Newly appointed Professor of Educational Science Päivi Pihlaja calls for more versatile journalism on inclusion in education.
High-quality early childhood education supports the child and can prevent challenges later on
In Finland, early childhood education, ECE, has made the headlines frequently lately. Concerns have been raised over the lack of qualified ECE teachers and over the low number of students entering the field. ECE teachers’ salaries, too, have been a topic of heated discussion. Inclusion in education, including ECE, has also been featured in the media a lot.
Päivi Pihlaja was appointed as Professor of Educational Science, especially Early Childhood, in early November. Lately, her research has focused on inclusion in ECE and basic education, and she has followed the public debate with great interest, but also with some frustration.
“In order to share relevant information on inclusion in education, journalists should interview and listen to experts who are familiar with the subject. I’m yet to understand the agenda behind all the negative news, considering that we actually have a lot of good and positive things to say about inclusion in education,” Pihlaja says.
Finland is home to plenty of high-level research on inclusion and pedagogy. Pihlaja calls on journalists to bring out this side of things as well, and to approach the topic based on research.
“From time to time, it is of course good to question whether we have enough resources to implement the principle of inclusion – or how our municipalities allocate their resources in general. However, instead negative news and despair, I’d rather see municipality-specific analyses of where children need support and what should be done to provide it.”
According to Pihlaja, old structures are not a good starting point for allocating resources; instead, finding ways to support teachers is also essential.
“We are studying this theme in a newly launched research project addressing the structures of support and administrative processes of providers of ECE services. The project is carried out in collaboration with the universities of Helsinki, Jyväskylä and Oulu.”
Municipalities have different views
The history of inclusion is different in ECE and in basic education. Basic education is still associated with the concepts of special needs classes and special needs schools, whereas ECE has never had “special needs day care centres”, where all children would need special support. Instead, ECE has always been structurally uniform, i.e., all children have had access to unified ECE.
“So, inclusion in education is approached from different angles in ECE and in basic education. Our studies have shown that, due to historical reasons, education leaders in ECE are likely to have a more positive attitude towards inclusion in education than education leaders in basic education.”
According to Pihlaja, many basic education leaders, for example, feel that inclusion in education entails a system of special needs schools.
“The situation is based on the schools rather than the municipality level, unlike in ECE, where the matter can be better addressed also on municipal level.”
Selectiveness of private ECE centres is worrying
Although ECE is open to all children, concerns have been voiced over the increase in the number of private ECE centres, as well as over the culture present in some centres or centre chains.
“Privatisation and the related pursuit of profit have gained footing in ECE quickly, yet with quiet steps, since 2010. Some private ECE centres have decided not to accept children who need special support. In other words, the principle of unified ECE is being somewhat shattered as neoliberal thinking is taking the field over.”
According to Pihlaja, more research into the matter is needed. In Finland, however, emphasis has been placed on inclusive and equal ECE, where every child and adult, and their diversity, should be valued.
“Nationally, ECE is committed to these values of diversity, but we now seem to be moving in the wrong direction.”
The grounds for inclusion in education can also be found in the Act on Early Childhood Education and Care.
“In 2018, the Act was amended so that the aim of early childhood education is to “support the conditions for the child’s learning and promote lifelong learning and the implementation of equality in education, in accordance with the principles of inclusion”.
Competent staff plays a key role
While ECE in its early days was seen as a place for children to spend time while their parents were at work, today’s ECE is seen both as part of the public educational path, and as a right of the child.
“It is by no means irrelevant how children spend their days in ECE and what kind of support is offered to them. We have studied, for example, the social and emotional skills and difficulties of 18-month-old children, and how permanent these features are.”
According to the results, the emotional challenges of young children are very persistent until later in life, if they are not addressed in due time.
“Unfortunately, our service system is not able to adequately respond to the social and emotional challenges of young children. Therefore, it is often the responsibility of competent ECE staff to notice these problems and seek timely support.”
The principle of unified ECE is being somewhat shattered as neoliberal thinking is taking the field over.
Teacher training should be developed, too
According to Pihlaja, inclusive thinking is based on the implementation of equal values and the elimination of competitiveness and efficiency.
“Consequently, our teacher training departments should also develop their education so that all future teachers internalise the values of inclusion, the sense of community associated with inclusive activities, and the importance of inclusion already during their studies.”
This means, in concrete terms, that the training of both class, subject and ECE teachers would include more themes related to inclusion and special education.
“This would make all teachers better prepared to encounter and support all kinds of learners in the future.”
- Professor of Educational Science, especially Early Childhood Education and Care, University of Eastern Finland, 1 November 2022 –
- Doctor of Education, 2004, University of Turku,
- Licentiate of Education, 2001, University of Turku
- Master of Education, 1990, University of Oulu,
- Special Needs Teacher, 1986, University of Jyväskylä
- University Lecturer 2020–2022, University of Helsinki
- University Lecturer/University Researcher, 2001–2020, University of Turku, Department of Education
- Title of Docent in Special Education, especially in Inclusive Education, University of Turku, 2021, Department of Education
- Title of Docent in Early Childhood Education and Care, University of Helsinki, 2010, Department of Education
Photos of Päivi Pihlaja: