Kirsti Karila's research topic became the focus of attention but the tone of the debate saddens her
Text: Heikki Laurinolli
Photo: Jonne Renvall
Professor of early childhood education Kirsi Karila received the University of Tampere’s Social Impact Award in the same week in which strikes and demonstrations were organised in her field of study.
The trade unions representing child care nurses and kindergarten teachers, who have bachelor’s degrees from universities of applied sciences, first organised a walkout against the reform of the Early Childhood Education and Care Act. In drafting the Act, the results of Karila’s research group were also used. At the end of the week, kindgarten teachers will demonstrate against their unfair salaries, whose level Karila also finds too low.
Although granting the Social Impact Award to Karila was a timely decision, she is not happy about the heated controversy.
“I'm pretty sad about this debate which blurs facts and fiction,” Karila says.
Karila has worked for over forty years in early childhood education and noticed huge changes in interest in the field during the past couple of years. Finland is now following an international trend where early childhood education is becoming a focal point of the economic debate.
Raising the level of education is not a new thing
The Early Childhood Education and Care Act that is being amended will reform the personnel structure of day care centres in order to raise the level of education and to make the employees’ professional profiles and job titles more clear.
According to the proposal, the professional qualifications of kindergarten teachers would require a university-level bachelor's degree. Early childhood education professionals with degrees from universities of applied sciences would have a different job title than kindergarten teachers. In addition, nursery nurses with secondary education would work at day care centres.
Early childhood education professionals with degrees from secondary education and their unions now fear that they will lose their jobs.
According to Karila, such fears are completely unfounded and a sign of the heated discussion that has little to do with facts in many respects. Discussions about training were also conducted in the 1980s when Karila herself worked as a kindergarten teacher. The proportion of kindergarten teachers who had received teacher training was higher in the 1980s than in the 1990s and after. Karila says that the current reform is not a very radical change, but rather like turning the clock back.
There are currently two routes to professional qualification as a kindergarten teacher. One is degree programmes in social services which universities of applied sciences offer and the other is the bachelor's degree programmes in early childhood education organised as a part of the teacher training of universities. The first is a professional in social welfare and health care and the second one is a professional in teaching and education.
“There is tension between the different professional groups. Quite many day care centres do not have university-educated kindergarten teachers. We come to the question of what is the difference between the applied sciences education and university-level education,” Karila says.
Limitation of subjective right to day care should be cancelled
Instead of the controversy, Karila hopes for a quiet reflection on what the changing roles of early childhood education are and how to safeguard the well-being and learning of children in high-quality environments.
One of the problems is the amendment from 2016, which limited children’s subjective right to early childhood education. The unlimited right now only concerns children who need it because their parents work or study.
The limitation has led to a variation of the composition of child groups in day care centres; children no longer have permanent groups. The groups are more stable in areas where the parents have better positions in the labour market. Unstable groups are located in areas with a lot of unemployment and economic problems.
“It is an equality problem that the limitation of the subjective right to day care does not equally support the ability of all children to learn in a peaceful, safe and high-quality environment. I hope that this bias in the subjective right is dismantled so that we can build better environments for the children,” Karila says.
Having an impact is like long-distance running
The University of Tampere granted Karila the university’s Social Impact Award for merits in social influence.
According to Karila, the debate on early childhood education shows that having social impact is like long-distance running. Since 2000 and during the reign of five prime ministers, she has been a member of various working groups that draft early childhood education policies.
“This is long-term work. The essential thing is that researchers stick to what they can really say based on research,” Karila says.
According to Karila, in order to have social impact, it is imperative for researchers to publish in Finnish.
“The current way of measuring research output is a problem for young researchers. I have no problems because at this career stage I can concentrate on things that I find important. But if publishing in the Finnish language is not appreciated, it is a problem for social impact, Karila says.
Essential things stand out only when you look at them in the longer perspective.
“Now we like to see how many people have shared things on Twitter and how many likes we get on Facebook. However, these are inconsequential things. If you want to have social impact, you must be credible, reliable, consistent, and base your views on research evidence. You must also have the courage to disagree with the powers that be,” Karila says.