Worlds of Education

Early childhood educators: New data on the challenges they face raises the alarm about an education sector at risk

published 30 November 2023 updated 20 March 2024
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Research by Education International reveals that early childhood education (ECE) personnel have been among the education workers whose employment conditions were most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Preliminary findings of an ongoing research also identify this chronically underfunded sector as one of the most threatened by the global teacher shortage.

Recently, the findings of the International Barometer of the Health and Wellbeing of Education Personnel (I-BEST) highlighted the worrying state of the psychological health, working conditions, and professional recognition of education workers. Over a sixth of the 26,281 survey participants in France, Spain, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Quebec, and Cameroon work in the ECE sector. The vast majority of the 4,254 ECE teachers and education support personnel (ESP) from the nine countries and territories who participated in the survey are women. This proportion is significantly larger than that of participants working in the primary education sector and bears considerable implications when interpreting the findings, as the low status, low salaries, and poor working conditions in the sector have been linked to the high level of feminization and gender inequality in the ECE workforce (UNICEF, 2022).

The findings of the I-BEST provide valuable information about the perceptions of ECE workers on their working conditions and environment, job satisfaction, health and wellbeing and sense of security at work.

Working conditions and environment

While the majority of ECE personnel describe the school climate as good and rate the quality of their relationships with their pupils, parents, colleagues, and school leadership highly, they are less satisfied with their working conditions and the physical environment of their schools.

Across territories, over a third of ECE teachers and support personnel are dissatisfied with the material conditions in their schools and more than a fifth are not satisfied with the facilities in their schools. In Cameroon, Belgium, Spain, and Quebec, ECE staff are also concerned with the sanitation and amenities, including drinking water and electricity in their schools, as well as the air quality and sound levels outside of the buildings.

Over a third of ECE personnel from all nine participating countries and territories evaluate their salaries poorly and state that they are not informed about important decisions in advance. In fact, over half of the participants from the United Kingdom and Canada warn that important decisions are not made as a team in their schools.

Overwhelmingly, workers in early childhood education feel that their profession is not valued by society. In most surveyed countries and territories, they felt that the advantages of their job did not outweigh the disadvantages. A significant number, varying from about a quarter to over half of the respondents across jurisdictions, also expressed that they would not choose their profession again and are not satisfied with their jobs.

With the exception of ECE personnel in Argentina, participants also noted a severe lack of opportunities for promotion. ECE staff from France, Canada and Belgium also highlighted a lack of training opportunities, which stands in contrast to the high levels of professional autonomy reported by ECE personnel across countries and territories.

Health and wellbeing

In most countries and territories, ECE workers are unable to attain a good work-life balance, have worked while sick, and feel that their job has been stressful since the beginning of the school year.

While the majority of ECE workers across the surveyed territories rated their health highly, more than one in three tend to experience feelings of imbalance and more than one in four experience negative feelings often. Around half of the participants also reported limitations in their daily activities because of health problems and most often, this was due to significant fatigue.

In most territories, the majority of participants feel that the leadership in their workplaces is not concerned with the health and wellbeing of staff. In line with the fact that most participants have never had an occupational medical appointment, ECE workers in France, Belgium and Cameroon feel ill-informed about health issues and many across all territories feel that they are not well informed about occupational health.

Violence and security at work

A particularly concerning issue is that of violence. While in most territories, ECE personnel feel safe at their workplace, at least one in four in Canada, Quebec, France, Belgium, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and Spain have been the victim of workplace violence in the last year and even more have witnessed violence in their workplace. Most often, the perpetrators of violence are pupils, other members of staff, or parents. The only exception is Cameroon, where, concerningly, persons from outside the school are most often the perpetrators of violence against ECE teachers and personnel.

As a whole, the findings of the 2023 I-BEST survey paint a picture of an undervalued, stressful, and often insecure profession in the ECE sector. The surveyed ECE teachers and personnel relayed that when needed, they are supported by their colleagues. Some also get support from their superiors and unions or associations. In order to provide much needed support to ECE personnel, education unions can turn to the ILO Policy Guidelines on the promotion of decent work for early childhood personnel. However, the non-binding and relatively unknown status of the Guidelines hinders their effectiveness in safeguarding the rights of ECE workers.

Considering the severe teacher shortage in the early childhood education sector, as well as the dire state of salaries, sense of low value and recognition, scarce career progression opportunities, job dissatisfaction, inadequate work-life balance, and the overall precarious wellbeing of ECE personnel, it is both timely and imperative to evaluate the impact and ability of existing international instruments to foster a well-supported, fairly remunerated, and valued ECE workforce and consider developing new pathways towards this goal.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.