There is so much GOOD about the Swedish preschool system... I love the fact that I can take out children anywhere in town without having to fill in risk assessments, and on a whim, the children have said something or whatever and I know park/place that would allow them to explore these ideas further and I know we have time to do this in a morning... then we are off on the bus/train/boat and reach our destination without blinking an eye.
I love the fact that the preschool curriculum is about evaluating the setting, and reaching goals for the setting to provide quality care and education for the children... and NOT evaluating the children and ensuring the children reach set goals. It gives me the peace of mind that I can support the children at their own pace of development... it means that I, personally, have to be aware of developmental milestones and that I have concerns about a child I know what support I can provide, as a teacher, or request if needed.
I love the fact that ALL preschools cost parents the exact same amount of money... there are not settings that only the wealthy can afford, but that all preschools are available to all children... of course proximity is prioritised... so if you live in a wealthy area then its is more likely that your children will attend a preschool with other wealthy children, and if you live in an area with a high percentage of immigrants then that will also reflect on who attends the preschool... it is, though, illegal to ask for donations, but they can be made on a voluntary basis... I have worked in various parts of Stockholm, and some of the more well off areas have donated money for extra group trips... while other areas have not.
All preschools receive the same amount of money from the state... whether private or state run or parent run... all preschools are financed in the same way.
This is a good thing.
Over the years I have visited preschools and worked in preschools across much of Stockholm... and what has shocked me is the vast difference in quality being offered to the children.
Despite all receiving the same money.
There are Swedish preschool groups on facebook that I have stopped being a part of because of the incredibly negative attitude... not just to the work within preschool, but also towards each other as educators. And it is mostly because of how they treat each other that I opted to leave.
A recent report where studies, primarily from Denmark and Norway (but not all), have been analysed and have shown that preschools are beneficial to children's health, psychological well-being and also do better in school... they do state that the effects are small. Due to the belief that Swedish preschools are similar enough to Norwegian and Danish preschools the report is being said to be relevant for Sweden too.
It takes up the importance of teacher education, it also mentions ratio, amongst other things...
It does not state about what age children should start or how long days... and how these things impact children... whether there is a difference between attending 15 hours a week, like some children do in vast parts of Sweden when they have a sibling at home (except Stockholm, where they can attend for 60 hours a week if they wish) - or if they are attending full time... ie 30-60 hours a week.
Is there an optimal time? is there a number of hours where the effects stop being a benefit and become detrimental for the well-being of the child?
The Guardian's "Great Nursery Debate" discusses professor Jay Belsky's research into the damaging effects of attending nursery/preschool before the age of two... the measurable stress levels and also the fact that it is much harder for YOUNG children to form deep attachments that are needed for a stable well-being... and this was with their parents as well as their carers/teachers in preschool. Of course he says that these effects are small... just as the previous research mentions... What I found interesting about this article is how this researcher was ostracised for pointing out that preschool/nursery was not beneficial for the very young (he refers to under 2 years of age) and that he was trying to turn back time and tie mothers to the kitchen sink again... it feels a shame that someone cannot speak their mind about the rights of children without others feeling they are infringing on women's rights... ???
Personally I think there are too many children having too long days... especially in a system where it is common to have 4-5 one year olds per educator (and 28% of staff have NO training within childcare/preschool - although I have met pedagogues without training that have been truly amazing, and teachers with a full degree that I have wondered why they chose this work - oh, and private preschools tend to have 40% without any ECE training).
I have also seen so many educators struggling to offer children the quality they feel children deserve... I have written about this before how there are settings where the director is clearly not giving the staff the support they need to gain the competence, the time for reflection and planning, and developing the setting for the benefit of the children there... it is a case of this is the way it is... a preschool that is a product that the children and educators have to fit into, rather than a preschool that is a process that changes to meet the needs of the children and teachers.
I have the great pleasure of being in touch with some truly amazing and inspiring people who work within the Swedish preschool system. And this is a truly great thing that I appreciate...
I feel this enormous sense of responsibility to listen to these people who are moaning about the Swedish preschool... I assume that they are the ones that are working in a preschool that is not working and there is enormous frustration when there is that feeling that change seems impossible... they are in a hamster wheel.
I sometimes think that before a person can have their own inspiration ignited they need to be listened to. Just as we do with the children. We need to listen to why they think it is not working, ask them questions to delve into what the real problem is, find ways to allow them to see their own setting with a new perspective, so that change possibilities can be discovered.
I find that if we do not do this first then there is a like a defensive shield... because they are doing their best... I truly believe that all teachers/pedagogues strive to do their best for the children... but if you are stuck in the hamster wheel it is so hard to refuel - and there ends up being a system of putting out fires rather than the proactive fire prevention.
If the shield goes up... and its a protective shield... then it becomes very hard for them to take in new information, to see with new lenses, to be open to change... the educators and children are surviving rather than thriving...
I also feel that sometimes when I write these blogs I am often preaching to the converted - I mean its often people who think like me, or have come even further in their thinking than me... so how do I reach those that are exhausted just by their daily dose of being a teacher... how do I help to re-fuel them?
Sometimes I wish I was really wealthy... because then I would just donate my time to visit settings that wanted my help and I would come in and listen, ask questions, bounce ideas - help them to see their own setting with fresh eyes. But alas I am not... would be nice with a rich benefactor... or if the state thought about investing in people like me to visit and support the most vulnerable preschools. Because I think that is the only way. To truly listen. To validate the situation they are in right now and then to work from that!
The vast majority of Swedish children are institutionalised from a very young age... I mean preschool is an institution... it is adults that make the decisions about the curriculum, about how long days they have at preschool, about the routines, what food they are eating etc etc etc...
The Swedish School Authority (Skolverket) reports that 83% of all 1-5 year olds are in preschool, ten years ago this was 72% and fifteen years ago it was 59%.
95% of children between 3 and 5 attend preschool.
This is a HUGE number. So it is crucial that we are offering the best quality preschool we can to all children in all preschools. There should not be the difference between the quality of preschools that there is, I find this totally unacceptable.
The first of the links I shared... the Norwegian/Danish study analysis also points out the need for high quality preschools.
Would it even be ethical to do a study between a high quality and low quality preschool? I mean if we knew it was low quality shouldn't we immediately make changes to improve the quality for the sake of the children?
When I did my masters my final research paper was about quality in preschool... with a focus on Swedish preschools... I did my masters in 2009-2011 - and even then there were concerns amongst the teachers I interviewed that children were spending too long days in preschool and that they were becoming exhausted and struggled to manage their emotions more than those that attended a shorter number of hours per day/week. So I looked into this and found research that said 3 hours a day was enough for children to gain the benefits of preschool, up to six hours did not make any difference, but then over that, especially 8 and more hours a day became detrimental to children's emotional well-being and development. You are welcome to read my paper What is a world class preschool? in order to find out more about this.
Also I think it is interesting to read this article about the positive effects of preschool when there are so many other's about what needs to be improved...
for example one person that shared the study about the benefits of preschool had within the same 24 hour period also shared an article about how Swedish preschools are failing in their ability to ensure all preschools give an equal start... the exact same thing that I stated in my research in 2011, and that I still see now...
So if we know that not all preschools are equal we need to understand that some people working in preschools are not going to say good things. And if we feel that there are too many of these kinds of negative statements... then maybe we should be really really concerned because that might just imply that high quality preschools are in the minority... I hope to god that I am wrong in writing this.
Is preschool a place for parents to put their children while they work? - yes
Is preschool a place for the children to learn? - yes
Do these two needs always support each other? - no
I think if we are creating a space for children's learning then it will be ONLY about the children. Some children need shorter days, smaller groups, need attachment/key-worker on a greater scale than others... but parental needs cannot always allow this. How do we meet the children's needs without making parents feel guilty?
I wish preschool started from the age of 2 rather than one... or that children under two had smaller groups with a higher ratio of teachers... so that they could make those vital relationships, trust and love that creates the best foundation for learning. Max 1:3... so there was more time for physical contact... for the professional love that is so incredibly essential (see Jools Page about Professional Love - she was my mentor while I was doing my masters, and continues to inspire me... her work about professional love had a huge impact on me as a teacher and the need to develop close, genuine and loving relationships with all the children I teach... so that they feel secure, valued and free to learn and play).
I think we need to find what is learning in preschool... it is not just the teaching... it needs to be the care so that the learning can happen and be encouraged pedagogically... it is not just watching the children until the parents return to pick them up either. I have seen both happen... too much teaching to children who are not receptive because they are emotionally not being met (academic focus), and also places where they are being babysat rather than pedagogically inspired to explore and learn - at one of these latter places I was accused of being "pedagogical all the time" just because I was supporting the children's learning and wanted to reflect with co-workers about what I was observing... in fact that is how I started this blog... I dialog with myself when there was no other teacher to talk with.
So are Swedish preschools in a state of crisis...? If we are unable to have a high quality across all preschools, if the correct support is not being given to the directors and teachers in order to meet the setting's goals of the curriculum? If there is a lack of preschool teachers? If some areas have an even harder time of recruiting teachers? That there is not equal access to support for children with special needs/rights... if there is not equal access to professional development... and if this training is not being then properly applied in the setting?
What can be done to help these teacher/carers crying out for help?