Good education begins in daycare. But they are often understaffed. A situation report before the lockdown – and what should happen afterwards.
When Paul, Lutz, Jule, Marie and Lenny sit at the breakfast table, it is still twilight outside. The two-year-olds, who are actually called differently, grumble on their cheese sandwiches. They seem tired, their eyes are small, none of the children is talking. Educator Marianne Walther fills her mugs with warm herbal tea, while her colleague makes Jule a second bread.
There is no sign of the nationwide shortage of staff in German day-care centers in the “Torgauer Strasse” crèche in Berlin-Hellersdorf this December morning – not yet. A few minutes later, Marianne Walther has to pick up two children at the entrance because the parents are no longer allowed to enter the building due to the pandemic.
At the same time, Paul urgently needs help from Walther’s colleague in the toilet. The two-year-olds in the group room are on their own. Fortunately, nothing happens, none of the unsupervised children choke, cry, or fall from their stools.
There is a system in relying on everything going well: nationwide in 2019 there were more than 100,000 educators who, according to calculations by the Bertelsmann Foundation, would be needed to achieve the foundation’s recommended childcare ratio of 1: 3 for children under three and a maximum of 1: 7.5 for kindergarten children.
In fact, the national average childcare ratio was 1: 4.2 for crèche children and 1: 8.9 for kindergarten children. Quarantine times, an increased level of illness and care obligations on the part of the educators have led to the situation worsening in recent months.
Concern for safety
Before the pandemic, the recommended personnel key was a guideline to create a supportive environment, but now the Hellersdorf educator Marianne Walther is simply concerned about the safety of the children. “One to two year olds actually have to be supervised continuously,” says Walther, who has been working as an educator for 37 years. But the staff is not enough for that. The 56-year-old sees no other option than to work overtime. “I can’t go home when I know that my colleague would be alone at pick-up time,” she says.
Even beyond the pick-up times, the situation in her crib before the second lockdown had come to a head. In order to be able to maintain the usual care hours, educators often jump in to neighboring groups. “The children suffer a lot from this,” says Walther. “Especially for the very young, it is difficult to get involved with a different teacher all the time.”
The staff shortage has also left its mark on the educators – and not just since the pandemic. According to an OECD survey from 2020, every third skilled worker in Germany suffers from stress because colleagues are absent; one in four is considering giving up their job for health reasons. According to a study by the Bertelsmann Foundation, it is particularly hard for those affected not to be able to meet the expectations of their own work because of the lack of staff. Many educators observe in themselves that they have less empathy for the children, no longer respond to their emotional needs or appear authoritarian.
“It is an additional psychological burden when people without sufficient qualifications come to the facility,” says Kathrin Bock-Famulla, who heads the early childhood education department at the Bertelsmann Foundation. In addition, the pay is bad. Many leave day-care centers long before they retire.
For some educators, the new lockdown since December may have come just at the right time. The daycare centers in seven federal states are currently closed and only offer emergency care. In the other federal states, regular operation is restricted differently, for example by reduced childcare times or places. Parents are encouraged to look after their children at home if possible.
When is education fair?
But what could provide short-term relief for educators is now pushing families to their limits. “I am convinced that the daycare center is making every effort,” said Milena Leszkowicz when it was still open regularly. She is the mother of five year old Milo and one year old Pela. “Still, it’s really tough right now.” She works full-time in a start-up. About her dealings with jobs and children in the pandemic, she says: “You only do both things half and do not do the children justice.”
At home, Milo and Pela speak Polish and Hebrew. “It was important to me that Pela comes to daycare for her first birthday so that she can learn German there,” says her mother. “That has now been postponed” – because her daycare had to close after the first week of getting used to it.
Language promotion is only one aspect of what makes an education system fair, so that the mother tongue or social background does not decide on educational success. It is also about giving the children emotional stability if this is not available at home, or supporting them in their development when parents cannot afford it. Reading aloud is also part of it, says Katrin Gramckow, director of the Silberstein day care center in Berlin-Neukölln. But they are far from cozy reading rounds in the Neukölln Kita in December.
Daycare centers remain closed
Kindergartens are to remain closed until February 15, 2021. This emerges from a draft resolution for the corona summit that the taz has received. According to the paper, it should remain with emergency care until then. As soon as the 7-day incidence has fallen below 50, daycare centers should open again regularly, according to the draft.
The federal states implement the corona measures differently. Daycare centers are currently closed in seven countries; only emergency care is offered there. In the nine other countries, daycare centers are open, but with the appeal that the children – if possible – be looked after at home.
Due to the pandemic, the educators are only allowed to work in one group. Sometimes the shortage of staff is so great that children have to be looked after alternately: half of the group on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, the other half on Tuesdays and Thursdays. “Children who are not supported at home suffer most from these measures,” says Gramckow.
If you ask those affected what would improve their situation, Walther from Hellersdorf demands more staff. “With a good supervision ratio, a lot of dissatisfaction, psychological stress and leaving the system could be avoided,” says educational scientist Bock-Famulla. She also sees a need for professionalization in the federal and state ministries, which have failed over the years to forecast the need for staff in daycare centers.
Kita manager Gramckow thinks that more appreciation in the form of a higher salary would also help: “Education begins with looking after the children in kindergarten, so educators should earn as much as teachers”.
A lot of stress, little money
The money is not only missing to hire more staff and pay better, but also during the training: Many people who are interested in the job are likely to be deterred by the fact that there is often no remuneration for this and that sometimes even school fees have to be paid . The federal government made funds available for 2,500 remunerated training positions from the 2019/20 training year onwards with the “Educators’ Skilled Workers Offensive”. Some countries gave money for more places. The majority of the trainees remain unpaid.
In addition, the federal government is providing 5.5 billion euros for daycare centers for the years 2020 to 2022 as part of the “Gute-KiTa-Gesetz”. When using the funds, the federal government gives the federal states a great deal of freedom: federal states can choose where to invest from ten fields of activity, such as improving the supervision code, practical support for specialists or language training.
“This means that countries like Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania put the federal funds almost entirely into exemption from contributions, while the personnel key in daycare centers remains extremely poor,” says Bock-Famulla. According to the “Education and Science” union, the money is not enough anyway: instead of the 5.5 billion for four years, 10 billion are needed annually to improve working conditions and make the job more attractive.
Marianne Walther does not let her children know how many hours of overtime she has worked in the past few weeks. She smiles continuously while playing and remains patient when the sixth mug of tea spills onto the floor. “That’s not bad, everything’s fine,” she says to Paul in a soft voice and wipes up the tea.