Many years ago, when my kids were small, my wife and I used to leave them at the local day care centre so that we could go to work. Our families lived far away and it’s hard to imagine how we both could have kept working without that vital service.
Every day, millions of working parents around the world do the same thing, entrusting their children to early childhood education (ECE) personnel in crèches, nursery schools and day care centres. It’s no surprise that many countries around the world are investing heavily in it.
Research has shown that early learning can have a major impact on children’s well-being at a stage when their minds are developing rapidly. It can improve their learning ability down the line and even improve their job prospects as adults. According to a recent report by UNESCO, worldwide enrollment in pre-primary education rose from 33 per cent in 1999 to 50 per cent in 2011. By 2015, some 70 countries (many of which are developing) will achieve-primary primary enrollment rates of 70 per cent or higher.
Yet, while everyone seems to recognize the importance of early-childhood education, the working conditions of early-childhood educators too often go ignored. Usually paid less than other educators, they often receive little or no training and have less room to grow professionally. At the same time, they often have longer working hours and less time to prepare activities or perform administrative tasks.
Add to that the strain of frequent heavy lifting, exposure to communicable diseases from the seasonal flu to measles, and the psychological stress of working with small children (as any parent who’s faced down a temper tantrum will know).
The often poor working conditions for ECE teachers have helped perpetuate a gender gap in the profession, which is predominantly occupied by women. As a result, ECE services often fail to provide positive male role models for young children.
These are just some of the problems identified in 2012 by an ILO Global Dialogue Forum on Conditions of Personnel in Early Childhood Education. In November 2013, a group of 15 experts representing governments, employers and unions met to address them and drafted a set of Policy Guidelines on the Promotion of Decent Work for Early Childhood Education Personnel.
The first international document of its kind dealing with this topic, the guidelines set out principles for the training, recruitment and professional development of early-childhood education workers, as well as their working conditions. It also lays down principles concerning the obligations of ECE teachers towards children, parents and their employers.
Among other things, the guidelines encourage countries to set wages allowing for a decent standard of living, provide teachers adequate time for preparation and training, establish occupational safety and health policies specific to ECE institutions, and set limits on staff-to-child ratios.
That should be good news for hard-working ECE staff around the world and for the kids in their charge.