Recommendations on how to improve the working environment that are based on a limited number of studies can be misleading if there are flaws in these studies. It may also be difficult to interpret their results as a whole. Moreover, in the field of early childhood education and care, most of the studies used to inform policy tend to be only in English and from outside the EU. By bringing together in a systematic manner the results of studies across the EU, a new piece of research allows us to identify which elements of training and the work environment matter most in order to increase the quality of early childhood education and care services.
Enjoyment of early childhood education and care (ECEC) services provides a host of benefits for children, ranging from enhanced academic performance at school and later stages of education, reduction of poverty and a better work life balance for their parents. Despite the vital importance of support in this period of life, increasingly recognised by bodies such as the United Nations, staff providing ECEC services still suffer from poor working conditions and lack training opportunities.
Eurofound has drawn up a working paper looking at the situation of ECEC workers in several EU Member States and found issues of concern to them such as lack of career and salary progression and increases in both the number of children per group and per member of staff. There are also demands for further training opportunities that go unmet (particularly among those working in the private sector) or a lack of comprehensive training schemes. All this leads to high turnover rates and a decrease in the quality of the services provided.
In order to highlight the importance of good working conditions and training opportunities, Eurofound has undertaken a systematic review of research studies carried out by a consortium that covered all EU 28 languages. This systematic review shows the impact of working conditions and training opportunities on the quality of services, with particular emphasis on the impact on the outcomes of children. Most reviews of research studies focus on the situation outside Europe and only include studies in English. This review focuses on Europe and includes studies in Dutch, English, German, Portuguese, Slovenian, Spanish and Swedish. I highlight below the main findings from the 44 studies from 12 Member States included in the review.
Impact of Continuing Professional Development (CPD)
The review shows that CPD is more effective when delivered to groups of peers and a coach or a mentor provides ongoing support, when training is delivered in ECEC centres and when its content is directly related to daily professional practice, thus enabling staff to absorb it better.
Video feedback was found to be particularly useful in training courses shorter than six months. Some of the positive effects of this type of CPD include improvements in the capability of ECEC staff to provide care and to stimulate language development. It has a positive impact on children’s cognitive development and their language acquisition. For courses longer than six months, group workshops and ongoing support had positive outcomes in allowing practitioners to reflect upon and review their practices more critically.
ECEC staff undertaking training feel more confident about their skills, reflect more on the impact of their practices and can reconsider the role of children as well as their own role as educators (e.g. staff listen more to the needs of children or wait for them to initiate interactions). Staff are more willing to discuss issues openly; this produces an overall improvement in the cooperation of professionals both within their teams as well as with other professionals and parents. Teaching strategies also improve with training, with play-based activities being better designed.
Impact of Working Conditions
The findings regarding working conditions were smaller in number, with studies indicating that class size probably has an impact on pupils’ academic progress (literacy and mathematics). A large group size leads to more stress for practitioners, less flexibility in teaching methods and less individualised (one-to-one) monitoring and support for children. A heavy administrative burden is seen by practitioners as impacting badly upon teaching, the conduct of classes and their planning.
Some of the studies that were reviewed but excluded provide additional evidence regarding other dimensions of working conditions. Having a higher salary and the possibility of having non-contact time to organise activities have a positive impact on tailoring communication to the interests and capabilities of children. There is also a correlation between career progression and the cognitive competencies of children. Another study pointed out that as the level of teacher education increases, so does the language performance of children. Many studies found that it is not possible to single out one dimension of working conditions as the main predictor of quality (e.g. it is difficult to disentangle the effect of group size from that of staff-child ratio) and therefore service reforms need to address several aspects at the same time.
The way forward
The review identified that there is a need for further research to analyse the impact of training initiatives that last less than six months, that are not incorporated in ECEC settings and that do not make use of video feedback. Moreover, only one study was found to have looked at the impact of long-term training on the interactions between staff and children, pointing to the need for further research in this area. The review also uncovered a lack of robust studies on the impact of working conditions and training even in countries that have well-developed ECEC systems (e.g. France).
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As far as practice is concerned, it is important to bear in mind that CPD interventions should provide opportunities for staff to interact with other colleagues. Changes in working conditions, especially the availability of non-contact time, should also be pursued.
Daniel Molinuevo is a research officer in the Living Conditions and Quality of Life unit since June 2010. Prior to his appointment, Daniel worked in a European network of social services, where he focused on polices for children and families as well as on mental health. He has also collaborated with the Spanish Open University (UNED) in the area of mental health policy.