The Nursery World early years trip to Finland and Sweden drew travellers from nurseries, schools, pre-schools and childminding all over the UK, and even from Havana in Cuba!
Our first full day was spent visiting kindergartens taking children from around 10 months to six years old. One group went to Pelimanni, in an area of Helsinki with relatively high numbers of immigrant families - 30 languages were spoken, including Russian, Estonian and several African languages. The kindergarten took 160 children and had spacious premises, including a swimming pool and a gymnasium with a climbing wall.
The other group went to nearby Takatasku, which offered 24-hour care to cater for shift-working parents.
At least a third of early years staff in a Finnish setting should be degree level kindergarten teachers, with the rest 'nurses', who have a three-year training. Pelimanni's head said she was struggling to recruit enough teachers, however, as they are paid less than primary and secondary teachers. Ratios are 1:4 until children are three, and 1:7 from three to six.
Every child has a right to an early childhood education, with parents paying from nothing up to a maximum of 283 euros a month. Parents can also be paid up to 700-plus euros a month if they stay at home, until their youngest child is three.
In the afternoon, we met with a senior official from Helsinki's early education and childcare department, who told us more about the country's services.
The following day, the group enjoyed a visit to pre-school services in Espoo, a city in the municipality of Helsinki. The pre-school year is for six-year-old children and is not compulsory, though it is taken up by nearly everyone. Pre-school classes can be located with kindergartens, or at schools.
The pre-school we visited had classes at both the kindergarten and the school, all located on the same 'campus' as the secondary school, great for transitions.
We observed a an active maths lesson for a small group of 10 children, with one teacher and one assistant, very much focusing on the numbers one to ten even though these were six-year-olds. The pre-school element was just for 8.30am to 12.30pm, with 'daycare' activities that were much more playful in operation for the rest of the day.
Then it was off to the Haltia Nature School, dedicated to outdoor activities for school groups. We went off into the forest with our leaders for the 'Animal Olympics' programme.
On to Stockholm
The following day we sailed to the island fortress of Suomenlinna, before boarding the Viking Line ferry for Stockholm on an overnight cruise. Straight off the ship, we went to the National Agency of Education, Skolverket, for a talk from the director of education.
As in Finland, children from one to five are in 'daycare', followed by a pre-school year at age six before 'compulsory school'. Most oneto five-year-olds attend pre-schools, while 3-5 per cent are in family daycare. A small proportion are in 'open pre-school' attended by parents and children for around three hours a day, and used by a lot of immigrant families.
Take-up of daycare is 46.1 per cent at the age of one, leaping up to 86.2 per cent at two, and 93 per cent by five. A maximum fee system operates, which is 3 per cent of gross income for one child. A small proportion of pre-schools are independent, run by parents or big companies, but the state still funds attendance.
There is an ambition for all staff in pre-schools to be trained early years teachers, and this is currently at around 54 per cent, but again with a shortage of people wanting to train.
Next, we continued to the Malmgarden pre-school, one of a group of five pre-schools catering for 325 children. Here we saw the Lpfo pre-school curriculum in action. The cornerstones of Lpfo are social competence, managing everyday reality, and fundamental values, with the teacher's responsibility prime, and no measuring of children or goals.
The head and pedagogical leader were very welcoming and impressive - the work is hard, with staff starting at 6.30am and working 40 hours a week with a half-hour break each day.
The following day we went to a Montessori school, Vasastans. Montessori sessions working with the 'prepared environment' of Montessori materials were part of the school day.
Our group was left with much to think about and ideas to take home. The funding of early years is huge compared to the UK, but the Nordic systems are not without their problems, especially in recruiting highly-qualified staff.
One surprising thing was that the outdoor areas of all the settings we visited seemed limited - gritty surfaces with large pieces of fixed equipment, but no sense of an outdoor classroom with the sensory gardens, vegetable plots and mud kitchens that many UK nurseries now have.
Travel broadens the mind, however, and the chance to see another country's system in action is not to be missed.
- The next Master Travel tour in association with Nursery World is to Denmark and Norway from 15-20 February 2015; our third visit to China is from 28 March to 11 April. See www.mastertravel.co.uk/tours/professional-study-tours/educational-tours.