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For many children, early childhood education and care (ECEC) is their first experience with other children and adults, away from their families. The promises of this experience are multiple. At this time of rapid brain development, children can play, learn new things and develop a range of skills and abilities. They can acquire a joy of learning, and they can make their first friends. Participation in ECEC also offers opportunities to detect and respond to children’s individual needs and to help all children to develop, building on their strengths.

Thanks to extensive research and studies, we know that high-quality ECEC can turn these promises into reality. Research shows that a major contributor to children’s learning, development and well-being is the quality of the interactions children experience daily with staff and other children in ECEC centres (these interactions are known as process aspects of quality). Research also identifies several factors that can influence the quality of these interactions, from ECEC staff and the extent to which they are educated, trained and motivated to work with children, to elements of the classroom/playroom environment, such as the number of children and staff and the mechanisms for monitoring ECEC settings (these factors are known as structural aspects of quality).

But while research suggests that the education we receive in early childhood matters most for our lives, ECEC is the sector of education we know least about. We take it for granted that all children attend school, and school is paid for by the public purse in virtually every OECD country. But in the first years of life, enrolment varies greatly across countries, and some countries ask the youngest children to pay the highest fees, while they make university tuition-free. We have a clear picture of what children learn in school, as well as who their teachers are, what they do, how they are paid, and how they were educated. In contrast, the provision of ECEC is often fragmented, poorly regulated and patchy.

That is the gap the OECD Starting Strong Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS Starting Strong) seeks to fill. It is the first international survey that focuses on the workforce in ECEC. It reveals key characteristics of the ECEC workforce, the practices they use with children, their beliefs about children’s development and their views on the profession and on the ECEC sector. TALIS Starting Strong was designed to approximate quality through questions to staff and leaders of ECEC centres on major elements that, according to research, influence children’s learning, development and well-being.

One of the most important findings is the relationship between pre-service and in-service education and training of staff, as well as their working conditions, and the practices staff use with children and parents. However, training specifically to work with children is not universal, and participation in professional development, while common, is not equal among staff. These findings point to the need for policies to better prepare and support staff in their daily activities and practices with children.

TALIS Starting Strong also shows great variation within countries in the factors related to the quality of interactions between staff and children. For instance, there are large variations within countries in the share of highly educated staff per centre. In centres with many children from socio-economically disadvantaged homes, enhanced services can help put all children on a level playing field, but few countries systematically provide such services. At the same time, there is little evidence that the allocation of human resources to ECEC centres increases inequalities between centres with different geographical locations and child characteristics.

Finally, TALIS Starting Strong asks staff and leaders a number of key questions to learn about the major difficulties they face in their jobs. Staff are asked about the barriers they face to participation in professional development and their priorities for spending reallocation, and leaders are asked about the barriers to their effectiveness. Both staff and leaders are asked about their sources of stress. Answers to these questions converge to highlight a number of bottlenecks in the ECEC sector. Some of these bottlenecks are common to all participating countries. This is the case for staff absences and staff shortages, which appear as barriers to leaders’ effectiveness and to staff’s participation in professional development. According to staff, support to work with children with special needs appears as a top priority for both professional development and reallocation of spending. Reducing group size is another top priority for staff for reallocation of spending, while too many children in the group is a top source of stress. These findings point to the need for policy changes that governments are aware of, but such changes would involve trade-offs in situations of tight budget constraints. TALIS Starting Strong offers guidance that can help each participating country to identify priorities for policy change.

In all countries, people care about children, especially young children. However, in most countries participating in the Survey, staff do not feel highly valued by society. Why do those who devote their time to do the best for children not feel more highly valued? Attracting and retaining a high-quality workforce is a challenge for all participating countries.

In many countries, governments have done a lot to develop access to ECEC. But access is not enough; ECEC policies need to focus more on quality. TALIS Starting Strong reminds us that children’s early years are the foundation of their lives as students, adults and citizens. In the same way, it reminds us that ECEC policies need to be fully integrated with other policies that support economic growth and social inclusion. For children’s learning, development and well-being, every year counts.



Andreas Schleicher,

Director for Education and Skills

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