Early Childhood Education
The Czech Republic
Early Childhood Education in the Czech Republic
The Czech Republic came into existence in January 1993, when the former Czech and Slovak Federal Republic split into two states. It is still in the throes of the transformation from a socialist society with centralized administration and a planned economy to one operating according to the principles of a market economy and political pluralism—the process that was launched by the political revolution of November 1989. The type of government is a parliamentary democracy with a president elected by the Parliament, which exercises legislative power. Executive power is held by the national government.
Public administration has experienced an extensive reform and is provided by state administration and self-government. The territorial administration has two levels: municipalities that are basic self-governing units, and fourteen higher territorial self-governing units called regions. Municipalities and regions have a double sphere of authority—independent powers, including education, and transferred powers, with which they perform state administration.
In 2003, the Czech Republic had a population of 10.24 million and a population density of 131 inhabitants per square kilometer. The fertility rate is unfavourable, resulting in a low birthrate. There are 540,000 children under 6 years of age. Infant mortality was 3 9 per thousand children in 2003. The state is neutral on religious matters, and freedom of religion is guaranteed. The number of people practicing religion is low (32% of inhabitants declare themselves as believers). Over 83 percent of believers belong to the Roman Catholic Church (over 26% of the population).
The language of instruction is Czech. Pupils from ethnic minorities are guaranteed the right to education in their mother tongue to an extent appropriate to the development of their ethnic community. Schools for national minorities can operate up to the upper-secondary school level. The total employment rate among women is 73 7 percent; the rate of employment among women with one child is 72.3 percent and with two children 59.4 percent. The rate of employment among women with children under six years of age (255 thousand) was 36.4 percent. Only 4.0 percent of women work part-time.
The budget reserved for social expenditures is 20.1 percent of GDP; the child poverty rate is 5.9 percent after redistribution (OECD average is 11.9%). Funding of preprimary educational services is 0.5 percent GDP, corresponding to 10 percent of the education budget.
Early Childhood Education
Nursery schools (matemka skola) have a long and special national tradition, influenced among others by the ideas of Jan Amos Komensky (John Amos Comenius) in the seventeenth century. Preprimary education was incorporated into the education system in 1948. The quality of preprimary education increased considerably in the postwar period. At the same time, however, it became an instrument for increasing the number of women in the country’s labor force, while enforcing the principles of collective education and weakening the influence of the family over the children’s education.
After the 1989 revolution a lively debate developed over the role of nursery schools, their new role in the education system and their educational function. The personality-oriented model of preprimary education was encouraged by new legislation (Act no. 390/1991). Nursery schools now must contribute to an increase in the level of sociocultural care for children and lay the foundations for their future education.
Early childhood education in the Czech Republic is regarded as part of the system of education and its objectives are defined by the Educational Act (Zakon, 2004), enacted in 2005 by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport. Early childhood education in the Czech Republic is almost entirely a public service. Some private and denominational nursery schools are now in operation, but only on a small scale.
Attendance is not compulsory, but 87 percent of children attend nursery schools (2002/2003), with attendance increasing in the last year of preschool education (98%). The basic age-group of children attending nursery schools is 3- to 6-year-olds. In exceptional cases, where parents have no other alternative, it is possible to accept younger children, for whom municipalities otherwise set up day creches (for infants and toddlers). Currently there are also older children (about 20%) whose attendance at basic school has been deferred, usually at the parent’s request. Fewer than 1 percent of applications for placement in nurseries are not met. Children in their last year before the start of compulsory school are enrolled in nursery schools preferentially. If a child cannot be enrolled in a nursery school for capacity reasons in his/her last year before the start of compulsory school, the municipality in which the child has a permanent address makes sure that the child is enrolled in another nursery school. The child may be enrolled for early childhood education at any time throughout the school year.
Classes are coeducational. Schools with fewer than 100 pupils prevail (92% in the school year 2002/2003). Some schools are attached to a basic school (zakladni skola). Their number increased in 2002.
Funding for early childhood education is drawn from multiple sources—the regional school authority (teachers’ salaries, books, and equipment), municipalities (running costs and capital investments), and parental fees (capped at 50% of costs for the first two years and free for the final year). Funds to improve material conditions or purchase equipment and toys are often generated through sponsoring contracts with private enterprises. Parental fees are reduced or waived for families in need. There are special supports for low-income/ethnic areas and families. Parents also contribute to meals that are subsidized; however, some municipalities do not impose this charge.
Organization and Coordination of Services
Child care for children under 3. Almost all children aged 0-3 are cared for by their families or through informal care arrangements. Center-based creches are scarce. Child-care services are a municipal responsibility. Government funding is directed almost exclusively to parental leave policies. Maternal and parental leave is as follows: twenty-eight weeks maternity leave paid at 69 percent of earnings, followed by a flat-rate, parental leave benefit paid until children reach their fourth birthday.
Creches are administered by the Ministry of Health and therapeutic child-care centers are part of the Ministry of Social Affairs. In practice, there is no longer an organized day-care system for children from 0 to 3 years of age, compared to a coverage rate of 20 percent in 1989. The introduction of an extended period of maternal leave after transition reduced demand for public child care outside the home. Only sixty creches (in 2004) have survived from the previous regime. Former creche buildings have been sold or allocated to other purposes. However, children over 2 years of age can attend nursery schools (at the present time, about 20% do). Public child care for children under 3 is governed by no obligatory educational program. Children in creches are cared for by children’s nurses with high school education acquired at secondary medical schools.
Nursery schools. Nursery schools are administered mainly by municipalities, which also fund them (except for salaries and teaching aids). There are an insignificant number of private and denominational nursery schools. Usually open for ten to eleven hours a day, nursery schools are established as full-day (the majority) or half-day-care centers. They can also be established as boarding facilities or facilities with an irregular attendance schedule.
An amendment to the law on the state administration and self-government required all schools to become legal entities from January 1, 2003. This resulted in some cases in the merging of several nursery schools, and more often in the combining of nursery schools and basic schools under one directorate.
Classes should have a minimum of fifteen children and a maximum of twenty- five, but this maximum is currently being exceeded. Decisions on class sizes are taken by school heads after consultation with the school’s organizing body. The average number of pupils per class is 22.3. One or two teachers care for each group of children depending on the number of children in the group and length of the day. The recommended pupil/teacher ratio is 12:1. Groups may be organized according to age, by the degree of adaptability or achievement, or with mixed ages and progress levels. Inclusion of children with disabilities is increasing, although many special nursery schools and schools still exist, even for children with relatively light handicaps. Disabled children make up 4.2 percent of the total number of children attending nursery schools; almost a half of these attend special nursery schools. A parent responsible for a chronically ill or long-term disabled or handicapped child is entitled to parental benefit until the child is 7.
Problems of poverty, social exclusion, and educational underachievement are most acute among Romany families. Romany is an ethnic group which originally came to Eastern and Middle Europe from India and which has a characteristic language, cultural traditions, and way of family life. It is estimated that the Romany community constitutes 0.7 percent of the population. High rates of unemployment are recorded among this group and levels of education are low compared to Czechs, 84 percent of whom complete upper secondary education. Since 1993, the government has invested in several pilot projects for Romany children, and preparatory classes for socially or culturally disadvantaged children of 6-7 years of age (whose entry into compulsory school had been delayed). In 2004, 126 preparatory classes with 1,779 children were in operation. The Ministry of Education provides grants to NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) to support work with Romany parents and schools to increase the inclusion of Romany children in nursery schools.
Nursery School Curricula
In 2001, the Ministry of Education published a General Curriculum for Early Childhood Education, which was made a binding document by the Educational Act in 2005. Each nursery school uses it as a basis for the development of its own school curriculum. Parents can significantly influence the orientation of the programs and participate in their implementation.
Early childhood education in the Czech Republic has the following main objectives: to develop the child’s ability to learn, to teach him/her the basic values on which our society is based, to make him/her become independent and able to express him/herself as an individual in relation to its surroundings. It is possible to differentiate between different aspects of education according to the relations which the child gradually develops towards himself/herself, other people, and the world. The main components of the program are spontaneous games and physical activities, including outdoor activities and games, walks and excursions. Sleep is also an important element of the routine. Personal development and socialization are also supported by activities related to literary, artistic, and moral education. All activities emphasize emotional involvement and encourage a spirit of participation. Nursery schools are moving toward internal differentiation and individualization of their programs. Foreign language teaching, swimming courses, artistic activity, speech therapy, and programs for gifted children are also offered.
Teachers in Nursery Schools
More than 95 percent of teachers in Czech nursery schools have completed four years of training (15-19 years) in one of the seventeen upper secondary pedagogical schools in the country. Nursery school teachers obtain a full qualification from a four-year course with a standard school-leaving examination (maturitni zkouska) in secondary pedagogical schools (stredni pedagogicka skola). There is also the possibility of a three-year study at higher vocational schools with specialization in pedagogy at the tertiary level or three-year bachelor’s or four to five-year master’s degree course at pedagogic faculties (university level).
Since 1999, the workload for nursery school teachers has been decreased to thirty-one hours per week. Most work full-time. In 2004, the average wage of teachers in nursery schools was 76 percent of the average wage in the Czech Republic (the teacher wage in basic schools is 96% of the average wage). The status of a nursery school teacher is still lower than that of basic school teachers. Virtually all employees of the school are women, although the occupation is open to both sexes.
Further Readings: Narodni zprava o stavu predskolm vychovy, vzdelavam a pece o deti predskolntho veku v Ceske republice (National report on the state of early childhood education and childcare for pre-school children in the Czech Republic). Prague: MSMT, 2000, p. 87; Ramcovy vzdelavact program pro predskolni vzdelavani (General curriculum for early childhood education). Praha: MSMT, 2004; OECD (2001). Starting strong. Early childhood education and care. Paris: The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Structures of Education, Initial Training and Adult Education Systeme in Europe. Czech Republic 2003. EURYDICE/CEDEFOP, 2003. Available online at http://www.eurydice.org, http://www.cedefop.gr; Zakon c. 561/2004 Sb., o predskolnim, zakladnim, strednim, vyssim odbornem a jinem vzdelavani (skolsky zakon). (Act No. 561/2004 Coll. on Early Childhood, Elementary, High-school, Higher Vocational and Other Education—Educational Act).
The Sociology of Childhood in the Czech Republic
Childhood, as a specific social category, is a social construct undergoing change at the levels of both approach and existential context. As Mintz writes, “Every aspect of childhood—including children’s relationships with their parents and peers, their proportion of the population, and their paths through childhood and adulthood—has changed dramatically over the past four centuries.” Ways of looking at childhood and handling children thus vary historically and culturally. The Czech Republic has recently emerged from relatively dramatic social change, and as some research suggests, these changes are also reflected in a shift in the discursive representation of childhood. While during the forty-year era of the building of socialism the child was perceived largely as a passive being, malleable and subject to the authority of adults, in the present it tends to be viewed as a “little adult”. This trend offers the promise of partnership between children and adults on the one hand, but a risk of insufficient protection for the immature child on the other. In early childhood education, this shift in perceptions of the child has been reflected in individualization of the approach to children and a requirement that their individual needs be acknowledged and considered in the institutional care provided for them.
The social change in the late 1980s and early 1990s has also had a profound effect on the life space in which Czech children are growing up; above all, the family domain metamorphoses have largely been shaped by changes in social politics and in the labor market and the domain of institutional care provided for preschool children.
The Impacts of Societal Transformation
The Czech Republic is a country in which the birthrate has been decreasing consistently since the 1970s, with a significant intensification of this trend after 1989. The total fertility rate was 1.89 in 1990, but only 1.18 in 2004, a value ranking among the lowest in Europe. The drop is often interpreted in the light of the transformation of the Czech society from a totalitarian state into a western democracy, connected with a new plurality of opportunities for social self-fulfillment of women. A distinct shift in values has occurred. Rabusic writes: “While in 1991 63% of Czech respondents agreed with the opinion that a woman must have children if her mission is to be fulfilled, only 44% of respondents shared the same opinion in 1999 ” This reflects the fact that the demographic structure of society is changing; the Czech society is aging. This is also evident from the numbers of children in the youngest age categories: while there were 393,000 children aged 0-2 in the Czech Republic in 1989, that number was only 278,000 in 2003. In 1989 there were 405,000 children aged 3-5, while in 2003 this number had dwindled to 267,000.
The value of family as perceived by the Czech society remains very high, however. Research on family behaviour among the younger generation (24-34 years) shows that three-quarters of respondents still prefer marriage as the most appropriate alternative for organizing their marital/partnership relations. An overwhelming majority intend to have children, most often two. Despite the fact that a majority of people wish to live in a marriage-based family with children, the number of people living in incomplete families has been growing. This fact has a significant impact, especially on children. In 2001, 27 percent of all dependent children were living in incomplete families. These families, emerging most frequently as a consequence of divorce, were usually provided for by the mother. This means that over one-quarter of Czech children are growing up deprived of the permanent presence of a father in the family. While there were 38 divorces per 100 concluded marriages in 1990, the rate has increased to 48 in 2003. This trend is largely regarded as a risk factor with respect to the future of the Czech population.
Although provision of help by grandparents to young families with children continues to be a relatively common phenomenon, relations between generations are clearly loosening in the long run. Multigenerational homes are getting scarcer. As far as care of preschool children are concerned, it is characterized by the new concept of maternalization of childhood—disregarding the fact of whether the father or grandparents are part of the family, it is unequivocally the mother who is regarded as the primary person responsible for bringing up the children.
The State Role in Family Functioning
A number of original functions of the family have gradually shifted to the state. The family policy of the Czech Republic continues to be characterized by a high degree of redistribution of resources. The basis of this policy is the family allowance, varying in the amount of money according to family income and drawn by an overwhelming majority of families with dependent children. Each woman is entitled to a maternity leave of twenty-eight weeks after the birth of a child, drawing 68 percent of her previous wages during this period. Maternity leave is followed by parental leave, which can be drawn by the mother or the father up to 3 years of age of the child. The parent draws a fixed allowance of approximately 20 percent of the average wage during this period. If the parent does not insist that he/she be able return to her/his initial work position, he/she may draw this allowance until the child is 4 years old. Maternity and parental leave in combination in the Czech Republic are therefore very long compared with those in other European countries.
The national family policy also involves a system of public care of preschool children. Throughout the socialist era there was a very extensive network of creches and nursery schools. In 1989 there were 7,328 nursery schools attended by 395,164 children and 1,313 creches attended by 52,656 children. The network of nursery schools adjusted to the decreasing numbers of children after 1989, but their availability and popularity remained unchanged. During the school year 2002/2003, the total of 5,552 nursery schools were attended by 278,859 children. However, creeches were abolished, with only a few exceptions. There were only sixty creches in the whole of the Czech Republic in 2003, with an overall capacity for 1,678 children aged 6 months to 3 years. While in 1989 creches were attended by 13.4 percent of all children aged 0-2, the rate was only 0.6 percent in 2003.
The employment rate among Czech women has traditionally been very high. As the socialist Czechoslovakia stressed engagement of women in the work process, mothers often returned to work soon after giving birth, placing their children in creches. An important changeover occurred after 1989, however. Mothers are taking advantage of the long parental leave offered by the state. Remaining home to provide the child with full-time care up to 3 years of age is currently the strongly dominant maternal strategy. As the demand for creeches decreased, these institutions were gradually closing down without being replaced by another alternative.
Ideologies Underlying Czech Family Policies
It may be said that in this respect the Czech Republic has recently undergone a kind of development contrary to that in most other European countries. The dominant ideology of family policies in postwar Western Europe was based on emphasizing the primary role of the mother, inspired by thinkers such as Sigmund Freud or Bowlby, and this resulted in the imperative that the woman stay at home with her children. It was only at the end of the 1960s that the need for women’s right to professional life was voiced and resulted in an increase in the number of early childhood education institutions. In postwar Czechoslovakia, on the other hand, engagement of women, including mothers, in the workforce was encouraged, based on the assumption that children can benefit from collective education more than from individual education. This assumption was often motivated by political and economic arguments rather than psychological, pedagogical, or medical ones. The political change in 1989 then swayed the imaginary pendulum the other way.
The current situation nevertheless is coming under criticism, the argument being that the long period during which women stay home results in their being poorly positioned in the labor market and leads to a social risk. Sociologists call for harmonization of family and work life; research shows that establishing harmony between work and family obligations is made possible above all by work flexibility—the degree to which the employee may choose when and where he/she will perform his/her work. However, this flexibility is offered by only a few employers in the Czech Republic. Part-time work is rare as well: only 4 percent of women worked part-time in 2002. These circumstances, along with the negligible number of creches and the state subsidies provided to mothers taking care of their young children, are the reasons why an overwhelming majority of children up to three remain at home with their mothers.
Maternal Entry into the Workforce
Most mothers, however, wish to return to the labor market as soon as their child reaches 3 years of age. This moment usually comes when the child enters nursery school. Seventy-six percent of children aged 3 enter nursery schools and nursery schools are attended by as many as 95 percent of 5-year-olds. Institutional education is regarded as something children of this age can profit from significantly. Nursery schools are very popular among Czech parents and considered to be providing good services. Parents are generally satisfied with them. Their existence has been part of a deeply rooted tradition of public care of children in early childhood in Bohemia and Moravia since the nineteenth century.
Other forms of nonmaternal care of preschool children are little developed in the Czech society, and very little empirical data is available on their actual distribution. Foreign research shows that mothers prefer babysitting by a family member (the child’s father if possible) for times when they cannot take care of their children themselves. In reality, however, children are more often cared for away from home, mostly in group settings. Czech data suggests that childminding by family members is preferred ahead of creches, reflecting the current reality. Childminding by paid private persons has been a marginal phenomenon in the Czech Republic so far.
At the same time, an actively developing sector of care for the youngest children is represented by maternal centers and mothers’ clubs—facilities attended by mothers on maternal leave and their children, combining a joint program for mothers and children with childminding. This is an innovative compromise: the mother remains with her child while escaping social isolation and the child gets into contact with a larger peer group even before entering nursery school.
It may be said, in summary, that currently an overwhelming majority of children in the Czech Republic participate in institutions providing early childhood education. There is, however, a fundamental divide between creches and nursery schools. The network of creches is currently little developed; children up to three stay home with their mothers and parents are not too inclined to use creche services. In contrast, nursery schools are viewed very positively and are attended by almost all children aged 3-6. Other forms of institutional and individual nonmaternal child care have been a marginal phenomenon in the Czech Republic, but their dynamic growth may be expected in the future.
Further Readings: Hill, E. J., Ch. Yang, A. J. Hawkins and M. Ferris (Dec. 2004). A crosscultural test of the work-family interface in 48 countries. Journal of Marriage and Family 1300-1316; Mintz, S. (2004) The social and cultural construction of American childhood. In M. Coleman and L. H. Ganond, eds., Handbook of contemporary families. Thousand Oaks, A: Sage, pp. 36-54; Nosal, I. (2003). Diskurzy areprezentace detstvive veku nejistoty. (Discourses and representations of childhood in the era of uncertainty) In P. Mares and T. Potocny, Modernizace a Ceska rodina (Modernization and the Czech family). Brno: Barrister and Principal, pp. 177-188; Rabusic, L. (2001). Kde ty vsechny deti jsou (Where are all the children gone). Prague: Sociologicke nakladatelstvi; Riley, L.A., and J. L. Glass (Feb 2002). You can’t always get what you want—Infant care preferences and use among employed mothers. Journal of Marriage and Family 2-15; Zaouche-Gaudron, Ch. (2003). Male dite uprostred dvoji socializace rodina—jesle (The young child at the centre of the twofold socialization family—creche). In L. Sulova and Ch. Zaouche-Gaudron, eds., PCedCkolm dite a jeho svet (Pre-school child and his/her world). Prague: Karolinum.
Theories of Early Childhood Education-Pedagogy
The theory of early childhood education in Bohemia and Moravia has a long tradition. Its development has reflected the changing approaches to children and the changing environment, both in the family and educational institutions.
Johannes Amos Comenius
The primary theoretician was Johannes Amos Comenius (1592-1670), who is regarded as one of the founding fathers of modern European pedagogy and is world renowned as author of a conceptual framework for early childhood education. In his treatise “Informatorium scholae maternae” (1633) Comenius proposed an integrated concept of early childhood education as a necessary stage preceding general education. He regarded early childhood education as an integral part of lifelong personal development. His concept of early childhood education was designed primarily for parents to improve family upbringing and he allowed for establishment of public education institutions later. The objective of education as he saw it was harmony, which he perceived as consonance of humans with nature, other people, and the God, that is, understanding the global picture of life and the world.
In Comenius’ concept the child is a being entitled to care and protection and a right that others empathize with his/her needs, a right to a loving relationship providing him/her with a sense of safety, and a right to be respected. Implementation of these rights is a duty of the adults. The child is to be provided with all this as a basic and self-evident prerequisite of his/her further development. For the child’s development to approach harmony, it must be based on Comenius’ basic assumption—naturalness of children’s development. This implies the need to create conditions so that the child may develop most naturally in parallel with natural development so as to uphold the principle “Let everything flow freely, let violence be far from things.”
For Comenius nonviolence does not mean passive submission of the educator to evolutionary characteristics of the child; rather it means active but very sensitive guidance. The balance between freedom and guidance, spontaneity and discipline recommended by Comenius shows his refined pedagogical sensitivity. This also implies an emphasis on what educators should focus on. If the child is to be educated to achieve a certain goal, the educators, too, must strive to attain the goal. The relationship between an educator and a child is a result not only of the education, but also of the extent to which the educator understands the child. “Like a physician, a cultivator of the young is a mere servant, not a lord of the nature.”
The child also is not merely a passive recipient of the efforts of the educator. He/she plays an important and active role, acknowledged to him/her by the emphasis on creativity and activity. The life experience of the child, associated with sensory perception in the beginning, is applied and developed in play. Comenius regarded play in early childhood as just as important as food and sleep. He recommended play based on movement and imitation as preparation for future work activities. He was opposed to violating children’s naturalness by guiding children to artificial inaction and passivity. His curriculum is based on the specifics of children’s development and respects these objectives, too. The stress is on the educational content as a whole, not just some of its components. It emphasizes (1) healthy physical development of the child, (2) development of his/her fine and gross motor skills, (3) sensory development, (4) development of cognitive processes, abilities, and skills, (5) systemization of knowledge in 6-year-olds, (6) gradual development and purity of children’s language, (7) aesthetic education with stress on music, (8) religious education and elements of piety, (9) education in ethics with stress on discipline, obedience, morals and virtues, and (10) emotional education.
Comenius recommended free development of children, but under nonviolent and wise guidance. He also addressed the issue of dichotomy between learn- ing/education and faith. The three sources of knowledge that are given to humans according to him—the Bible, the world, and ourselves—are mediated mainly by reason. This means that neglect or suppression of cognitive development constrains the use of these sources, which constrains the fullness of faith in its turn. Faith and education complement each other to create a fuller unity of the whole.
The Nineteenth Century
The foundations of Czech national tradition in early childhood education had been laid by Comenius almost 200 years before Czech public early childhood care started to be organized. The period of establishment of national school systems in the nineteenth century had an impact on how the youngest children were brought up, too. Care of preschool children ceased to be a matter exclusively of the family, and became a subject of interest for the whole society. Institutions implementing the concept of community child care and education of young children were initially designed for children from poor families, but the interest in public early childhood education grew among higher strata of the society as the nineteenth century proceeded.
The newly emergent institutions were called “childhouses” (“detince” from “deti”—children) or “growhouses” (“pestovny” from “pestovat”—“grow”). They may be divided into nurseries, kindergartens, and maternity schools according to their character and history of development.
The oldest institution was a nursery, whose initial form in Europe may be characterized as a purely childminding, welfare institution. Czech nurseries, however, tended to differ from this description from the very beginning thanks to the efforts of Jan Vladimir Svoboda, who developed and implemented a new concept of nursery operation in his first Czech nursery “Na hradku” in Prague in 1832, in which the educational characteristics prevailed. He went beyond the charitable nature of nurseries by bringing in children from well-to-do families so that they could learn the elements of the trivium (reading, writing, and arithmetic) in Czech before entering school, where the language of instruction was German.
The National Enlightenment (movement in support of the Czech language and culture that developed in response to Germanization pressures of the Hapsburg monarchy in Bohemia), in the beginning of the nineteenth century pursued from the very beginning the idea that Czech children should obtain at least the very basics of education in their mother tongue. A treatise by Svoboda called Nursery or primordial, practical, self-explanatory, versatile teaching to the little ones for real perfection of reason and cultivation of the heart pointing to reading, arithmetics and technical drawing for teachers, fosterers and parents, written in 1839, presents an entirely original concept, although it was influenced by Comenius. According to this idea, children are taught and educated adequately to their age, above all through a system of purposefully designed and systematically used games so that they obtain a body of knowledge based on immediate experience. Adequate procedures built around facts help children to acquire even the elements of the trivium. It may be said that Svoboda combines and develops Comenius’ idea of maternity school and the idea of elementary school in the mother tongue. Each requirement from “Informatorium” by Comenius was methodologically elaborated by Svoboda in his “Nursery”. The brain, the heart, and the hand were to be trained simultaneously and the whole concept of education was organically interconnected by education in ethics.
Svoboda’s efforts to enhance national education represented an important milestone in early childhood and elementary education in Bohemia and Moravia. Thanks to his influence a strong Czech school of methodologists of early childhood education was established.
In Bohemia and Moravia, where a significant proportion of the population spoke German, typical German-like early childhood education institutions were established, too—Frobel’s kindergartens (Fridrich Frobel 1782-1852). The first German kindergarten opened in Prague in 1864. Kindergartens were first attended by children from well-to-do families and the poor were admitted later. These settings gradually attempted to attract Czech children as well. But because only German was spoken there, they were regarded as a tool of Germanization efforts and the Czech patriotic public opposed them fiercely.
The Pedagogy of the Czech Nursery School
The institution of the Czech nursery school emerged as a counterbalance to the system of German kindergartens. The first Czech maternity school was founded at St. James’s in Prague in 1869. The number of maternity schools grew over time, reaching 249 by 1897.
Maternity schools were designed especially to play the national-awareness raising task. They were based on the Czech system of education, but their authors took inspiration from three well-known concepts: Svoboda’s, Frobel’s, and the French system. The application of the concept developed by Svoboda consisted mainly of taking over the global approach to early childhood education, leading to harmonization of the physical and psychic aspects in child development with stress on cognitive education and gradual preparation for reading and writing. Frobel’s methodology provided the Czech maternity school with inspiration in terms of children’s handiwork activities, gardening, and an emphasis on play as the number one educational tool. The French tradition contributed the organizational structure of maternity schools, stressing the schooling nature of work. Apart from that, the importance of instruction in morals and the loving attitude of the fosterer to the child were emphasized. Although the concept of Czech maternity school was developed eclectically, the efforts that contributed to its formation can be evaluated as balanced since the individual sources were used to contribute those elements that had proved most vital.
The Imperial Education Act of 1869 granted all children the right to compulsory education in their mother tongue. The Act thus cancelled the necessity to teach Czech children the trivium in Czech prior to enrolling in schools where German was spoken. Individual types of early childhood institutions started to differentiate more markedly (maternity schools—educatory goal, nurseries—care-taking goal) and to deviate from the didactic goal of elementary school (compulsory primary school). A state directive specified the respective functions of maternity schools, nurseries, and creches and their mutual relations in detail. Maternity school was presented as a public and free-of-charge institution, which made it possible to enroll children from all income groups. The trivium was withdrawn from maternity schools and the curriculum was specified with more consideration for the early age of the children.
All in all, this period may be evaluated as a very important one for development of institutional early childhood care of children in Bohemia and Moravia, since early childhood education came to be understood as part of education as such and responsibility for it started to shift from the family to the nationwide context.
Reformist Tendencies in Pedagogy
The end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century were characterized by development of reformist tendencies in pedagogy, which among other things concentrated on the issues of early childhood education. These tendencies developed in reaction to the so-called frobelism (a deformed version of the concept developed by FrObel), the school-like character of maternity schools, and their excessive intellectualism. What became stronger were pedocentric trends emphasizing the child’s personality as the central point of educatory activities, also termed as the “Copernicus turn” in education. This approach required that the goal of education be oriented to intellectual development as well as practical skills and development of personality traits. The curriculum was individuated and differentiated with respect to the child’s personality. The approach to development was activity-centred, that is, the child participated in his/her education and development by his/her own activity. The need for imposing discipline externally was restricted and the relation between the adult and the child was based on trust and mutual respect. An atmosphere of joyful activity was to be a guarantee of progress and the success of each individual child.
This reformist spirit gained dominance in the newly emerged Czechoslovak Republic (1918) as well. Reformist efforts affected all types of school, including nursery schools. As in other European countries attempts to integrate nursery schools into the larger system of education, that is, to connect early childhood education with other stages of school education occurred in what was then Czechoslovakia.
The search for a new concept of nursery school in the period between the world wars culminated in the formation of two reformist trends: the radical one, accentuating especially the didactic point of view (including an attitude approving the teaching of reading and writing in nursery school) in the work of nursery schools, and the moderate one, emphasizing the preparatory and familylike nature of nursery school. These differing concepts coexisted until 1939, when the very lively and heterogeneous pedagogic activities were interrupted by World War II.
The approval of the Integrated School Act in 1948 (the first educational act after the coup) implemented the prewar requirement to make nursery schools a stage equal to other stages of education. The number of nursery schools grew rapidly, and almost 100 percent of the population of children attended them over the next forty years. As far as quality was concerned, the detailed methodological elaboration of individual aspects of education and the systemic planning and formulation of the target requirements in children’s development were regarded as steps forward. However, negative consequences of this excessive “integration” became manifest as time passed. Implementation of an integrated nursery school—from goals, content, and forms to organization and methods—suppressed the personality and creativity of the teacher as well as the child and provided no scope for respect for the child’s individuality. Moreover, strong ideological trends proscribed by the official Marxist doctrine were put through in nursery schools just as at other levels of education.
One absolutely essential requirement that was expressed by pedagogical approaches after 1989 was the one of “freedom, decentralization and removal of unification”. The “Personality Developing Model of Early Childhood Education” (Osobnostne rozvijejici model predskolni vychovy) that began in 1993 was conceived along these lines. It defines nursery school as an open system akin to education in the family. The general atmosphere of nursery schools is to combine humanization with democratization. The attitude toward the child stresses his/her absolute uniqueness, with social roots. Nursery school is to be characterized by partnership between the teacher and the child, open communication, considerable scope for multifaceted activities of the child, and positive motivation.
The last stage of the transformation of Czech nursery school into its present shape is the approval of the General Curriculum for Early Childhood Education (2004) as a curricular document specifying the characteristics shared by early childhood education as well as the opportunity for differentiation and application of the specifics of individual institutions for early childhood education. It identifies the goal of nursery school as facilitation of further life path for the child, creation of prerequisites for further education, and maximum support to individual development of individual children.
In summary, during its history the Czech pedagogy of early childhood has coped especially with the issue of naturalness and freedom and the degree of their application to the education of young children. The current concept can be viewed as balanced in this respect.
Further Readings: Bartuskova, M. (1948). Materska skola v Ceskoslovensku (Nursery school in Czechoslovakia). Prague: MS; Capkova, D. (1968). Predskolm vychova v dile J.A. Komenskiho, jehopredchudU apokracovateU (Early childhood education in works by J. A. Comenius, his predecessors and continuators). Prague: SPN; Jarnikova, I. (1930). Vychovny program materskych rkol (Educational curriculum for nursery schools). Zabreh: Spolecenske tiskarny; Komensky, J. A. (1992). Informatorium skoly materske (Informatorium scholae maternae). Prague: Kalich; Misurcova, V. (1979). Dejiny teorie a praxe vychovy detipredskolniho veku v 19. a 20. st. (History of theory and practice of bringing up children in 19th and20th century). Prague: SPN; Opravilova, E. (1993). Osobnostne orientovany modelpredskolni vychovy (Personality-oriented model of early childhood education). Prague: UK; Ramcovy uzdelavaci program pro predrkolni vzdelavani (General curriculum for early childhood education). Praha: MSMT, 2005; Svoboda, J. V. (1958). Skolka (Nursery school). Prague: SPN; Uhlifova, J. (1992). Komenskeho pojeti detstvi. (Comenius’ concept of childhood) In Odkaz Komenskeho a predrkolni vychova (The legacy of Comenius and early childhood education). Prague: UK; Uhlifova, J. J. A. (1992). Komensky a jeho vliv na pocatky pfedskolni vychovy v Cechach (J. A. Comenius and his influence on the beginnings of early childhood education in Bohemia). In J. V. Svoboda, ed., Ucitele - siritele myslenek Jana Amose Komenskeho (Teachers—Propagators of Ideas by J. A. Comenius). Prerov: Vlastivedne muzeum J. A. Komenskeho.
Public Policies for Early Childhood Education
The present form of early childhood education in the Czech Republic was significantly influenced by the political, economic, and social change that affected the whole educational environment after the revolution of 1989. Strategic goals for the global transformation of the Czech educational system started to be implemented based on the following principles:
• depoliticization of education;
• recognition of the civil rights of children, pupils, students, and their parents to choice of an educational path depending on children’s individual skills and interests and their right to choose an appropriate school;
• abolishment of the educational monopoly of the state and establishment of private and religious nursery schools;
• quantitative expansion of the network of public schools and qualitative diversity of educational opportunities and formation of a competitive environment in education;
• implementation of funding in the educational system based on the normative method
The flow of full freedom in education, and application of market principles in satisfaction of educational demand and in funding, characterized by liberalism and deregulation, led to a gradual internal and external reform also in early childhood education. Pedagogic discussions yielded the following major topics that proved to be of key importance for further development of educational policies concerning child care and education of preschool children:
• importance and place of early childhood education within the system of education;
• early childhood education availability and funding;
• curriculum for early childhood education and quality of provision of education;
• qualification training for teachers involved in early childhood education.
Each of these topics has a fifteen-year history mirroring the fermentation of opinions and political accents in a society that was undergoing a transformation from a totalitarian regime into a democracy.
Importance and the Place of Early Childhood Education in the Educational System
Opinions about the importance and the place of early childhood education in the whole educational system were consolidating in the course of the 1990s. The opinion that early childhood education should become part of the Czech system of education and as such should be defined as level 0, that is, the preprimary level, in accordance with international classification (ISCED 97), gradually came to prevail. The existing Educational Act (2004) codifies this approach starting in 2005, specifying the goals of early childhood education as follows:
Early childhood education enhances development of personality of the pre-school child, contributes to his/her healthy emotional, cognitive and physical development and acquisition of the basic rules of communication, basic values and interpersonal relations. Early childhood education prepares basic conditions for further education. Early childhood education helps to make up for irregularities in the development of children prior to enrolment to primary education and provides children with special educational needs with special pedagogic care.
The position of early childhood education in the Czech Republic has also been strengthened by the newly formulated general principles of Czech and European educational policies, especially the concepts of lifelong learning and equal educational opportunities. Both these concepts basically mean a paradigmatic transformation in the approach to the place and importance of education as such, including early childhood education, since they view them in the context of the whole life path and in the context of all opportunities that may be open to people.
Thanks to this shift, the opinion that early childhood education should be made compulsory from 5 years of age surfaced in the discussions. Since this opinion did not win in the end, the current solution is the following: each child has a right, not an obligation, to education in the last year before the start of the compulsory school attendance. And conversely, each municipality is obliged to provide early childhood education for all children whose parents apply for it.
Another much discussed topic was interconnecting early childhood education and compulsory primary education, or nursery school and primary school, at the level of subject matter and potentially also organization. Due to fears that nursery schools might adopt the “scholastic approach” excessively, this interconnection has not been implemented to any great extent. On the contrary, the stress instead is on making the first grades of compulsory school more like early childhood education by emphasizing natural individual differences in children’s maturation and learning, more freedom in terms of learning content and the pace of learning, avoidance of classification, and so forth.
Early Childhood Education Availability and Funding
Thanks to the long tradition of building the network of nursery schools and creches throughout the socialist era, availability of early childhood education was not generally viewed as a major problem. It is nevertheless a fact that the situation did diversify after 1989, for demographic, geographic, social, and economic reasons. Some regions experienced a shortage of nursery schools, and especially creches, because some of the state-owned enterprises that had established and sponsored them failed to survive. The numbers of preschool children began to shrink as a consequence of demographic trends, which also led to the closing of creches, and to a lesser extent nursery schools (see entry on child care for 0- to 3-year-olds). The number of nursery schools dropped by about 22 percent compared with the period before 1989; this trend was most significant in the countryside, where nursery school availability went down radically. The current availability seems more or less equal to the demand, with no major discrepancies. The potential solution is fully in the hands of local governments.
The situation in terms of the economic and social availability of early childhood education is somewhat different. Early childhood education in the Czech Republic is funded partly from municipal budgets and partly from payments by families; the existing financial participation of parents is generally regarded as acceptable. The charges are reduced for lower income families and some families do not pay at all. Despite this, in the words of OECD experts, “guaranteeing the general availability of early childhood education, especially for children from socially and socio-culturally challenged families, is a top priority for the future in the Czech Republic.” It is turning out that parents from families challenged in these ways do not care for early childhood education for their children and do not send their children to nursery school on their own accord. There is no mechanism to make them to do so, only long-term education and motivation can be applied, but they have just started to be paid adequate attention. The fundamental argument is that children generally receive child care in early childhood education institutions comparable with child care within the family, and above all that children from socio-culturally challenged environments will undoubtedly profit from being in a creche or a nursery school.
A Curriculum for Early Childhood Education and the Quality of Provision of Education
The beginning of the 1990s in early childhood education was characterized by making the curriculum for early childhood education entirely open. The syllabi valid up to that time were withdrawn, and a liberal approach was followed under which the headmaster in cooperation with the teachers was to set a curriculum for the particular nursery school. A whole array of alternative programs attractive to the Czech pedagogic public were offered (Waldorf pedagogy, Montessori pedagogy, Dalton Plan, Step by Step Program, and others). It nevertheless started to become evident that many nursery schools interpreted the openness and freedom they were given in curriculum selection as an opportunity to “do hardly anything” or, in other words, to abandon systematic and purposeful guidance of children and keep their educational efforts to a minimum. This compromised the quality of provision of early childhood education, which until then had been generally regarded as high.
The relatively turbulent pedagogical as well as political discussion finally settled down, and led to the opinion that a general curriculum must be developed—in terms both of a general compulsory educational offering, and of the setting of conditions (organization, personnel, material, mental health related, safety, etc.), adherence to which should be compulsory for nursery schools and for the municipalities establishing them. This opinion was also supported by the conclusions of the expert assessment of the standard of early childhood education in the Czech Republic organized by OECD (2000). According to these conclusions, development of a general curriculum at the national level would provide the grounding needed to guarantee the quality of provision of early childhood education, surveillance of how educational goals are met, and comparability of pedagogical processes and outputs.
These discussions and recommendations led to the development and implementation of the General Curriculum for Early Childhood Education (2004). Its fulfillment, allowing for diversified school curricula, has become an obligation for all nursery schools in the Czech Republic. The reservations of the lay and pedagogic public about this requirement have now been replaced by positive attitudes.
Qualification Training for Teachers Involved in Early Childhood Education
The increased demands of the work together with the higher responsibility and extended authorities of teachers in nursery schools have provoked the question of how their qualification training should change. Besides application of the curriculum for early childhood education, teachers are expected to use it as a basis for developing curricula adequate to the particular groups of children committed to their care, their individual needs, the requirements of parents, and conditions of the particular nursery school. Teachers are also expected to have diagnostic competencies and communicate with parents to a greater extent, being able to provide them with counselling support regarding the development of their child.
A desire that such demanding occupational requirements should be underlain by more demanding and longer occupational training, shifting the training of teachers for early childhood education from the present secondary level of education to the tertiary one (university or nonuniversity studies), emerged by the end of the 1990s. Again, this goal was supported by an OECD expert report on the state of early childhood education and child care for preschool children in the Czech Republic (2000).
However, this goal was not fully accepted. This was due, paradoxically, to disapproval on the part of nursery school teachers themselves, who feared they would have to complete another demanding program of studies. It was due also to opposition on the part of secondary pedagogic schools, who until then had a monopoly on the training of nursery school teachers. The situation resulted in a compromise acknowledging both types of education: at the secondary level (secondary pedagogic schools) and at the tertiary level (higher vocational schools and bachelor programs at universities) (see Teacher Preparation entry). The trend is toward preparation at the tertiary level, which should strengthen occupational skills of nursery school teachers, their social status, and their economic situation while making their status comparable with that of teachers at higher levels of education.
The upbringing and education of preschool children are currently regarded as one of the best developed areas of care for the young generation in the Czech Republic in terms of legislation, educational content, and organization. This does not mean that there is a shortage of topics needing further discussion. These topics include especially the availability of child care for children from 0 to 3 years of age, the availability of child care for socioeconomically challenged children, greater parent involvement, and better qualification of nurses in creches and teachers in nursery schools.
Further Readings: Narodm zprava o stavu predskolni vychovy, vzdelavam a pece o deti predskolniho veku v Ceske republice (National report on the state of early childhood education and childcare for pre-school children in the Czech Republic). Prague: MSMT, 2000, p. 87; Ramcovy uzdelavaci program pro predskolni vzdelavani (General Curriculum for early childhood education). Praha: MSMT, 2004; OECD (2001). Starting strong. Early childhood education and care. Paris: The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development; Zakon c. 561/2004 Sb., o predskolnim, zakladnim, stfednim, vyssim odbornem a jinem vzdelavani (skolsky zakon). (Act No. 561/2004 Coll. on early childhood, elementary, high-school, higher vocational and other education—Educational Act).
Family Involvement in Early Childhood Education
In the Czech Republic family is regarded the basic, natural, and the most crucial environment for a child at an early age. This is especially the case for children up to 3 years of age and the prevailing arrangement of things reflects this: a great majority of children remain at home, cared for by the mother or another member of the family. The family policy of the state makes this possible through a long maternity/parental leave lasting until the child is 4 years old. For this reason, there is no extensive network of creches in the Czech Republic to provide infant and toddler care (see entry on child care for 0- to 3-year-olds). Various religious and private initiatives and activities of nongovernmental organizations offer parents, mainly mothers, different opportunities for spending time with their children within a group, with the support of experts. For example, parents may form various “mums’ clubs,” “work-out clubs for parents and children,” “consulting rooms for healthy children’s diet,” etc. Beyond the different debates about the appropriateness of this “family” arrangement are discussions surrounding the issues of equal opportunities for women and men, support to family as such, and the development of the demographic situation characterized by a low birthrate. However, the prevailing opinion today in the Czech Republic is that a close bond between the child and the mother is the most crucial element for the development of a very young child.
The situation concerning children from three until the start of compulsory school attendance at six is radically different. Most Czech families with children of this age take advantage of public early childhood education institutions, that is, mainly nursery schools. The proportion of children attending nursery schools ranges between 67 percent for 3-year-olds and 98 percent for 5-year-olds. This number demonstrates that the nursery school attendance is close to universal in the last year before the start of compulsory school. However, families from some socially and economically challenged groups, especially Romany families, tend not to send their children to nursery schools. Various programs have been developed to motivate these parents. These programs include the so-called “preparatory classes” where these children are given special care and support and where Romany assistants help.
When parents delegate their caring and upbringing authority to experts in public early childhood education institutions to the extent found in the Czech Republic, the subject of the relations and cooperation between these two institutions— the family and the nursery school, or the parents and the teachers—must be addressed. For the most part, these relations had not been regarded as a problem or as deserving much attention until the 1990s, when political change was brought about by the “Velvet Revolution” of 1989. The prevailing attitude was straightforward: “There are experts in nursery schools, just like in other school institutions, who know best how to take care of a child; let parents respect their approaches and intents.” Parents largely endeavored to satisfy the requirements of schools in the sense that can be summed up as “Take care of the child so that he/she comes to school or the nursery school on time and well-prepared.” The (nursery) school took charge of the child and used its professional methods to enhance his/her intellectual and other development, but also his/her discipline and social integration. This “labour division” usually worked quite well and if not, the participants tended to regard it as an example of the uneven distribution of power between these two institutions. The model in which the state takes on responsibilities originally belonging to the family through its institutions was common and more or less accepted.
Just as in other spheres of life within Czech society, much changed about this model during the recent years. It may even be said that the situation changed radically, since parents have started to be referred to as partners, collaborators, clients, and even citizens, who—as follows from the principle of civil society—may actively participate in the life of any public institution, including schools/nursery schools.
This new approach to family involvement was also reflected in school legislation of the Czech Republic. The relation between early childhood education institutions and parents is currently defined by the General Curriculum for Early Childhood Education, which came into effect as part of the Educational Act of 2004. According to the General Curriculum, the purpose of institutional early childhood education is to supplement upbringing in the family and in close cooperation with the family, helping to provide the child with various and adequate stimuli for his/her active development and learning. According to this binding curriculum, the participation of parents in early childhood education is fully satisfactory if the following conditions are met:
• Relations between teachers and parents are characterized by mutual trust and openness, goodwill, understanding, respect and willingness to cooperate. The cooperation is based on the principle of partnership.
• Teachers respond to particular needs of individual children/families and try to understand them and meet their wishes.
• Parents can participate in the activities of the nursery school, take part in various events, and interact with their children as part of their play if they choose to. They are informed of all events and activities in the nursery schools regularly and to a sufficient extent. If they give an indication of interest, they may contribute to the process of program planning, help to solve problems that have occurred, etc.
• Teachers inform parents of the proficiency of their child as well as of his/her individual learning and development progress. They coordinate with parents for joint action in providing the child with upbringing and education.
• Teachers protect the privacy of the family and act discreetly as far as internal issues they are aware of are concerned. They behave toward parents with thoughtfulness and tact, realizing they are handling confidential information. They do not interfere in the life and privacy of the family, avoiding excessive ardour and the giving of unsolicited advice.
• The nursery school supports family care and helps parents by sharing the care of their child; it offers parents counselling services and all kinds of educational activities concerning upbringing and education of preschool children.
In the last fifteen years, several research projects have focused on exploration and analysis of the relations between parents and teachers, including teachers of nursery schools, and on parent involvement. Results from one of these research projects served as preparatory material for the National Report on the State of Early Childhood Upbringing, Education and Care of Pre-school Age in the Czech Republic, 2000, prepared within the Thematic Review of Early Childhood Education and Care Policy organized by OECD. A questionnaire survey was conducted with 164 nursery school directors, 733 teachers, and 1,433 parents of children attending nursery schools throughout the Czech Republic. It addressed, among other things, issues like parents’ opinions on the functioning and program of their nursery school, satisfaction with teacher/parent cooperation, and the forms taken in these relations.
Parents’ opinions about the functioning and program of the nursery school. The responses show a general satisfaction of parents with their nursery school (99% of parents), its organization and program, as well as how well the parents were informed of nursery school activities. Parents expressed their unequivocal trust towards nursery school teachers (99%) and saw the nursery school environment as appropriate and universally beneficial to their child (97%). Two-thirds of parents believed their child received enough individual care in the nursery school. The satisfaction of parents with nursery schools corresponds with the assessment on the part of teachers and directors. Teachers and directors (99%) believe that parents are unequivocally or largely satisfied with nursery school and the services it provides for them and their children.
Satisfaction with teacher/parent cooperation and forms of this cooperation. Parents were more satisfied than nursery school teachers with teacher/parent cooperation. This relationship was assessed as excellent or very good by 60 percent of parents and 51 percent of teachers. Teachers indicated that they expected parents to show more interest, openness, goodwill, and involvement. Parents primarily care about how their child feels in the nursery school, which is understandable. Leaving the program offered to their children in the nursery school aside, however, this is where their interest usually ends. Thus parents continue to leave all responsibility up to the nursery school, which may be interpreted as an assumption that their child receives good care during the day and as a sign of their full trust in the quality of care provided and the professional skills of the teachers. Other possible causes can be identified, however, including lack of time, little experience and skills in communication with nursery school teachers, a certain convenience, and a tendency to shift responsibility. The forms of cooperation and communication mostly include usual and traditional activities such as presentations for parents, parent meetings, and individual consultations. These are forms in which the role of parents is rather passive. Activities requiring more active participation of parents (e.g., an open house with a program, joint events for the whole family, parents as class assistants, etc.) are much less frequent.
Based on this research, it may be said that parents are largely satisfied clients receiving services offered by nursery schools in the Czech Republic. The situation seems not to motivate them enough to be active participants in the process of providing care, upbringing, and education to their children in nursery schools.
A very similar conclusion has been arrived at by another research project undertaken in 2002-2003, which used sophisticated methods to find out the position of parents with respect to school and nursery school. The research was based on established theoretical concepts characterizing parents as clients, educational and social partners, citizens, or “trouble-making parents.” The results showed that with respect to nursery schools, the client role of parents prevails unequivocally (analogous to primary school), from the point of view of both school representatives and parents themselves. The role implies that parents are interested to such an extent as to choose the school for their child, desiring the best teachers and the best care possible for their child. Parents also want the school to provide an adequate amount of information to them. The parent activity usually does not go beyond this degree of interest. Parents are also perceived as educational partners (57%) in nursery schools, with more frequency than in other types of school (first and second stage of elementary school). This points to good potential for further development of cooperation between nursery school and parents as they are parents willing to participate, help, exchange information about the child with the teacher, and support the child in his/her development and learning. And finally, parents are perceived in nursery schools as “the troublemaking parents” (42%) if they act too independently, do not show enough interest in nursery school, and do not communicate much with teachers.
The research results described above present a largely positive image of relations between parents and nursery school teachers, testifying to satisfaction and perhaps even some balance of power. As far as parent involvement in the sense of active sharing, cooperation, and partnership is concerned, however, there is some scope for further development and improvement.
Cooperation between teachers in nursery schools and parents of children attending nursery schools has recently been considered one of the priorities of pedagogical work involving preschool children in the Czech Republic. It is generally believed that of all educational institutions, the focus, organization, and operation of nursery schools offer the most favourable formats for providing good communication and potential cooperation between parents and teachers. It is, nevertheless, important that both parties work collaboratively to achieve this cooperation.
Further Readings: Bastiani, J. (1993). Parents as partners. In P. Munn, ed., Parents and schools. Customers, managers or partners? London: Routledge, p. 182; Cullingford, C. (1996). The role of parents in education system. In C. Cullingford, ed., Parents, education and the state. Aldershot: Arena, p. 186; Narodni zprava o stavu predskolm vychovy, vzdelavam a pece o deti predskolntho veku v Ceske republice (National report on the state of early childhood education and childcare for pre-school children in the Czech Republic). Prague: MSMT, 2000, p. 87; Rabusicova, M., and M. Pol (1996). Vztahy skoly a rodiny dnes: hledani cest k partnerstvi (1), (2) (Relations between school and family today: Looking for paths to partnership). Pedagogika (Pedagogy), No. 1 (49-61) and No. 2 (105116); Rabusicova, M., K. Sedova, K. Trnkova, and V. Cihacek (2004). Skola a/versus/rodina (School and/or family). Brno: Masaryk University, p. 176; Ramcovy uzdelavaci program pro predskolni uzdeiavani (General curriculum for early childhood education). Praha: MSMT, 2004; Vincent, C. (2000). Including parents? Buckingham: Open University Press, p. 156; Wallace, T., and H. Walberg (1991). Parental partnership for learning. International Journal of Educational Research 15(2), pp. 131-145.
Quality of Provision of Early Childhood Education
The importance of improvement, monitoring, and assessment of quality of education has recently been increasing in the Czech Republic. This growing importance has to do with the introduction of the two-level (national and school) curriculum and therefore with the opportunity to choose an individual educational path, which is also associated with a great deal of responsibility on the part of individual nursery schools, or their teachers, for the quality of provided education. This involves not only external quality assessment performed by central or regional inspection. Because schools do not work on the basis of any normative document, but every nursery school develops a school curriculum of its own, there is a need for feedback on the functioning of the whole system inside the nursery school. It is therefore why internal assessment is used, the general goal being to make self-evaluation gradually become a natural part of work of each nursery school.
Specification of Early Childhood Education Quality in Documents
The question of how to define and assess quality of early childhood education in the Czech Republic is currently addressed by legal regulations (the Educational Act, orders, directives) and the national curriculum (General Curriculum for Early Childhood Education, GC ECE).
Structural quality and availability of early childhood education. Legal regulations concentrate on defining the structural quality, which can be expressed in terms of objective and measurable variables (size and structure of children’s groups, number of children per teacher, education of teachers in early childhood education, etc.), along with the quality of services provided for parents (availability, service hours, opportunity to choose from among different institutions, and curricula). The main indicators of structural quality of early childhood education in the Czech Republic are the following:
• Early childhood education in the Czech Republic is provided for children from 3 to 6 years of age. If a child is not mature enough, compulsory school attendance may be deferred.
• Nursery schools have three grades. Children from different grades may be assigned into a single classroom. A nursery school group may have up to twenty-four children. The limit is lower if children with special educational needs attend the group.
• Nursery schools providing daylong, part-time, or around-the-clock services may be established. Service hours may be adjusted in line with the needs of the children depending on local conditions or wishes and needs of parents. A child may enroll into a nursery school at any time throughout the school year.
• Nursery schools provide meals for children for a fee.
• Teachers working in nursery schools are mostly high school educated, some of them are university-educated (see separate entry on teacher preparation).
• Parents can choose from among alternative general curricula and different school curricula.
As far as availability of early childhood education is concerned, the intention in the Czech Republic is to guarantee each preschool child a legal right to early childhood education and a feasible opportunity to apply this right in practice. This is evidenced by the following legal provisions:
• Early childhood education is not compulsory.
• Each municipality is obliged to guarantee nursery school placement to all children whose parents apply for it.
• Nursery school charges may be lowered or waived for children from socially challenged families.
Process quality of early childhood education. The national curriculum (GC ECE) deals with issues of process quality and quality of results achieved. It is formulated so as to provide an integrated set of the main criteria, which are in line with valid legislation and define the desired quality of early childhood education in terms of forms and methods of work, educational goals, content, conditions, and results to be achieved. These are largely qualitative criteria, applicable in both internal and external evaluation of nursery schools and the education they provide.
GC ECE specifies methods and forms of work corresponding to the specific needs and possibilities of preschool children. It defines general educational goals to be met. It describes the level of key skills attainable during early childhood education. It identifies the subject matter to be offered to children, in terms of practical and intellectual activities and basic domains of elementary knowledge. GC ECE also specifies the expected outputs as the assumed results of early childhood education. It describes material, organizational, personal, psychic health-related, and pedagogical conditions affecting both the process and the results of education. GC ECE also specifies the main principles to apply when developing school curricula and, last but not least, the basic labor laws for teachers involved in early childhood education and their responsibilities toward children and their parents. GC ECE also specifies risks that may pose a threat to the success of educational plans of teachers and diminish the quality of education provision. This currently represents the basic framework for achievement and assessment of quality of the process of education in nursery schools.
Assessment of Provision of Education
The Educational Act and its implementing regulations (orders, directives) together with the General Curriculum sets a framework for evaluation and assessment of school curricula and of the quality of provision of education by individual nursery schools from the position of external supervision (inspection) as well as internal control (self-evaluation).
External quality assessment. Assessment of quality of early childhood education from the position of inspection is to be based on the rules inspectors apply when planning and performing their inspection activities. Inspectors monitor and assess school curricula and the process and results of education provision. They evaluate adherence to legal and implementing regulations, analyze and assess whether the school curriculum is in line with the requirements (formal and content-wise) of the General Curriculum. The inspectors check the correspondence between the planned curriculum and its implementation, observe and evaluate the course of education (methods and forms, quality of interaction and communication) as well as the achieved results. They check and assess the methods and effectiveness of planning, the methodological procedures used by teachers, evaluation activities, management and supervisory activities of the schoolmaster, etc. The school curriculum and its quality are evaluated as a whole.
Internal quality assessment. Rules for assessment of quality of provision of education from the position of the nursery school (self-evaluation) are set by GC ECE. The school is obliged to perform self-evaluation activities in a process of continuous self-regulation of its own educational work with a view to increasing its quality. These activities mediate a better understanding of the processes in the school and their regulation based on feedback (improvement).
A survey of the evaluation activities is a compulsory part of the school curriculum. The survey should include the following:
• a list of activities at the school level (especially conditions of education, goals and objectives of the school curriculum, and work of the pedagogic staff are evaluated);
• a survey of activities at the children’s group level (the educational offerings, the proficiency of the group as a whole are evaluated, teachers contribute their self assessment);
• a survey of monitoring and evaluation of results (developmental and learning progress of individual children is evaluated).
The concrete subject of self-evaluation is especially the implemented curriculum or the course of the process of education and its results. Self-evaluation may in this respect focus on many areas, e.g., on evaluation of the interrelationships between the school curriculum and the group curriculum, of the educational offerings, the material, health and mental health related, safety, organizational and other conditions, the pedagogical style and school climate, the forms and methods of work, cooperation with family, fulfillment of individual needs of children, supplementary program, or the offer of standard services. Practical evaluation consists of a continuous use of feedback on the part of the teacher. The teacher poses questions systematically and looks for answers to these questions, reflects on the ways of obtaining these answers, ways of collecting information and evaluating the monitored phenomena (which forms and methods and/or techniques to use). Commonly used methods include interviews, discussions, sessions, observations, class monitoring, educational plan, or class plan analysis, resulting in minutes from class observation, various kinds of questionnaires and survey cards, assessment reports, notes from observation, audio and video records, all kinds of artifacts by children (two- and three-dimensional didactic sheets, drawings, handmade products by the children etc.), notes and commentaries of teachers.
The basic criteria to apply during the process of evaluation and to use in assessment of a phenomenon under observation—certain criteria of comparison—are defined by GC ECE. This means that in practice a teacher compares the state of the phenomenon under observation (his/her findings) with GC ECE requirements, concludes whether and to what extent the situation is satisfactory or unsatisfactory, and decides how to proceed in light of these conclusions.
To specify the quality of provision of education more accurately, GC ECE uses the concept of risks. Risks identify phenomena posing a threat to the success of educational projects and diminishing the quality of the process of education and its results. Their presence is a sign of unsatisfactory quality of provided education.
Assessment of results of education in individual children. GC ECE brings some entirely new insights into the issues of assessment of quality of provision of education for children. The former focus on child’s performance, its comparison and evaluation with respect to a specific norm has been replaced by continuous monitoring and assessment of individual progress achieved by children in the process of their education. The purpose of the assessment is not to compare children against one another and label them as successful or unsuccessful, but the assessment is a tool in the process of searching for optimum paths in education of individual children.
Regarding the criteria for evaluation of achieved educational results, GC ECE does specify certain outputs, referred to as expected results, but only for the stage at which the child finishes early childhood education. Even then, these criteria are very general and meant to be used as a benchmark only. It is to be borne in mind that each child attains different outputs at different times, in a different extent and a quality corresponding to his/her individual talents. This means that it is the optimum fulfillment of a child’s educational potential and needs that is the indicator of the quality of educational results.
Good education is education in which the teacher stimulates the child adequately, noticing possible irregularities in his/her development at an early stage and providing him/her with adequate support and assistance. The teacher watches the child in natural and artificial situations continuously, observing developmental and learning progress purposefully, analyzes the results of these activities so as to find out about the child’s needs and limits in order to be able to adjust the educational offerings accordingly. The assessment of the standard of educational results is not a one-time “survey” and state-of-the-art assessment, but a continuous process of feedback, whose results are continuously projected into further educational work of the teacher directed toward the child. Rather than levelling out children’s performance forcibly, good early childhood education contributes to making the educational and life chances of individual children more even.
This approach to the development of quality of early childhood education provision and its assessment is an entirely new phenomenon in the Czech Republic, still awaiting an objective evaluation by all those involved: teachers, parents, and the general public.
Further Readings: (1996). Assessment in transition. Learning, monitoring and selection in international perspective. Pergamon Press: London; Bennett, J. (2000). Goals, curricula and quality monitoring in early childhood system. New York-Paris: The
Institute for Child and Family Policy, Columbia University-OECD; Ramcovy vzdelavaci program pro predskolni vzdelavam (General curriculum for early childhood education). MSMT Cr 2004; Smolikova, K. (2005). a kol. Manual k prtprave skolnich (tridnich) programu (A handbook for preparation of a school (class) curriculum). VUP; Vyhlaska o pfedskolnim vzdelavam, Sb. ZakonU c. 14/2005, castka 4 (Order on early childhood education, collection of Acts No. 14/2005, part 4); Zakon C. 561/2004 Sb., o pfedskolnim, zakladnim, stfednim, vyssim odbornem a jinem vzdelavani (skolsky zakon) (Act No. 561/2004 Coll. on Early Childhood, Elementary, High-school, Higher Vocational and Other Education—Educational Act).
Web Sites: www.vuppraha.cz; www.rvp.cz.
Currently, preschool institutional upbringing and education in the Czech Republic is a natural part of the system of education, and as such has a clearly formulated program of education, or curriculum. Curriculum formation has a rich tradition in Bohemia and Moravia, evidenced by the fact that the current curriculum has emerged from a dynamic process. A product of the Educational Act of 2004, the General Curriculum for Early Childhood Education (Ramcovy vzdflavaci program pro predskolni vzdelavani), was adopted as the national curriculum of the Czech Repubic.
Key Moments in Curriculum Formation
A look into the history of the early childhood curriculum and early public childhood education in the Czech Republic confirms that despite the fact that the development of Czech early childhood pedagogy has been influenced especially by both social processes and development of pedagogic thinking worldwide, there have been a number of attempts to develop an early childhood curriculum that is distinctively Czech in character.
The first integrated early childhood curriculum created in this country was Informatorium scholae maternae by I. A. Comenius (1592-1670). This curriculum specifies educational objectives (harmonious personal development), the teaching content (body of knowledge concerning nature and society), as well as a way of communicating it to children (by play). Many of these ideas are still alive today and are of interest even for a modern early childhood curriculum.
Another period that proved important for further development of the Czech curriculum was at the turn of the eighteenth century, when institutions providing exclusively social care (nurseries, kindergartens, and infant schools for children of working mothers) gradually evolved into educational institutions. The first program of upbringing called Kindergarten (created for the purposes of a nursery founded in Prague in 1832) was a relatively sophisticated program of elementary education. It emphasized instruction in morals, learning about the surrounding world, elements of writing and reading, and was supplemented with methodological guidelines and notes.
The development of the early childhood curriculum was regulated by Educational Acts (1869, 1908) at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. General rules for early childhood curricula, entirely distinct from the school curriculum, were formulated in the process. Nursery schools were charged with supporting and complementing family upbringing, preparing children for school and developing their physical, sensory, and psychic potential. Tools for educational work, namely play, occupation, light work, and observation were set also in legislation. The necessity to respect the needs of the child was stressed—methods of work used in school were prohibited explicitly. This trend later found support in a reformist pedagogical movement. What is worth stressing from that period is especially the Program of Upbringing for Nursery Schools, 1927(Vychovny program materskych skol), an integrated and systematic treatise on early childhood education, written from the theoretical and practical, conceptual and methodological points of view.
The period that followed was characterized by—unfortunately unsuccessful— efforts to legitimize early childhood education as the first stage of the school system. The function of an early childhood curriculum was played by syllabi and work plans still based on the reformist concept of educational work.
The number of nursery schools increased dramatically in the post-World War II period, due to the increased rate of employment among mothers of young children. The formation of national guidelines started at this stage. The first of them was still under the influence of reformist pedagogical movement but subsequent guidelines abandoned these reformist efforts, concluding with the Integrated School Act, 1948, which included nursery schools in the system of education (although with a curriculum very school-like in character). From this point on the function of the early childhood curriculum was played by school syllabi, that is, compulsory, detailed, and ideologically oriented guidelines. Segmentation into individual educational categories (physical, cognitive, moral, aesthetic, and labor-related) appeared for the first time as a counterpart to school subjects. Educational requirements were specified for two age-groups and a firm structure of the day as well as forms of educational work were defined, with primary attention paid to preparation for instruction in the integrated school environment.
With time the situation changed again. The marked school-like orientation of the early childhood curriculum was somewhat attenuated in the 1960s, thanks among other things to efforts to consolidate educational processes from birth to the entry in school. This made the curriculum a matter of concern for the Ministry of Health along with the Ministry of Education, because it included creches for infants and toddlers as well as nursery schools. Due to the integration of the medical point of view into this platform, the program gave greater emphasis to the natural development of the child and the attenuation of social norms, despite the ideas of the contemporary, integrated, and collectivist-oriented school. The second version of the Program of Educational Work in Creches and Nursery Schools, 1978 was a failed attempt at making compatible what was essentially incompatible: deepening ideological-educational activities while at the same time respecting the age-related as well as individual needs of children sufficiently, and better preparing children for school.
Early Childhood Curriculum Development: The Current State of the Art
The period after November 1989 was characterized by a need to provide a new system for schools and education in the new political and social contexts. School reform preparation was launched. In line with new principles of curricular policy, formulated as part of the National Program of Development of Education in the Czech Republic, (the so-called White Book, 2001) and regulated by the Act for Early Childhood, Elementary, High School, Higher Vocational, and Other Education (2004), a new system of curricula was introduced into the system of education. The main objectives of the reform were to transform the educational environment by opening up educational offerings increasing the autonomy of individual schools and their teachers, and guaranteeing the quality of the education provided. The curricular documents were formulated at two levels—the nation and the school. The state level is represented by the National Curriculum (NC) and the General Curricula (GC). The NC formulates educational requirements pertaining to education as a whole, and the GC defines educational frameworks required for the individual stages (early childhood, elementary, and high school education). The school level is represented by the school curricula (SC) designed to provide guidelines for the process of education in individual schools. School curricula are formulated by individual schools in line with the principles set by the relevant GC.
This system of organization is especially significant for the early childhood curriculum because the new Educational Act appreciates the pedagogical importance of nursery schools and radically shifts the position of early childhood education within the system of education: early childhood education is regarded as an important part of lifelong education and is guaranteed and supported by the state in a variety of ways. There is a national early childhood curriculum (General Curriculum for Early Childhood Education, or GC ECE). This curriculum sets a compulsory, but sufficiently wide framework for development of different pedagogical concepts and trends as well as for development of school curricula suited to the particular conditions of individual nursery schools.
A Brief Description of The Early Childhood Curriculum
The recently instituted childhood curriculum (GC ECE) in the Czech Republic is based on the following principles:
• acceptance of natural developmental specifics of preschool children and their systematic reflection in the content, forms, and methods of their education;
• preservation of room for individuality of personality in children and enabling development and education of each individual child compatible with their individual possibilities and needs;
• orientation to creation of a basis for lifelong learning and social self-fulfillment, focus on creation of foundations for key skills attainable within the early childhood education stage (i.e., not only with a view to preparation of the child for school);
• creation of room for individual profiles of individual nursery schools (allowing schools to take advantage of different forms and methods of education and adjust education to specific regional and local conditions, possibilities, and needs);
• guaranteeing comparable pedagogical efficacy of curricula developed and offered by individual nursery schools;
• defining quality of early childhood education from the point of view of objectives, conditions, content, and results of education in order to provide general criteria for internal and external evaluation of nursery schools and the education provided by them.
The curriculum reformulates the pedagogical goals and content of early childhood education as well as the conditions in which it takes place.
Goals of the Early Childhood Curriculum
The goals and objectives of the early childhood curriculum were set in line with the goals and objectives of the curricula for further stages of education, but at a level corresponding to the age of the children. The main objective is to develop each individual child in his/her physical, psychological, and social aspects and guide him/her so that by the end of the preschool period the child is a unique and relatively independent personality, competent to handle—actively and to his/her personal satisfaction—those situations he/she will commonly encounter (especially in familiar environments, i.e., in family and at school), as well as those situations to be faced in the future. The general goals set by the curriculum are the following:
• development of the child, learning and getting to understand,
• internalization of the fundamental values this society is based upon,
• acquisition of personal independence and the ability to act as an independent personality affecting one’s environment.
The process of fulfillment of these goals is directed at formation of elements of key skills (concerning learning, problem solving and communication, social and personal, activity-oriented, and citizen skills) to be further developed and deepened in the following stages of education.
Methods and Forms of Early Childhood Education
Methods and forms of early childhood education, too, are adjusted to the developmental, physiological, cognitive, social, and emotional needs of children of this age (3-6 years). Early childhood education offers children an environment that is welcoming, stimulating, interesting, and rich in content, in which the child can feel confident, safe, joyful, and satisfied and which provides him/her with opportunities to act, enjoy himself/herself, and be occupied in ways natural to children. Education is consistently associated with needs and possibilities of individual children differing on an individual basis, including specific educational needs. Each child is provided with assistance and support to the extent that the particular child needs and in the quality he/she finds adequate. Early childhood education is organized so that children, regardless of age differences or different abilities and learning potential, can be educated in the same class.
Methods of experiential and cooperative learning through play and activity are applied in education of preschool children. Training activities are organized above all as free play in which children participate on the basis of their own interest and by their own choice, drawing on situations presenting the children with comprehensible practical examples of contexts encountered in life. The activities used are spontaneous or directed, interlinked with one another and balanced, and are organized usually in smaller groups or on an individual basis. The didactic style is based on the principles of education, individual choice, and active participation of the child. Education is organized in integrated blocks not differentiating between “educational domains” or “components,” but presenting the child with educational content in natural contexts, connections, and relations so that it is easier to understand for the child and the obtained experience can be used in practice.
Educational Content of Early Childhood Curriculum
The educational content of the early childhood curriculum is the main educational tool. It is formulated in a way suited to the integrated character of education and its activity-based nature. Consequently it is set only in general and applied to the whole age-group, that is, for children from 3 to 6 years of age. Formally speaking, the educational content is structured into five domains selected so that they respect the natural wholeness and development of the child’s personality as well as his/her gradual integration into living and social environment. These areas are titled in the curriculum as follows:
• The child and his/her body.
• The child and his/her psyche.
• The child and the other.
• The child and the society.
• The child and the world.
The individual educational domains are treated in the curriculum so as to be comprehensible to the teacher and so that he/she can further develop the content (i.e., use the domains as a basis for formulating suitable integrated blocks of the school curriculum). Each domain includes the following interrelated categories: component goals (objectives), educational offerings, and expected outputs or results. Component goals express what the teacher should consider in the process of early childhood education, what he/she should support in the child. Educational offerings represent a set of practical and intellectual activities and opportunities, leading to goal fulfillment and output attainment. Expected outputs are component outputs of education that can be regarded as generally attainable at this stage of education (they are not compulsory for the child) and are formulated as skills and competencies. The curriculum also specifies potential risks to be avoided as they may pose a threat to the success of educational objectives.
The curriculum also identifies the conditions within which early childhood education is to take place, in the areas of material equipment, lifestyle and diet, psychic hygiene, organization and management, human resources and pedagogic qualification, and parent involvement. It identifies the optimum standard (quality) of these conditions, whose full provision should gradually be approached.
Development of school curricula by individual schools presupposes application of self-evaluation activities in each nursery school, including monitoring and evaluation of individual educational achievements by individual children.
Support for Curriculum Implementation
Currently, supplementary methodological documents are developed and other development projects are pursued to support implementation of the new curriculum into the practice of nursery schools. This is done not only to facilitate for teachers the techniques for development of their own school curricula, but also to provide practical examples, ideas, and illustrations as a means of enhancing the possibility of success. The responses to this new curriculum for early childhood education by the pedagogical community in the Czech Republic have in general been very positive.
Further Readings: Curriculum for pre-school, Lpfo 98. Ministry of Education and Science in Sweden. Stockholm, 1998; Early childhood and care education (Basic indicators on young children). (1995). Paris: UNESCO; Ramcovy program pro predskolni vzdelavani (General curriculum for early childhood education). MSMT 2001; Ramcovy vzdelavaci program pro predskolni vzdelavani (General curriculum for early childhood education). MSMT 2004; Smolikova, K. (1998). Kurikulum predskolni vychovy— zakladni vychodiska predskolni institucionalni vychovy (Early childhood curriculum: Basic starting points for institutional early childhood education). VUP; Smolikova, K. (2005). a kol. Manual k priprave skolniho (tridniho) programu materski rkoly (A handbook for preparation of a school (class) curriculum in nursery schools). VUP; Narodni program rozvoje vzdelavani v Ceske republice (Bila kniha) (National Program of Development of Education in the Czech Republic—White Book ). MSMT 2001; Narodni zprava o stavu predskolni vychovy, vzdelavani a pice o deti predskolniho veku v Ceski republice. Studie OECD (National report on the state of early childhood education and childcare for pre-school children in the Czech Republic. OECD study). MSMT 2000.
Web Sites: www.vuppraha.cz; www.rvp.cz.
Learning a Foreign Language as Part of Early Childhood Education
Learning (communicating in) a second language other than the mother tongue has always been regarded as one of the key skills (strengths) of a well-educated person in the Czech Republic. This requirement has recently been extended to all those undertaking compulsory education, and mastery of at least one foreign language has been considered a basic competence necessary for everyday life.
Foreign languages have been assigned more space in the school curricula. Within compulsory education one foreign language is taught starting in primary school and instruction in another one is defined as optional at the lower level of secondary education. Practice nevertheless indicates that the forms of teaching foreign languages used so far are not always efficient enough. One of the reasons is that foreign language teaching is started too late. As a number of studies in developmental psychology, social psychology, neuropsychology, psycholinguistics, and other disciplines show, the ideal age for starting foreign language learning is early childhood.
Why Start Second Language Learning Early?
Justification for starting early is mainly as follows. Language is a system consisting of five subsystems: the phonological, the lexical, the morpho-syntactic or grammatical, the pragmatic, and the discursive one. They are integrated within the general language system, enabling its harmonious functioning. Each of these systems, nevertheless, has a certain degree of autonomy, attributable to the diversity of their developmental calendars. Two of them, the phonological and the grammatical subsystems, develop most profoundly in early childhood. The period of sensitivity to them therefore lasts from birth (or even earlier) to approximately six years of age. The end of this period for phonological aspects of language is at 8 or 9, or maybe even earlier—our current state of knowledge in this area does not allow us to establish the time frame more accurately. After this period, the child begins to perceive phonemes of a foreign language systematically on the background of the mother tongue. The chances of mastering a foreign language to perfection therefore decrease dramatically from this age on despite the fact that the child keeps maturing as far as different domains of cognitive development are concerned. Although for morpho-syntactic aspects the period of sensitivity ends as late as at 14-15 years of age, many studies suggest that the capacity of the central nervous system and the neurolinguistic apparatus for construction of basic grammar starts to gradually decrease as early as when the child has reached 5 or 6 years of age.
Competing Needs and Interests
Although learning foreign languages in early childhood is mostly regarded as highly appropriate and efficient, one must take into account that early childhood is a crucial period for the development of many other skills and competencies in all areas of development of the child’s personality. One must therefore ask the question of whether it is really so important to devote time and effort to foreign language acquisition as opposed to other things at this age. Moreover, at the present time, typified by the development of media and information technologies, a growing percentage of children are showing signs of speech disorders due to a lack of natural high-quality face-to-face communication in their first language. It is mainly for this reason that the attitude of many experts on early childhood education toward foreign language learning in early childhood is reserved. There has been no unequivocal comprehensive view on this issue yet.
The Impact of Political Change
Arguments in support of early foreign language learning have only slowly been entering the awareness of experts as well as the general public and parents of preschool children in the Czech Republic. The political and social change in 1989 in the Czech Republic and the associated opening to the surrounding world were followed by a growing awareness of the importance of the ability to communicate in foreign languages, both in professional and in personal life. Methods of foreign language teaching have become a field for modernization and efficiency improvement. Experience from western European countries became a starting point for a process in which foreign language teaching—to the satisfaction of parents—started to find its place within early childhood education.
Types of Foreign Language Learning
Types of foreign language learning in early childhood may be divided according to the criterion of whether the goal is to arrive at bilingualism or just a certain degree of sensibility to a particular foreign language. Definitions of bilingualism vary, from the one by Bloomfield defining a bilingual person as someone with “full competence in two languages” to the one by McNamara defining a bilingual person as someone “competent in a language other than the mother tongue in at least one of the following linguistic domains: comprehension, speaking, reading, writing.” Bilingualism can be further divided into ambilinguism, equilinguism, and semilinguism, or to dominant as opposed to balanced bilingualism. Both bilingualism and sensibility can, with a varying degree of success, be achieved both through education in the family and through educational institutions.
Bilingualism in the family is the most natural way of acquiring two languages by a child. By a bilingual family we understand a family commonly using two languages (with a certain frequency). The growing number of foreigners who settle down to live in the Czech Republic is accompanied by a growing number of bilingual marriages. Because the Czech Republic has been a markedly monolingual country, the phenomenon of bilingual upbringing of children in the family has largely been a new one. Experts, like the lay public, still have some misgivings as far as bilingual upbringing of children is concerned. Nevertheless, as many researches currently demonstrate, bilingual or multilingual education does not have the negative impacts assumed by the scientists of the 1950s. However, it is appropriate to adhere to some rules. Romaine proposes six configurations of bilingual education. The best known one is the Ronjat principle “one person, one language,” also known as the “Law of Grammont.” This principle can be recommended in a situation when a child’s family environment involves two parents whose mother tongues differ. It is based on the hypothesis that distinct language contexts enhance acquisition of bilingualism while mixed contexts tend to be a disturbing factor in this process of language acquisition. According to this principle, each parent should address the child in one language only, specifically his or her own first language. Bilingual upbringing of children is nevertheless attempted also by families whose first language is the same as the language of the environment the family lives in. It is advisable in this case that the foreign language is used by one parent only. This parent should be proficient in the language, and as close to bilingual as possible, especially in the phonological and grammatical aspects. Otherwise there is a risk that the child may acquire incorrect language structures, whose correction becomes difficult. It must nevertheless be borne in mind that the first language has an irreplaceable role in the general development of the child’s personality. The definition of “first language” may be difficult in some ambiguous language contexts. One possibility is to define it as the language the child learns from his/her mother or the primary person taking care of him/her.
Bilingual Education in the Czech Republic
There are so-called bilingual nursery schools in the Czech Republic based (although it may be an unconscious choice in some cases) on the immersion method developed by the social psychologist Wallace Lambert in Canada in the 1970s, which try to simulate the situation of natural bilingualism. This method is proposed for the whole period of school attendance from nursery school to secondary school, the several first years being characterized by a total “immersion” of the children in the foreign language. This method expanded into a number of Canadian and North American schools very quickly. In the European context it was introduced as an experiment in the nursery school of the Leonie de Waha Coeducation Lycee in Lutych in 1989 in response to the incentive of the Association for Foreign Language Learning by the Immersion Method, and especially its founder Jacques Heynen.
When speaking of the immersion method, or other forms of foreign language learning in early childhood in general, a question arises regarding whether the child’s knowledge of the first language deteriorates when the language is not used to the same extent as by his/ her peers living in a monolingual environment. Research dealing with this topic nevertheless shows that inclusion of a foreign language into the school curriculum does not delay the natural process of learning the first language in any way. Some studies conclude, moreover, that teaching by the immersion method may even be beneficial to progress in the first language to some extent, especially in terms of vocabulary. Also results recorded in classes of the nursery school of Leonie de Waha Lycee in Lutych confirm the hypotheses that the immersion method is harmless with respect to the first language.
Bilingual nursery schools in the Czech Republic are mostly private. Foreign language instruction is in most cases provided by Czech teachers who are highly proficient in the foreign language while their pedagogical qualification is not a necessary requirement. The ideal situation in which the teacher is a native speaker with pedagogical qualification is rare. The tuition fees in bilingual nursery schools are usually relatively high and therefore there is a great concentration of children from high-income families in these schools.
Foreign Language Teaching Pedagogy
Teaching whose goal is development of a sensibility to the particular foreign language takes place in nursery schools, language centres or schools, or other educational institutions or directly in the family environment where the teachers are the parents themselves. For class instruction the recommendation is to teach groups of five to six, but not more than ten children for ten to twenty minutes. Children should be taught every day in an ideal case or they should at least have an opportunity to revisit what they already have learned every day. The main principles for familiarizing children with a foreign language published in literature designed for Czech nursery school teachers are the following:
• To use comprehensible language,
• to speak slowly,
• to use short sentences and phrases,
• to avoid using abstract words while using pictures or distinct gestures with clear meanings,
• to maintain short breaks after every sentence or phrase,
• to come up with “clean and clear” demonstrations so that children can repeat them as accurately as possible, to show the reaction the teacher expects,
• to repeat and explain as many times as necessary,
• to check whether the child has understood what the teacher wanted to say,
• to arrange questions from the easiest ones to which children can answer “yes” or “no” to more difficult ones where the child chooses between two alternatives, to the most difficult ones with several alternative answers for which pictures or aids should be used in the beginning.
It is essential not to cheat the child of his/her first language. Therefore if he/she feels the need to speak it, the teacher should not prevent him/her from using it. When teaching children a foreign language the teacher should adhere to the principle that things should not be overdone and should return to previously introduced vocabulary and use it as a starting point. It is also recommended to tell children of the life and institutions of the country whose language they are learning, to teach them to respect the culture of another country and to have tolerance toward foreigners. This is where foreign language learning gradually merges with the multicultural education so needed in the traditionally monocultural and monolingual Czech environment.
Although the centralized curriculum for early childhood education (General Curriculum for Early Childhood Education) does not include instruction in foreign languages, a great many nursery schools in the Czech Republic currently offer optional foreign language instruction (mostly English, but German in some regions near the borders) in response to a demand on the part of parents, usually one or two lessons per week. Due to the lack of foreign language teachers even at higher levels of school these classes are often taught by persons without the necessary linguistic and pedagogical qualifications. They are mostly qualified teachers who, however, do not know the foreign language well enough, or teachers who know the foreign language well but do not have the pedagogical qualification. This problem has to do with the fact that most of the teachers currently employed finished their studies before 1989, when foreign language teaching (apart from teaching Russian) was a rather marginal affair. We may nevertheless predict a significant improvement in this area, to go hand in hand with an increasing language competence of the Czech population.
It may be said in general that the lay population in the Czech Republic is currently in favour of teaching foreign languages in early childhood, quite contrary to the opinion of many experts who regard it as a factor contributing to the growing number of speech problems in children. It is, however, evident that the whole business of foreign language learning in early childhood is very new in the Czech Republic and may be expected to receive more attention in the future.
Further Readings: Comblain, Annick, and Jean Adolphe Rondal (2001). Apprendre les langues, oil, quand, comment? Sprimont: Masdaga, p. 136; Lietti, Anna (1994). Pour une education bilingue. Paris: Payot, p. 204; Marxtova, Marie. (2003). Cizi jazyky v materske skole (Foreign languages in nursery school). In Vaclav Mertin, and Ilona Gillernova, eds., Psychologiepro ucitelky materske skoly (Psychology for nursery school teachers). Prague: Portal, pp. 185-192; Sulova, Lenka, and Stefan Bartanusz. (2003). Date vyrUstajicl v bilingvni rodine. In Vaclav Mertin and Ilona Gillernova, eds., Psychologie pro ucitelky materske skoly (Psychology for nursery school teachers). Prague: Portal, pp. 171-178; Tabors, Patricia (1997). One child, two languages: A guide for preschool educators of children learning English as a second language. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes, p. 195 s.
Lucie Kozakova and Milada RabuUcova
Teacher Education in the Czech Republic
Although early childhood pedagogy is one of the youngest among teaching professions, it has a history of dynamic development, characterized by efforts for professional quality and specialization.
In the Czech context, as in other European nations, the first public educational institutions for early childhood education started to emerge in the 1830s in the form of nurseries, sanctuaries, and kindergartens. These settings were designed for children aged 2 and up, who required care while their mothers were away from home for work. There was no special training for childminders working in these institutions. The children were cared for by experienced women, selected in line with contemporary criteria of civil integrity.
The dominating social-charitable focus of these institutions was altered by the Prague nursery founded in 1832, where a qualified male elementary school teacher was employed in order to prioritize the educational function over the nursing function of preschools. The institution also served as a centre for preparation and education of male teachers for work in other nurseries. This marked the beginnings of the approach to early childhood education as qualified work, requiring formal training.
The subsequent development of social-charitable public institutions for early childhood education, characterized by considerable numbers of children per group, led to the development of a staff position known as “lady minder.” Her crucial role involved being a kind and helpful person to stand in for the mother, providing the child with necessary care, and helping the child to acquire good manners. Starting in 1868 only single women were allowed to work in nursery schools, and this emphasis on unmarried teachers lasted until 1919.
The Imperial Act of 1868 defined nursery schools as educational institutions. This act called for teacher qualification specialization, and the Statute of Training Colleges was subsequently issued to serve as a conceptual basis for theoretical and practical instruction at one-year (later two-year) training colleges. Graduates of these courses were referred to as nursery school teachers from 1934 onward.
Two theoretical camps began to form, with differing views on the role of early childhood teachers and the training that they should receive. One group viewed the early childhood educator in a classic teacher role, and aimed to integrate professional training for teachers of the preelementary and elementary stages. The other group prioritized simple practical training focused on nursing care, thus reflecting the status of the early childhood educator as nurse childminder. This dilemma had legal and occupation-statutory consequences, which have been reflected in professional training of teachers during the twentieth century.
Starting Points for Occupational Transformation
In the first half of the twentieth century, the nursing (care) approach to early childhood education still prevailed. The low occupational and social status of the nursing profession became a subject of criticism by employees of early childhood education institutions. Together with elementary school teachers, they requested the opportunity to improve their occupational qualifications through university education. Although their request was not recognized by legislation, nursery school teachers organized remarkable self-help educational activities (they, for example, organized university courses, established a resource and record-keeping centre, implemented research projects in experimental schools in collation with experts, published books, and journals). These spontaneous self-educatory activities were interrupted by World War II, after which they were not fully resumed.
Occupational training of nursery school teachers shifted to the university level with the creation of pedagogical faculties in 1946. Nursery school teachers trained together with teachers of other stages of education between 1948 and 1950.
The year 1948 was marked by a radical political and social turn in what was then Czechoslovakia, resulting (among other things) in increased political pressure calling for a broad engagement of women in the labor market. This pressure led to an increased demand for early childhood institutions such as creches and nursery schools, as well as for adequate human resources. Creches were established for children between 3 months (six months later) and 3 years of age. These institutions, largely with round-the-clock operation, were run by the Ministry of Health. Child care was delegated to children’s nurses, who trained at medical (high) schools, which marked the beginning of the medical accent in care of the youngest children that has later been criticized.
During this time, pedagogical faculties failed to produce enough teachers for nursery (as well as primary) schools. Occupational training for these two types of teachers was subsequently demoted to the level of a four-year high school in 1950. While training of primary school teachers soon returned to the university level, high school training of nursery school teachers still remained, and was the basic type of their occupational training until the mid-1990s.
In 1970, the preparation of a dual system of nursery school teachers’ training was launched. This system involved a choice between training at specialized high schools, concluding in a standard graduation exam (higher secondary level of education, ISCED 3) or training at the tertiary level (ISCED 5). Most teachers in training elected the former option, while the latter tended to be viewed as training for potential nursery school headmasters.
Perspectives on Staff Training Programs
The social situation after 1989 has brought new challenges in training in early childhood pedagogy. The dominant belief that attendance at an early childhood education institution is an important investment for life and lifelong learning has increased requirements for occupational training of this staff rather dramatically.
Programs for infants and toddlers. Childminders in creches represent a special category of qualified staff for the youngest children; they are referred to not as “teachers”, but “nurses.” This is because the model of their training has remained unchanged since the socialist era: they study at high schools with medical specialization. Creches, the settings for which they train, remain under the surveillance of the Ministry of Health. The contemporary emphasis on the importance of the family and individualized care of the youngest children, together with the legal right to a 36-month maternity leave, has decreased the need for public educational institutions for children below the age of 3. Creches served about 20 percent of the under 3 population prior to 1989. Since then, the rate has dropped to less than 1 percent today. Along with the decline in the number of creches, the care of children under 3 is characterized by private efforts and contracted services, which are not subjected to public control or regulated by requirements for licensed occupational services. Their distribution tends to be marginal.
Teacher training programs. There are currently three paths to the nursery teacher occupation. A general shift to the tertiary level of training and conceptual relatedness between training of nursery school and primary school teachers, who have trained at the tertiary level since the beginning of the 1950s, is envisioned for the future.
Legal unification of requirements for training in early childhood pedagogy (Teacher Training Standards), specification of content-level requirements and skills (the National Curriculum), and a general increase in the occupational status of nursery school teachers (requirement for full occupational training at national and accredited institutions and wage equalization with other teacher categories) are expected to take place.
High School Specialization
High school education with specialization has been the prevailing qualification attained by 95 percent of nursery school teachers. Graduates of these programs pursue work mainly as nursery school teachers, preceptors in schools and other educational institutions (after-school centres, school clubs, centres organizing leisure-time activities for children, children’s homes), or in welfare centres for children with special needs.
There are currently seventeen high schools with pedagogical specialization in the Czech Republic. The program of studies is designed for students who have completed nine years of compulsory school attendance. Enrollment is contingent upon passing entrance exams in the student’s first language successfully, a personal character evaluation, and demonstrating talents in music, sports, and the arts. The course of study lasts for four years, and graduates receive a certificate of full high school education with specialization. The degree is completed with a satisfactory score on a standardized exam (level 3A according to international standard classification ISCED).
Vocational School Training
An amendment to the 1995 Educational Act has enriched the portfolio of nursery school training to include studies at higher vocational schools. There are currently twenty-one state-run higher vocational schools with specialization in pedagogy and teaching, six of which include specialization in early childhood pedagogy. Graduates of these programs are generally seen as overqualified to be nursery school teachers, and frequently pursue a broader—in terms of both age and domains—spectrum of activities organized for children and the young.
In order to enroll in the vocational programs, a student must have completed a full high school education (general or with specialization) and received a passing grade on the graduation exam. Applicants must prove their personality qualifications and talents in aesthetic disciplines. Students graduating from the vocational school receive a graduation certificate at level 5B according to international classification ISCED.
University Training of Nursery School Teachers
There are currently seven state universities offering programs with specialization in pedagogy in the Czech Republic. These institutions organize three-year bachelor study programs referred to as “Pedagogy for Nursery Schools”. These programs may include intramural, combined, or extramural studies. The first program to receive accreditation was launched in 1993 at the Faculty of Pedagogy of Charles University in Prague. Students must have passed the high school graduation exam in order to enroll in this program.
The university program of studies includes general and specialized training, as well as intensive theoretical and practical training for early childhood educators. This program is in accordance with European standards in early childhood pedagogy (ISCED 5).
University studies are concluded with a state bachelor examination consisting of a defence of a bachelor thesis and an oral exam. The graduates are granted the academic title “Bachelor” (abbreviated as “Bc”).
Occupational skills obtained by a graduate of this program include the following:
• respect the personality of the child, develop it, and be able to create an atmosphere of trust, safety, and understanding for the children;
• identify specific characteristics of individual children and make these a basis for one’s educational activities;
• structure activities based on the needs and skills of preschool children;
• choose adequate methods with respect to the particular conditions and the developmental level of the children, select pedagogical processes correctly, analyze and justify one’s decisions;
• plan one’s activities and create conditions for the development of the individual and the group, including children with specific needs;
• be proficient in basic musical, artistic, and dramatic activities appropriate to early childhood and use one’s talents in these areas.
A more advanced training in theory and methodology or early childhood pedagogy can be obtained in the program of studies “Early Childhood Pedagogy,” also organized by the Faculty of Pedagogy at Charles University in Prague. The program is organized to combine the intramural and extramural form and lasts for ten semesters. It is concluded by a state examination consisting of a defence of a diploma thesis and an oral examination. Graduates are granted the academic title “Magister” (Master) abbreviated as “Mgr.”
Within the program of studies, occupational skills are extended by analysis of theoretical problems from the domain of early childhood pedagogy, reflection and generalization of pedagogical experience, training in empirical research methods, and presentation of research results.
Future Possibilities and Social Repercussions
A program of two-level training in early childhood pedagogy consisting of coordinated successive bachelor and graduate studies is currently being developed. The bachelor studies portion of this program is regarded as a general compulsory qualification for nursery school teachers, while the second, gradate level should involve a more advanced theoretical understanding and occupational specialization.
Occupational training within the nursery school teacher specialization is currently available to both women and men. It has not always been so. Until the mid-1990’s, only women were admitted to the high school specialization programs. The existing percentage of male teachers in nursery schools remains close to zero.
The occupational and social status of a nursery school teacher is comparable with that of primary school teachers, although wages are lower. The average monthly wage of a nursery school teacher in the Czech Republic in 2004 was CZK 16,146 while the average wage of an elementary school teacher was CZK 20,227. These wages are comparable to those of other professions, as the average wage in the Czech Republic lies somewhere between 18,000 and 20,000 CZK (roughly $800-$1,000 USD).
Nursery school teachers are relatively in demand in the market. However, demographic trends signal a decline in birthrates in the future, which is likely to result in decreasing numbers of children in nursery schools.
Nursery school teachers currently represent the second-most numerous teacher category in the Czech Republic, working with over 90 percent of the population of preschool children attending nursery schools. The importance of high-quality training for a demanding job is no longer in doubt and is generally recognized.
Further Readings: Comenius, John Amos (1992). Heritage and education of man for the 21st century. Section 4. In John Amos Comenius, ed., Heritage and early childhood education. Prague: Charles University—Comenius Institute of Education; General Teacher Education. Network Norway Council, 1999; Opravilova, E. (2002). Pnprava ucitelek materskych skol na ttrovni vysoke skoly (Nursery school teacher training at university level). In Retrospektiva a perspektiva predskolntho vzdeiavam a pnprava predskolnich pedagogU. Sbornik 3.celostatni konference profesntch organizaci predskolntho vzdelavani (Retrospectives and perspectives of early childhood education and training of teachers for pre-school education. Papers from the 3rd National Conference of Professional Organizations in Early Childhood Education). Prague: APN; Opravilova, E. (2004). Vzdelavani ucitelek materskych skol: Vyvoj, soucasne proudy a perspektivy (Education of nursery school teachers: Development, current trends and perspectives). In Spilkova, V. a kol.: Soucasnepromeny vzdelavani ucitele (Contemporary Transformations in Teacher Education). Brno: Paido.
Child Care for Children from 0 to 3
Child care for children from birth to three years of age is a topic involving a great variety of possible viewpoints and approaches. The most common approach considers the youngest children in terms of their medical safety and psychological development, including cognitive and social development. To be able to do this, we need to understand the optimum conditions and environment for this development.
Traditionally, the family has been responsible for creating favourable conditions for child development, and has been regarded as the most appropriate “instrument” for fostering this development. Historically, in both the Czech and the wider European cultural spheres, this approach was advanced by the well- known pedagogical treatise Informatorium scholae maternae written by John Amos Comenius in 1632. This document contains advice and recommendations to mothers taking care of their infants and toddlers.
As the traditional society transformed into a modern one, new approaches and arguments considering a broader social, economic, and cultural context started to emerge. In the second half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries there was a boom in institutions providing early childhood education in the Czech Republic. These institutions were almost exclusively nursery schools catering to children ranging from 3 to 6 years of age. However, the period of the communist regime in the late 1940s brought a huge expansion of public care institutions (creches), first for children above 3 months of age and then for those 6 months to 3 years of age. The main reason for this expansion was that during the communist period, child care was primarily used as a tool for obtaining a new labor force. This was especially evident in the 1950s when the government initiated a policy of intensive female employment. During this initiative, the preference was to build collective creches, which were governmental and state enterprises that at one point served some 20 percent of children of preschool age. This trend continued in the following decades. The government controlled the accessibility, quality, and even the pedagogical programs in these institutions.
Immediately following the political change at the end of the 1980s, the number of creches was dramatically reduced. The reason for this reduction was the argument that children under 3 feel best with their families. This argument was provoked especially by the negative experience of previous generations of Czech children and parents, who remember creches as one of the worst oppressions of the communist regime. A saying from those times goes: “Old people’s homes are children’s revenge to parents for creches.”
Child Care for Infants and Toddlers
Currently, child care for the youngest children in the Czech Republic is a highly controversial topic, reflecting both the unhappy experience from the recent “socialist” past and the newup-to-date requirements attributable to the acceptance of the Czech Republic into the European Union (in 2004). The main arguments in general for extending institutional child care for children from birth to three years of age include participation of women in the labor market, equal opportunities for women and men in terms of their personal development, support to families in a broader sense of the word, and enhancement of the birthrate. These arguments have also started to gain weight in the Czech Republic.
At the same time, the strong traditional argument emphasizing the importance of a close bond between the mother and the child still exists. This argument has shifted public opinion away from institutionalized child care, in support of an arrangement of care within which the child grows up in the family, cared for by the mother, usually until the child is at least 3 years old.
At present, Czech social policy in relation to the youngest children and their families seeks to find links between the interests of the children and parents, especially mothers. Policymakers are trying to approach the new philosophical and political bases of the social and family policy in the Czech Republic. As can be expected, this rather discrete discussion involves some strongly differing attitudes, depending on the political orientation of their advocates.
Briefly, the three main strategies of social policy in relation to the family are as follows:
1. Market-oriented strategy: Accentuates the role of the market, while provisions for families are minimized. In this strategy, the state helps to find solutions for only extreme cases. The family is perceived resulting from how people arrange their lives. As a result, this strategy emphasizes the need for a variety of available options.
2. General support to families: Emphasis is on marriage, cohesiveness of the family, and education of children within the family, particularly by means of child benefits and tax allowances related to the absence of mothers’ economic activities, and by means of public institutions such as nursery schools providing day care for children.
3. Support for double incomes: Aims at equality of opportunities for men and women in the labor market, enabling men to share the duties related to upbringing of children with women. In particular, this approach emphasizes public care and education, by means of public day care or residential care, emphasizing a rich and long parental leave.
The current policy in the Czech Republic seems to be a combination of the first two strategies. Especially in the beginning of the 1990s, a tendency towards a market-oriented type of family policy (at least supporting the argument in favour of everyone’s personal responsibility for themselves, and in the system of family benefits) was noticeable. Alongside this, elements of the traditional model of general support to families became evident: a maternity grant increase, extension of the period of eligibility of parental allowances from 3 to 4 years of age (maternity plus parental leave) aimed at providing women (or men, with children aged 6 months and more) the opportunity to leave the labor market for a relatively long time. According to surveys of public opinion (ISSP), the Czech population prefers this traditional model, which is obviously one of the reasons for the low demand for creches. Besides, Czechs prefer a traditional division of roles in the family duties and responsibilities. They see the woman’s role, first of all, as that of giving birth.
Reduction of Creches
The number of public institutions providing child care for children up to 3 years of age (creches) was reduced drastically at the beginning of 1990s. This social change was followed by a radical ideological shift away from public child care. Many families found the idea of public child care for children from birth to three years of age undesirable. Instead of institutional child care, the traditional concept, based on the idea that “a child feels best home with his/her mother,” was embraced and creches closed down in huge numbers. Diminishing parental demand for creches, combined with a drop in the birthrate, has led to the beleaguered state of public services for children of 0-3 years of age. The government has drastically reduced its monetary support of such institutions. In fact, the organized day-care system for very young children has disappeared. What was once a child-care system supported by creches is gone, leaving only a few centers from the previous regime, administered by the Ministry of Health. The physical premises of former creches have been sold or rebuilt to be used for other purposes. At present there are a total of fifty-eight creches in the country, with a capacity of 1,674 children. To illustrate the change, there are now only three creches in Brno, a city with a population of 450,000 which contained 115 such settings in the 1980s, In the rest of the South Moravia region (Brno being its centre), there are currently no creches at all.
Some nongovernmental (private) initiatives are emerging, aimed at providing parents (mothers) immediate assistance if they need respite from their children for a particular period of time. Private care (by female students or seniors) is also expanding. Yet both these options are expensive and many people doubt the quality of such services. In addition to this, there are services by civic associations or churches focused on the care of mother and child, such as centers where they can spend time together (mother’s clubs).
In contrast to this reduction in creches is very generous maternity and parental support, consisting of a parental leave of twenty-eight weeks, 69 percent of the previous salary, plus a four-year-leave at a flat rate (until the child’s fourth birthday).
Creches are administered by the Ministry of Health. They are established by the Municipalities (regional administration), through which they are subsidized. Yet their operation is expensive (at some CZK 7,500 monthly), resulting in the fact that parents must contribute approximately 13 pecent to 19 percent toward the costs (CZK 1,200 to 1,500; between 50 and 65 USDper month). So the service is not cheap, although the fee is adjusted to family income. A new bill has been drafted that proposes making creches private enterprises instead of being regarded as health care institutions.
Accessibility and Quality
Even though the number of creches in the Czech Republic has reached an all-time low, their availability still exceeds their demand. For instance, the three above-mentioned creches in Brno can serve 100 children but are only used to 60 or 70 percent of their capacity. This demonstrates that even such a small supply exceeds the demand. On top of that, the creches are used mostly by lower income parents.
The main argument of the opponents of public care for the youngest children is the low quality of creches. Those in the generation brought up in communist creches have expressed their discontent with the quality of care, and their experiences are quite sad—nurses dressed in white, and hygiene standards given much more importance than a creative environment for children. The focus was on care, not on development. Such opinions still prevail in the general public and among politicians. Unfortunately, the structure of the current (public) creches still gives this impression, although some improvements are evident. Nurses who work in creches typically attend four-year secondary schools of nursing. Pedagogy and psychology are part of their curricula.
Research Findings and Conclusions
The previous paragraphs provide the basic facts concerning child care for children from 0 to 3 years of age in the Czech Republic, and the corresponding political background and interpretations. What is needed at this point is research- based empirical evidence regarding the benefits and risks of each particular alternative for the development of the child. Systematic research in this area has been absent. However, there are isolated research projects that provide some useful information, and relevant research in other areas. Some conclusions on the quality and conditions of child care for the youngest children can be inferred from this information. In summary, the following facts are evident regarding the current situation in child care for children from 0 to 3 in the Czech Republic, placed in a broader context:
• There is a decreasing birthrate (currently 1.17), which may be a cause or could be a consequence of the present child-care situation;
• Mothers are getting older (more frequently giving birth in their thirties), which means fulfillment of the “biological role.” Mothers more often want to take care of their “ardently desired” child at home;
• The public has a generally negative attitude, resulting in a low demand for creches;
• The quality of the care is usually regarded as low or not corresponding to the modern state of knowledge on the development of young children;
• Creches are health care institutions, which implies that their priorities are hygiene, health, surveillance, and good food;
• There are no alternatives to creches from which to choose;
• Creches are costly, the government has cut the subsidy so that parents must contribute;
• The prolonged parental leave is also of importance;
• Finally, under pressure from the authorities, some kindergartens accept children aged 2 (although this seems to be the case in some regions only).
What is the consequence to young families? Families themselves have to care of their children in the long term, very much so through jobs available in the labor market. The society would only intervene if poverty becomes a serious issue, but even then this help would be rather limited. Women can stay out of the labor market for a relatively long period of time and devote themselves to the care of their children, and marriage is seen as advantageous. No significant support with housing or in the compensation of expenses related to upbringing can be expected.
What is needed, however, and what state policy and legislation in affairs of the society, the family, and employment should contribute, is to create conditions for families in which parents, and especially women, are able to make carefully considered choices, based on individual and family priorities. Currently there are no such choices or options regarding child care for children under the age of 3 in the Czech Republic.
Further Readings: Brannen, J., and P. Moss, eds. Rethinking children’s care. Buckingham: Open University Press; Child care in changing world—Conference report. Available online at http://www.child careinachangingworld.nl/downloads/conference_report.pdf; Moss, P., and F. Deven (2002). Leave arrangement for parents: Overview and future outlook. Community, Work and Family 5(3), pp. 237-255; Narodni zprava o stavu predskolm vychovy, vzdelavam a pece o deti predskolniho veku v Ceske republice (National report on the state of early childhood education and child care for pre-school children in the Czech Republic). Prague: OECD, MSMT; , 2000OECD (2001). Starting strong. Early Childhood education and care. Paris: The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development; Sulova, L., and Ch. Zaouche-Gaudron (2003). Predskolni dite a jeho svrt (Pre-school child and his/her world). Prague: Karolinum.