class was “Please explain what the term “world class early years setting” means to you”. The questions are included in full in the appendix.
Making the decision who to ask to participate in my research was the next hurdle. One consideration was to interview teachers from the preschools that have received Stockholm’s Quality Award (Kvalitetsutmärkelsen) during the last three years. This would require more time to establish contact and credibility than it would with early years teachers that I already know. Due to the time factor I opted to interview teachers I already knew, despite being aware of Larsson’s (2006, p.43) experience where she felt that knowing her interviewees maybe deprived her of an element of objectivity. There would also be the risk that if the three teachers I interviewed worked at preschools judged by Stockholm City as being of high quality it might not produce answers that reflect the average early years teacher in Stockholm, but ones that have worked for a year on obtaining the quality award. The data produced by such interviews would be very interesting and could supply a rich discussion about quality and the concept “world class”, but the opportunity to gain insight into what most teachers experience might be lost. My research is in pursuit of what the average early years teacher thinks. (By average I refer to the fact that most teachers have not applied for, or won, the Stockholm Quality Award).
The next consideration was language; living in Stockholm, obviously, most of the teachers I know are Swedish and are most comfortable speaking in their mother tongue. This makes the process of interviewing, transcribing and translating a lengthier process before being able to start analysing. Opting for English speaking teachers would not guarantee relevant data being collected: would these teachers know enough about early years education and care in Stockholm to be able to supply a detailed account of a world class early years setting in Stockholm? I made the decision that the teachers interviewed must have lived at least ten years in Stockholm, reminding me that it was not just about language, but the familiarity with Stockholm that was important to my research. I was fortunate enough that four teachers accepted my request – two of them English speaking, one of them raised in Stockholm bilingually with English/Swedish parents, and one that has worked in various parts of the world, but has lived and worked in Stockholm for the last twenty years. One of the four teachers was asked to be my pilot interview.
The pilot interview gave me the opportunity to see if the questions allowed the interviewees opinions to shine and to also practice pausing sufficiently to allow the interviewee to think and answer and for me not to fill gaps. It also taught me the importance of recapping data they had expressed and asking if I had understood it correctly, this helped answers to become richer. Talking with the pilot interviewee afterwards about her feeling about the interview convinced me that I had got my questions right, but that they might not come in the same order as I expected as the discussion should flow naturally, having a pen with me to cross off which ones I had asked would be useful. She also said that despite being nervous at the start that she found the experience enjoyable, this was very encouraging.
Cohen et al (2010, p.361) emphasise the importance of recording the interview and seeking permission to do this. I used a dictaphone to allow me to focus on the interviewee rather on writing down what was being said. This has allowed me to listen and re-listen to the recorded interview permitting a word-for-word account which makes the analysis and quoting a much more accurate process (Åsén, 2002, p.34; Larsson, 2006, p.43, Cohen et al, 2010, p.364).
The possibility of being disturbed by phone calls and other interruptions needs to be considered when choosing a location for the interview, so that they can be kept to a minimum (Cohen et al 363-365). The choice of location for the interview should also be governed by an aim to make the interviewee feel comfortable. Karlsson and Lindell (2007, p.19) discuss their own inexperience as interviewers possibly affecting the quality of the data, this is why I have opted for a practice interview to aid me hone my interview skills for this research.
Due to the fact there are a variety of forms of early years settings in Stockholm, this has been another concern in my choice of teachers interviewed. The teachers were chosen not only for their current work location, but also for their previous experience. Two of them had worked in both state run settings as well as private ones. The third had experience of being a teacher in several countries other than Sweden. Two of them have worked in Swedish settings that have sibling groups, age homogenous groups, mixed groups as well as settings with more than fifty children, the third works in a small mixed age setting. Between them they have 42 years of early years teacher experience (25, 10 and 7 years) and one of them started their early years career first as an untrained staff member, then as a trained child carer before qualifying as an early years teacher.
3.2 Ethical considerations
Cohen et al (2010, p.382) raise the ethical issues that need to be considered, including informed consent. Prior to the interview I sent the early years teachers information about my research, about how the interviews would be conducted, how the data would be handled afterwards as well as their right to pull out at any time. The three teachers have been given new names – all starting with “S” for Stockholm – in order to preserve their anonymity. The names chosen are Saga, Smilla and Sigrid – three Swedish names that are easily pronounced in English. Once I had transcribed the interviews I sent them to the interviewee to read through them to not only allow them to further consent to their participation but to also allow for any amendments or further thoughts on the subject. Nutbrown (2008. P93) writes that re-reading the transcription can lead to further views surfacing – “people may say things like: “I didn’t say that… well maybe I said it but I don’t mean it like that – I mean…”And that thought, that idea is reshaped again.” As it is the thoughts and opinions that I am looking for I feel it is worth the risk of allowing another opportunity for the interviewees to withdraw if there is a chance for more ideas or further reflections as well as allowing the teachers an opportunity to self reflect when reading what they have discussed.
It was regrettable that the fourth interview could not be held, due to an inability to arrange a time that worked for both of us. Her opinions would have been valued, but fortunately I had enough data by including the pilot interview to be able to continue with my research at the level I first set out at. One of the teachers interviewed referred to a film that Stockholm City showed to those working in community run preschools when the Stockholm Preschool Plan was first released in 2009. I have, unfortunately, not been able to locate this film, the authorities now not being aware there was a film.
I felt satisfied with my choice of early years teachers to interview – their experiences and opinions offered me a rich supply of data which allowed me to see both similarities and contrasts in how Stockholm’s world class early years plan is perceived.
Despite choosing my locations carefully, two of the interviews were disturbed by phone-calls and people walking into the room where the interview was being held, despite there being a do not disturb sign on the door. Fortunately both the interviewees concerned were not phased by the interruptions, and in retrospect can be seen positively as they allowed a little extra time to take stock of their thoughts and either continue to confirm what they had been talking about or slightly change their opinion.
The interviews were transcribed as soon after the interview as possible, so that my memory would be allowed to aid the transcription and understand the weight of certain opinions through the emphasis and inflection in the interviewees voices (Cohen et al, 2010, p.367). I colour-coded the transcriptions. It resulted in a rainbow of data. By referring to the literature about what is considered high quality I looked for similar issues being raised in the interviews – each one I marked with its own colour, this allowed me not only to see if the teachers all referred to the same issues of quality, but also how often and how much each of the teachers raised the various areas of quality. For example all references to group size were marked in green, all references to documentation and planning were marked in orange and all references to management were marked in blue.
In retrospect it would have been interesting to have asked more questions about the settings where they worked so that I could have analysed their opinions further to see if they were due to an specific working conditions. My interviews gathered only very basic information in this area. It would have also been interesting to ask about continued training, how many courses they go on during the year and how the training is applied to their daily work.
The exploratory nature of this research has meant that the participants voice has been crucial in gathering the data about what a world class early years setting implies. Their personal opinions have allowed me to look at the phrase “world class” with a wider lens, opening my eyes to different perspectives. The teachers expressed both similar opinions as well as different opinions. These will now be presented - starting with the opinions they had in common. As I opted for very open ended questions it allowed for many points to be discussed under the same question. This was driven by the fact that I did not want my opinions to colour the data, but also means that it is very difficult to fix a specific question to a specific response in all cases.
4.1. The views raised by all
The three early years teachers interviewed all responded that they were unaware what was meant by a world class early years setting, even though they had read Stockholm City’s preschool plan (2009) and one of them had also attended a series of information meetings and lectures when the plan was first introduced, revealing that she felt the concept of what it meant was not explained but that it was expressed more as a slogan.
All three teachers raised group size as an important factor for a world class early years setting, and on several occasions, therefore indicating that this is an area they considered important. This is very much in alignment with my findings in the literature where the discussion of group size is hotly debated by Barnverket (2005) and all three teachers agree that too many children is not optimal, but none of them offer a suggestion of what would be.
Saga: “…group size – there are those who say that you can have big groups, but I don’t believe that it is about it being better for the children, but that we can manage it”
Smilla: “You can’t have too few then they maybe can’t find friends or work together in teams – but you can’t have too many because you can’t create the calm that you sometimes need to learn”.
Sigrid: “I think you need to be an adequate number of adults, in being role-models in the first place and to have time to help the children to dialogue, to talk them through situations – “this happened and that happened and what could you…” I don’t see that you can do that in these big groups of 20 plus children…”
They also all mention staff ratio being an important part of pedagogical quality, not only for the children, but also as part of their ability to complete their working tasks in a satisfactory way. Again this was also found in the literature, and comes as no surprise, but what is not mentioned in the literature is that documentation time is causing staff ratios to reduce and when the discussion of child groups and staff ratios are already reported frequently in the newspapers (see appendix) then this could be an important area to look further into.
Saga: “we are lacking time that is not with the children – I mean the time we take for documentation and reflection – we take that from the children – the group of children need the staff ratio that we have all the time – so it is always at a cost – documentation and reflection will always be at the cost of the children’s well-being.”
Sigrid, though, is satisfied with the staff ratio and definitely sees this as part of what is world class in early years settings in Stockholm.
Sigrid: “…world class here is the ratio of staff that we have with the children… that we have enough staff to see, hear and react with the children on a really deep level and understand each child as an individual.”
Smilla also mentions how sickness affects the daily quality of the setting, again this was rarely mentioned in the literature presented about quality and staff ratio and maybe should be an area lifted more.
Smilla: “if people are constantly sick, and there are not enough teachers you can’t actually do what you are supposed to do, like make sure that the children take care of the materials – like, if you are left with 17 one year olds you can’t be on their backs telling them to put everything away”
Qualified staff is a subject area that was raised several times by each interviewee, adding weight to its importance for the early years teachers interviewed. Sigrid’s statement that “the staff being the greatest resource that you have to work with in a preschool” implies that this is an area that can create world class settings. Their opinions not only reflect that they prefer trained staff, but more importantly that the status of their profession feels threatened by the attitudes of society who feel anyone can be hired in a preschool.
Saga “Even status has a roll to play – there are not as many uneducated staff anymore, but, for example – if a setting is looking for a child-carer then the employment office recommends the position to a whole load of people without the right qualifications – that says a lot about their opinion of this kind of work.”
Smilla: “ I think in today’s society anyone can get hired and work in a preschool and anyone will say it – anyone can work there. But that is not the view I want people to have. It is a very important job, and it’s a very important job to see the children’s needs and I think a world class preschool we need to change lots of opinions about a preschool.”
The qualifications of early years teachers are not only discussed in the terms of whether or not they have qualifications, but also the proportion of qualified staff in a group can effect the perceived quality of the setting. The idea of “qualified” and “quality” comes into question when Smilla discusses previous experiences over the years where she has worked with, not only fantastic pedagogically uneducated colleagues (“why can’t they all be like that”), but also with unmotivated colleagues with the right qualifications.
Smilla: “the main thing for me about quality is the staff – I have worked as the only teacher and have worked with childish people who do not see it as a job, but do it because they got hired, basically. … I think also if you have too many young or unqualified staff they will be worse together than it being one child-carer who is unqualified with two teachers who will probably bring out the best in her. … I have also worked with great staff without education.”
Sigrid sees the ratio of qualified staff quite differently and much more positively,
Sigrid “and that is why we are world class in Sweden, in most preschools at least, they are the qualified staff that are able to see and follow through the children and help build up these people that are confident in themselves.”
There is though concern that the future might prove hard for settings to live up to the world class aims of Stockholm as the requirements to employ more qualified early years teachers in every setting is not being matched financially by Stockholm to allow settings to afford the increase in wages this will involve. In Stockholm, the average child carer earns 19,135 SEK and the average early years teacher earns 24,151 SEK (Lönestatistik 2011). Where will this money for high wage costs come from – less resources for the children?
Sigrid: “ Whether Stockholm put in enough effort to support preschools so that they can financially engage qualified preschool teachers – I don’t really know that “.
There are some points that two of the teachers mentioned but not the third, although not always the same two teachers. Both Sigrid and Saga talked about a world class setting as a place offering the child the space and encouragement to develop at their own pace
Saga: “ A world class preschool is a preschool where ALL children have the possibility to develop according to their own capabilities”
Sigrid: “World class. We are looking at something that really puts the child at the centre, and give the ability, the possibility to develop at their level or at their pace.”
Sigrid and Smilla make comparisons with other countries, although in very different ways as Sigrid very much sees the methods used in Stockholm as offering the opportunity to create a world class setting for children, whilst Smilla’s experiences have left her feeling that Stockholm could improve by looking abroad.
Sigrid “ We have the time and the opportunity to see what each child needs and to give them the resources that they need – and that I have not experienced in any other country or, any other school that I have been in. I think in England that they might be coming a little more towards that with individual plans and the individual ways of working … it is something that when I came to Sweden it made me feel excited about coming into a preschool and seeing these opportunities that we have”.
Sigrid: “ I have met people, teachers, from the States and from the UK too that view the child that can read and write as “fantastic”, and I don’t agree with that either – I feel that if a child shows that they are ready to read and write and can do so in a meaningful way, then they will learn to do it – whether that is at three or six, we have to provide the opportunities and it will happen naturally with the stimuli around them that can be given.”
Smilla “ I was in an English school … and they had a really good learning to read system … that was proven that it worked well and all the children in the reception class learned to read before Christmas. And I think, … I’ve tried different methods in Sweden and there is not a solid one - there are different ones everywhere, and the pedagogics are different everywhere, even if it is called Montessori – it’s not the same Montessori… I’ve seen a few different pedagogies but I am not sure which one would be the world class one.”
Smilla and Saga took up the quality of the management as a prerequisite for world class settings. Sigrid’s role as head teacher may have been the reason for her not raising this topic.
Smilla: “sometimes you get really devoted teachers and hardly no management … the (management) needs to have lots of experience that has made them confident in what they are doing … needs to be really sure about what they are doing and to believe in it”
Saga: “One has to consider what kind of leadership training does the head teacher have – the responsibility – that many head teachers have too many preschools and too many staff – and that is also an important part, because if you are to manage a setting you cannot have too many staff … and then there are systems of many preschools built upon others are responsible for the preschool and what leadership training does this person have? We are pretty good at leading children, but are we equally good at leading adults?”
Saga is referring to the fact that many preschool head teachers are responsible for several preschools in an area, which then relies on a teacher at each preschool to have acting responsibility while s/he is not there. Having worked in this system it is not always optimal when the head teacher is based at another preschool and nearly all interaction is carried out via the telephone and one visit to the preschool a week. Saga questions how effective a head teacher can be when unable to see the daily interactions between staff, children and parents and how supportive the head teacher can be with a staff of, for example, sixty plus staff in three different locations.
Sigrid and Saga raise the importance of play in their interviews as being crucial part of a child’ development as was suggested in the literature and that play becomes learning when it is being extended by the teacher. Again the increase in the size of groups does not always allow the teacher to take advantage of the play and develop it appropriately.
Saga: “ but in free-play you need to be present to see what is happening – to either actively stimulate the play, or to take out materials to create change – but the children maybe have an exciting game that you need to help them develop in order for it to contribute to their learning.”
Sigrid. “ accepting the importance of play … as world class education..”
Saga and Smilla emphasise the importance of planning and reflection and see that the large groups, already mentioned, are encroaching on the possibilities to take the time to document and plan as a team.
Saga: A setting that wants to be world class requires documentation time, reflection time and mostly reflection time together as a team with colleagues – but its most common that one reflects alone – its, like, a necessity that you can’t get away from – it comes up all the time – because the groups are too large”
4.2. Individual views
When reading and re-reading the three transcripts it is noticeable that the tone of Sigrid’s interview is much more positive than the other two interviews. Her interview is filled with phrases such as “ is world class here”, “another world class… “ and “I think as a preschool teacher … working in Sweden … we have fantastic opportunities to achieve a world class preschool”. There is a definite belief in the resources available to her are, as a teacher in Stockholm, enough to create a world class setting. She is also very positive about what the city of Stockholm has to offer her preschool children culturally
“the fact that Stockholm subsidises cultural events for children. That they provide “parkleks” where the children can play – the understanding that children need to be outside and to travel around safely in the city, these are opportunities that are world class. Museums, travel are subsidised or free. We have recently had a child move from inner London to us – they were never outside, and has no idea about playing outside – it meant walking in single file – the freedom, the possibilities for children to explore – that’s given by having these opportunities”
Sigrid’s praise of Stockholm’s offerings of children’s culture and play lead to a discussion of risk assessment and the freedom teacher’s in Sweden have due to not needing to fill one out for every excursion made. It allows a greater freedom to use the resources on offer in the city of Stockholm, both for play and to support the learning processes that start within the setting.
Sigrid is also satisfied with the size of groups and ratio of staff pointing out that this is one of the aspects that make Stockholm’s early years settings world class. This contrasts with both Smilla and Saga who show concern about the increasing size of the groups and the reduced staff ratio that is going hand in hand with this.
Saga points out that as teachers one is used to “doing magic” to create a world class standard and feels frustrated that politicians make decisions about ECEC but then do not give the resources to enable this. To illustrate this Saga says
“ … three month guarantee, that demands that preschools must take children throughout the year in order to satisfy the three month guarantee – but if every department has to be full all the time to function economically – where are the places to put these children?”
Saga was the only teacher to raise the concept of the universal preschool, this turned out to be a crucial part of data that broadened my research perspective. Until this point the focus had been on play, group size, staff ratio and qualifications, but in my last interview Saga turned my focus on its head and allowed me to see a bigger picture.
Access to preschool in Sweden is special – it is so extensive – all children have the possibility, and the fact it is so cheap is really important – if you think about how it is around the world – still – most children attending are those from high-income families – but the difference is not class, generally it doesn’t matter what kind of income you have to be able to place your child in a setting – it is that what is special. ALL children have the possibility to attend, to meet other children and other adults, so they learn more about the world”
Saga was also the only teacher to mention what was happening in the media concerning early years settings. A column, by Sanna Lundell (2011), stuck out more than others for Saga, as it described the work of early years teachers as underpaid and not receiving the respect it should. (a translated version is available to read in the appendix)
4.3. Wider implications
The size of the setting groups is not just a concern for the three teachers interviewed, the growing size of groups is reflected also in news reports in Stockholm, and Sweden as a whole, (Hall, 2011; TV4play; Gustafsson, 2010) and is also being raised by politicians in the battle to be elected (Scharf, 2011). These issues are not restricted to Sweden either, in North Carolina writes Caron Nelson (2008, p.7) “Kindergarten class (is limited) to 21; however it stipulates that it can go as high as 24. It also states that it can never go higher than 3 more than 24. Therefore, teachers can have as many as 27 students in their Kindergarten classroom, when the state actually sets the maximum class size as 21”. This is not unlike what is happening in Stockholm where research informs the politicians that small groups are optimal, but the number of children needing placements exceeds the number of settings available (Scharf, 2011). Parental satisfaction of early years settings in Stockholm has sunk from 91% in 2008 to 84% in 2011, Scharf (2011) blames this partly on the fact that groups sizes are growing, and that the 1% budget increase is not enough to cover the costs of price and salary increases. This dissatisfaction with the current state of settings in Stockholm could be found in my interviews with Saga and Smilla, who had faith in their own abilities, but felt unable to achieve the standard they felt they were able to.
There is a pride in Stockholm and Sweden that we have early years teachers with a university education equivalent to primary school teacher. Internationally it is not being spoken of the fact that there is a shortage of these teachers, so while there is increased pressure on settings to employ a higher ratio of university trained teachers there are becoming fewer to choose from (www.skolverket.se). Pramling Samuelsson, Sheridan and Williams (2004) express their concern that a decrease in early years teacher may cause a drop in quality as “problems may arise in making sense of the 16 page curriculum and in applying its objectives in praxis” (p.22). My research showed too that the teachers also desired trained teachers as their co-workers tying-in with the literature found on the importance of educated early years teachers. In my discussion I discuss further the status and role of the early years teacher in Stockholm.
Birgitta Ohlsson (2011) Swedish EU minister, presented in Brussels her reason for “Sweden being as a worldwide champion in the league of Gender Equality” being due to “access to affordable and qualitative childcare”. Her speech continues that Sweden is seen as a “frontrunner and successful example in providing affordable…” widely available and good quality childcare. She talks of the Swedish childcare model not in terms of the care given to the children, but in terms of the quality of life it gives the parents – especially the mothers. Is this what is considered world class? Certainly Saga takes this up in her interview, that early years settings are available to everyone regardless of financial status.
Siraj-Blatchford and Woodhead’s (2009) Effective Early Childhood Programmes point out that in many countries the “ECEC is not achieving its full potential to promote equity and change the lives of the most disadvantaged children” (p.34) and “the consequence that inequalities in both quality and access may increase” (p.36) due to the fact there are for-profit providers of early childcare. The fact that Sweden has a maximum fee for parents to pay and that even private run early year settings must adhere to the same payment, and not-for-profit, rules as the state-run settings, ensures that the standard between good quality and low quality should not be that far apart. But returning to Smilla’s question as to whether it is “school” all day long, and as there are no school holidays for early years settings in Stockholm, are teachers required to plan learning sessions for every day of the year? These are questions that cannot be answered here, but are worth looking into, not just from the view point of the teacher, but also from the viewpoint of the child – what happens to the children who go home early (15:00 is the usual part time pick up) can we be inclusive if we prepare fun activities after this point? Do we deprive children of learning experiences if we do not?
Woodhead (1999) raised the concern that world class might not necessarily mean better but might refer to a standardisation, which is what Sigrid raised in her interview, that our view of the child should not be put into a melting pot to create something average rather than something unique. As research reaches out globally with its definitions of childhood and ECEC are we in fact diluting the uniqueness of each individual child?
The status of those working in ECEC was a concern raised by both Smilla and Saga which can be understandable from the viewpoint that a primary school teacher in Stockholm earns on average 26,347 SEK (lönestatistik, 2011) which is 2,216SEK more than an early years teacher – both having the same number of years training to qualify. Lohmander (2004, p.32) has also noted this, stating “that working conditions for one thing are better in the compulsory schools, including no shift work and more planning time. Additionally salaries as well as status are higher for teachers in the compulsory school system.” Smilla shook her head in despair when recounting that one of her colleagues earned a mere 16,000SEK at the age of forty, concluding, “who else would offer so little?”
To allow the reader some perspective into the difference between a teacher working in a early years setting in Stockholm and a teacher working with the younger years at a primary school in Stockholm I will present some information based on my own experiences working in preschools and schools and as a mother of three children in the Swedish school system. Primary school teachers receive three times as many study/planning days per year than early years teachers, the primary schools are closed (the after-school activity service will be open on most of these day, but these are served by its own staff). There are 13 weeks of each year that the school is closed and children are taken care of by the after school activity service, two of those weeks will go to the planning days. For grades 1 and 2 (i.e. up until age 8) the school day is usually between 8:20 and 13:00, including a lunch break, after this time the children will go to the after school activity service and the teacher has time for planning and preparation. A teacher in the early years sector will receive 5 weeks holiday, often three or four weeks in July when the setting is closed, there are four planning days a year, shifts can include (based on my own preschool)
Shifts at Early Years Settings.
|Opening shift||7:15 – 15:00||
If a parent needs an earlier service the setting is obliged to comply as early as 6:30One month notice
|Typical middle shift||8:30 – 16:30|
|Closing shift||9:00 – 17:45||
If a parent needs a later pick up time the setting needs to comply until latest 18:30
One month notice(Edholm, 2011)
The children do not go to another service, so there is no natural planning time, it is, as Saga said, necessary to withdraw from the group to plan. Even though the number of children will decrease in the afternoon, so does the number of staff, as the long opening hours do not allow full coverage for the entire day.
Smilla “A world class preschool is for the children – so I always had a hard time that preschools open at 6:30 in the morning – to me that’s really too early – children should learn between 9am and 3pm – otherwise its more like playschool … so I think, err, world class would be the hours they learn – not irregular hours – I have seen children come at 7am and leave at 5:30pm. Is that really “school” all day?”
It becomes clear that what the quality stands for in Stockholm is anything but clear. If we are to provide a service for parents so that they can work, then of course to be good quality we need to have good opening hours – but expanding our opening hours has not resulted in an expansion in staff. If we are to provide quality for the children, then it might involve a reduction in the opening hours so that there is both the staff stimulus for the children’s learning processes and the time to plan, document and reflect without compromising the quality of the service. This, though, would reduce the quality of availability for families who require a place to cover their long working days. My research has discovered that the “educare” model discussed earlier has problems; in Stockholm it is not just a service to the children but for the parents that is being provided – and being world class in both areas sometimes appears contradictory just as Persson wrote (1991, p44).
As Dahlberg et al (2006, p.121) write, when the resources are sufficient and there are settings available to all children, then focus shifts from the need to provide settings to other areas – such as the pedagogical work. It is clear from the interviews that this is how the teachers think – the quality of their pedagogical work, the quality of the human resources, the quality of the management is their focus rather than the concept of accessibility to all children. Despite this, authorities in Stockholm continue to struggle to find enough places for all the children requiring ECEC and maybe this is why their focus is still on quantity rather than quality. The article by Thorburn, the spokesperson for Free Schools in Sweden, in one of Sweden’s most read newspapers (26 July 2011) is the latest in a long list where the lack of settings is discussed and that parents are often forced to opt for a low quality setting as there are no other options. This is very much reflected in my research where two of the teachers had worked in several settings in Stockholm and have witnessed the huge difference in quality between settings.
I have come to understand the responsibility I now have to help to continuously improve the quality of the setting where I work – to use my practical experience of the setting together with the research I have already done to define together with the staff at my setting what quality is for us and what resources we need for it to be achieved. I also understand quality can be defined as encouragement to continually strive to learn more and to continuously evaluate what we mean by quality and to apply this practically.
A pedagogical perspective of quality is based on years of research and practical experience in early childhood education settings, inferring that certain aspects of quality benefit a child’s learning and development more than others do. To define what is meant by good quality, a shared understanding of what those qualities are – and an agreement on how they are rooted in pedagogical processes in early childhood education – is necessary in comparative studies of evaluations of quality. (Sheridan and Schuster 2001, p. 110)
My original concerns that early years teachers in Stockholm might be unaware of what the city means with its statement “World Class Preschool” has been confirmed by the three teachers interviewed, but it would be necessary to interview more teachers to see if this is a statement that has not reached its audience, or whether it just happens to be my sample of early years teachers.
For me, the most interesting data revealed in the interviews is the difference in attitude between Sigrid and those of Saga and Smilla. Having not probed the teachers more about the size and staff ratio I have little information to base my assumptions as why there was such a difference. Sigrid works at a setting with 21 children, three of which, the one year olds, make up a separate group, allowing 18 two-six year olds to be under the attention of four staff. The setting is open between 8am and 4:30pm and it is a parent co-operative which means that when staff are on holiday or sick a parent will come in to substitute, and the parents do two big cleaning days a year, saving the setting money which can be put into other resources. They have 6 planning days each year and three hours of scheduled individual documentation/reflection time as well as a 2-4 hour planning meeting every second week. The experiences of Saga and Smilla are very different, both base much of their experience on their work in commune run settings which have been very large and comprised of many departments. The staff ratio has been 3:18 and not 4:18 and opening hours being 2.5 hours longer every day has meant that staff coverage has to be spread throughout the day.
Opening hours/Staff hours.
|Number of hours open per month||Number of hours worked by staff per month|
|Sigrid||170||640 (600 if one part time)|
|Smilla/Saga||220||480 (440 if one part time)|
By looking at the above figures it becomes obvious how Sigrid can find the time for herself and her colleagues for planning, documentation and reflection. Moss (2000) was impressed by the level of job satisfaction of the early years teachers in Reggio Emilia where they had six hours of childfree documentation/planning time as well as being highly supported in their work despite a lower staff ratio than what we find in Stockholm. Moss goes on to suggest, as part of a discussion, that at least 10% of the working week should be child free planning time and that there should be adequate coverage available to maintain the ratios, 60% of the staff should have at least three years of post-18-year-old education incorporating theory and practice of pedagogy and child development and that there should be continuous in-house training (p.23). Considering the figures above I wonder why more settings do not attempt to have a similar surplus of staff hours – if all settings are given the same amount of financial support per child how is it that not all settings are able to provide the same service?
Smilla and Saga complained that time for reflection and documentation was sporadic and also involved “taking time away from the children”. Substitutes were another area of dissatisfaction as many private and commune run settings could not afford to pay for substitutes during absences due to sickness – often shuffling staff around to ensure adequate supervision, resulting in “babysitting”, lost documentation hours and the inability to pursue the activities planned due to lack of adult guidance.
Or could the difference in attitude be due to the fact that Sigrid was the only head teacher interviewed and therefore felt more in control of her working life whilst Saga and Smilla have had to weave their “magic” on someone else’s terms? Without more information, it is impossible to find out if there are any quality issues behind the opposing attitudes.
All three teachers were not aware of what Stockholm refers to by world class, but seemed interested to know more, and this could therefore be an area for Stockholm City to meet the needs of its early years teachers by explaining in more detail what “world class” means. It is clear that all three view world class in much the same way, and that mirrors my findings in the literature – small groups, sufficient numbers of staff, preferably trained as well as the time to see and document the development of each child so that they can be individually stimulated within the group. What has differed is their attitude to whether or not they have the resources to create this vision of world class they described. Whether this is due to the size of the settings, or the fact that Sigrid has maybe seen things in other countries that makes Stockholm shine, or that she has missed seeing the variety found in the early years sector in Stockholm that the other two possess, it is impossible to say. It does though beckon for further examination.
The research has in the end provided more questions than answers, but without the answers that I discovered I would never have considered these questions that will be presented in “areas of further research” below. I am hoping that these questions will give weight to the dialogue amongst parents, politicians and early years teachers that is ongoing about which direction early years settings in Stockholm will take in its aim to be world class.
6.1 Limitations of the present study
I am aware that this research has been limited by my choice to interview just three preschool teachers, it is, as one could say, an amuse bouche – to whet the appetite for further research into the area. The study has also been limited by my inexperience as an interviewer, and not being a native tongue Swedish speaker also limited my ability to ask nuanced questions in Swedish.
The study was also limited by the fact the teachers came from very different early years settings that could possibly have influenced their way of thinking, despite this, their diversity has offered me a rich data. It would have been beneficial to compare opinions either from teachers in similar kinds of early years setting or to even make a comparison of opinions between teachers in small setting with a high staff ratio with teachers from larger settings with a lower staff ratio – would the differences have been defined by the setting or the teacher?
The research has also been limited by the fact that I have not compared the settings the three teachers work in – their staff ratio, the staff turn-over, the number of qualified staff, their working environment, what percentage of their working week are they able to plan/document/reflect etc, as this data may very well be crucial in explaining the differences and similarities expressed in the interviews. Ideally a series of observations of the setting could have provided a much richer source of data to understand each teacher’s perspective of what they feel is a world class early years setting.
6.2 Areas of future Research
Most important are the children. Is a universal preschool (Korpi 2000) really for the children or for the parents? Jan Björkland, the Swedish Minister of Education, wrote in the introduction of Martin Korpi’s (2007, p.4) paper about the growth of Swedish preschools that
“One of the foundation stones in the politics of the Swedish preschool is that it must be possible to combine work and family life. It is also important to be able to provide childcare, which is flexible and enables parents to choose the form, which is the most suitable for them and their children. Another factor that makes Swedish pre-schooling so attractive for families with children is that we have built a pre-school of solid quality which parents can safely entrust their children”
Maybe an area of research would be to interview parents what their opinion of the preschool is – how much pedagogical activities they do, how often they think the staff actually work/play with their children etc and then to observe the preschools and measure just how much reality is in tune with the parents perception of their child’s day? Are parents right to entrust their children to these settings, or are they forced to place their children in early year settings because otherwise it is not economically viable? Is it the opposite of the UK, for example, where not all can afford to send their child to an early years setting – could it be that in Sweden parents are unable to afford to stay at home with their children?
Another aspect of the universal early years settings in Stockholm that could be further investigated is just how big the gap is between high quality and a low quality settings. Since they all receive the same resources and all must adhere to the same laws and preschool plans, their gap ought not to be so wide – if the gap is small, it could be indicative of Stockholm having world class preschools. Maybe a method of testing for quality settings is to interview the teachers and researching job satisfaction and to then cross reference the satisfaction statistics with staff ratio, setting size, management type, group size, planning hours etc to find out if there is an optimal working environment that offers the opportunity to create world class early years settings.
What became apparent during my research was the need for planning, not just individual planning, but planning as a team. Two of the teachers interviewed felt that planning was hard to arrange and often involved a reduction of staff able to supervise the children. The teachers felt guilty about the reduction of quality for the children and their colleagues, as well as being aware of the reduction in quality if they did not take the time to plan and reflect. There appeared to be a great deal of conflict as to where their loyalty should be – creating a quality service by planning or ensuring a quality service by being with the children. Being in a position where I need to provide childfree planning time for my staff I am wondering where I best find the time for documentation without affecting the quality of the setting; would we be able to afford for outside teachers to come in and take a morning/afternoon session so that the teachers could have a group meeting? Would it be feasible to work with other settings? Could some central service be started up, for example at the Culture House (Kulturhuset) in central Stockholm where the children could be “checked-in” for a session – whether it be arts, stories, theatre etc, allowing the usual teachers 1.5-2 hours to use one of the library rooms to plan and reflect. Could this be a financially viable option to support the growing needs of teachers to find time to document and reflect at the level the Swedish curriculum demands? Or that a team of pedagogues visit preschools to work with teachers by both stimulating an area of play/learning with half the staff and children while the remaining staff have the opportunity to reflect and plan as a group. This certainly seems an area that needs to be further researched to ensure that early years teachers can feel satisfied in their work and support them to create world class early years settings.
Alternatively the research could be turned on its head and maybe the focus should be on what is bad quality i.e. what is harmful to the development of children – as the literature, presented here, has clearly shown, quality is subjective and come in many forms. Despite being an ethically sensitive area to research, it could allow us to see what to avoid when working with young children maybe then the standard of ECEC globally can be increased.
Maybe I have not achieved clarity about what “world class” means, only presenting some versions of it, but this research has shown there is a need to provide clarity in order to achieve a citywide quality that is world class.
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Skolverket, (Swedish National Agency for Education), (2006). Curriculum for the preschool Lpfö98,
Skolverket (Swedish National Agency for Education) (2008) Allmänna råd och kommentarer, Kvalitet i Förskolan. Accessed October 2010 www.skolverket.se
- Hur länge har du arbetat som förskolärare?
- How long have you worked as a preschool teacher?
- Vilken ålder har barnen på den /förskola du arbetar på
- What are the ages of the children working in your department/preschool
- Hur länge har du arbetat på denna förskola
- How long have you worked at this preschool?
- Hur många barn finns det i din avdelningen/förskolan?
- How many children do you have in your department/preschool
- Berätta vad begreppet “förskola i världsklass” betyder för dig?
- Please explain what the term “world class preschool” means to you?
- Berätta för mig hur du i din vardag upplever en förskola i Världsklass
- Please explain how you experience world class in your daily work
- Vad känneteckna en förskola med bra kvalitet/Världsklass?
- What are the distinguishing features of a high quality/world class preschool?
- Låg kvalitet? Low quality?
- Vad är det som gör skillnaden
- What do you think creates the difference?
- Tror du att ditt sätt att tänka kring kvalitet skiljer från andras (personal, föräldrar, politiker)?
- Do you believe that your way of thinking about quality/world class differs from others (staff, parents, politicians)?
- Vad anser du att man behöver förbättra/förändra för att kvaliteten i förskolan skulle blir bättre/ hålla bra nivå?
- What do you feel one needs to improve/change for the quality in preschools should improve/remain at a good level?
- Vilka resurser skulle du behöva för att kunna skapa en förskola i världsklass?
- What resources would you need to be able to create a world class preschool?
- Känner du till vad Stockholm Stad definierer som en förskola i Världsklass?
- Are you aware of what Stockholm City defines as a world class preschool?
- Känner du till vad arbetsgivaren definierar som kvalitet?
- Are you aware of what your employer defines as quality?
- Hur ser du på ansvarsfördelningen när det gäller kvaliteten i förskolans måluppfyllelse?
- How do you perceive the division of responsibility when it concerns the quality of the preschool reaching it aims.?
Imagine five one year olds to feed, five to comfort – for 20,000 crowns a month
11 March 2011 Imagine stepping into your workplace at 8:30 in the morning.
A few of your fifteen colleagues are crying uncontrollably and are calling for their mummy with a bear in their lap. A few others are in line to have their nappies changed.
In one of the rooms there is dancing to music and building with blocks, someone falls and the crying starts again. At your aid, in this already pretty volatile world, you have three helpers. Three stable amongst fifteen more or less unstable.
No, we are not in a psychiatrist’s waiting room. We are one year olds at a preschool. During the day these one year olds eat lunch together, sleep, rest and are dressed to be outside for a while. Those of you who do not have a one year old at home, or have forgotten what it is like: it is hard work. Just to dress the darling for a visit outside in minus degrees takes at least five minutes.
To dress 15 children must then take round about 75 minutes divided by two staff (as one must take care of those already dressed outside in the cold).
40 minutes to shepherd out this little flock. Of course by this time the first of the dressed children are almost frozen by this time and need to come in.
You who have a one year old also know the feeling of insufficiency that rattles inside. Especially when you have to take care of a couple of siblings, answer the phone, throw in the wash and cook food. Imagine five one year olds. FIVE. Twenty nappies a day. Five to put to bed. Five to feed. Five to comfort. Five to pedagogically stimulate. Nervous breakdown is what I say. Nervous breakdown and burn out.
For this work you receive as a fulltime wage round about 20,000 crowns (uneducated get less, educated more). Nervous breakdown once more.
Despite that skolverket have recommended a max of fifteen children per group, and those groups with younger children should be even smaller, it is a total jungle out there. A recommendation is of course no law and can be skirted around with all sorts of possible and impossible arguments. Most often it is blamed on the lack of places. Or that the premises are so large. Or great staff. And so a few more children are squeezed in. Despite all the research that shows that groups that are too large are damaging for young children. Young children have difficulties relating to many people at the same time. It becomes stressful.
The logic is simple, but still the Moderates refuse to create a law stating the maximum number of children in preschool groups using the argument that the size of groups is a too ”obtuse” tool to measure quality. Why?