The Ministry of Education is planning on making the care service of small children a part of the education system in order to improve the development of children's general skills. Local municipalities must provide kindergarten spots for children from the age of 1.5 years, if the parents request it.
The draft for the Pre-school Education and Childcare Act states that childcare establishments must draw up an action plan to support the development of children's general skills based on the national curriculum for pre-primary education.
Currently, the expected general skills are worded for children aged 6-7, but the new law would also establish general skill requirements for children aged 3 and above: they should have developed playing skills, cognitive and learning skills, self-regulation skills and social skills.
The education ministry wants to ensure that children can move smoothly between education levels and types and that their development is better supported. Since learning ability diminishes over time, the ministry wants to support development from an early age. This is also supported by an OECD study, which states that children who were in kindergarten for at least three years were better in mathematics and science than those that went to kindergarten for up to a year.
The EU has reached an agreement that at least 96 percent of children aged 3-7 should go to kindergarten by 2030. While the EU average for 2020 was 95.5 percent, Estonia's was 92.9 percent.
Ministry of Education and Research pre-school education department manager Triin Rass said the ministry's goal is to create a system, which would ensure quality conditions to support the development of children. "Going forward, childcare institutions for children aged 1.5-3 will be considered as educational establishments, where the development of children's general skills is based on a national pre-school curriculum. This will harmonize the level of pre-school education and increase the reliability of childcare institutions," Rass said.
Although pre-school education will remain voluntary, local municipality government will have an obligation to guarantee a kindergarten spot for all children aged 1.5-7, if their parents request it. This can even take spot during the school year if the family moves from one municipality to another.
The age limit will be set at 1.5 years, because that is when the parental benefits end and parents must often return to work. If the parent were to return to work before the child reaches 1.5 years of age, they must cover the childcare costs. From that age, kindergarten or childcare spots must be guaranteed.
"With these changes, we want to take the parents' and children's needs when guaranteeing kindergarten spots into consideration more than they have been before, also ensuring better accessibility to pre-school education. For this purpose, we will specify the conditions that are linked to applying for a kindergarten spot from the local municipality government. For example, applying to a kindergarten is based on a parent application, where the starting date of the kindergarten spot must be marked," Rass said, adding that if there are no spots for the child in the respective kindergarten, a so-called alternative kindergarten will be found based on the location of the family's home and if another child of the family already goes to another kindergarten.
To ensure safety, security, health and disease prevention, kindergartens and childcare institutions must carry out a risk analysis every three years, containing information about the growth environment of the institution and how healthcare requirements are ensured to provide children with a safe environment for development. The risk analysis will replace the current healthcare requirements in order to avoid duplicating requirements from different laws.
Currently, the pre-school education and childcare services for children up to 7 years of age are regulated with three laws and 12 regulations. The education ministry considers such a system a fragmented one since it has been divided between education, social care and healthcare area ministries and does not ensure integrated policy making. The goal of the new draft law is to establish a uniform legal framework for the entire sector, which would reduce the current level of regulation and provide a whole approach to the system.
Permit application process set to change
The current permit application system for pre-school childcare institutions is also set to change into a general study right application system. This means municipal and private kindergartens will be given uniform rights and they are subject to the same requirements when organizing education. Childcare service providers will still have to continue applying for a childcare permit, which will be issued by the Ministry of Education and Research. Childcare providers with an already valid permit can continue operations.
The Pre-school Education and Childcare Act will also take into consideration the differences of the kindergarten and pre-school childcare establishments. Kindergarten education will be considered as formal learning, characterized by standardization, quality assessment and monitoring. Childcare does not meet these requirements and is therefore different, but will be a part of the education system alike.
The regulations linked to kindergarten management will also be amended and the tasks of the director and study manager will be specified. The role of the trustee board has also been clarified, enabling the board to have greater power in the management of kindergarten activities. For example, kindergartens must take the needs of each child into consideration when grouping children into classes and must also listen to the board's opinion as they must approve the classes. At the same time, the final decision will still be made by the kindergarten director.
There can be a maximum of 16 children aged 1.5-3 in one kindergarten class, a total of 22 children aged 3-7 in one class and up to 20 children aged 1.5-7 in one class. Children attending kindergarten partially will also be counted in the class list.
There can be a total of 12 children requiring additional assistance in one class and up to six children requiring special care in one class. At the same time, a child in need of special support can also attend a regular kindergarten lass if they are provided individual support. These limits will be imposed on kindergarten lasses starting this September.
There must be one teacher or teacher's aid for every seven children in a 1.5-3-year old class, every 10 children in a 3-7-year old class and one for every nine children in a 1.5-7-year old class. If there is a child in need of special support, there must be a teacher for every six children, however.
There must be on caretaker provided for every five children in a childcare institution and the caretaker must have a high school education and a babysitting license or experience working with children. They must also have good physical and mental health, they must be emotionally stable and handle pressure well, they must be responsible and empathetic, reliable, creative, cooperative and respectful of children and parents, as set out in the professional standard for babysitters. Therefore, conditions will not become any stricter.
Necessary support services, such as special pedagogues, speech therapists, social pedagogues, psychologists, should be provided on site, especially in kindergartens. These services can also be provided by the local municipality's education or social care center alongside other necessary services.
Triin Rass said the new law is set to make changes in support service management in order to ensure that pre-schools are more tightly linked to basic education. "Implementing support for children in pre-school education and the procedure of implementing services will be based on the definition of general, enhanced and special support going forward," Rass said.
Kindergarten financing is not set to change with the new draft law. Municipal kindergarten financing will continue to be the joint responsibility of the parent and the state. There will also continue to be a principle of it being the constitutional task of the state to provide accessible pre-school education, which is delegated to local municipality governments and resources have been allocated from the state budget.
The Ministry of Education and Research has sent the Pre-school Education and Childcare Act on a second coordination round and the law is set to become valid on September 1 this year.
Editor: Kristjan Kallaste