The number of children is decreasing, but there is still a shortage of nursery school places in local governments with growing populations

Toomas Mattson | 11/11/2015 | 11:00 AM

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TALLINN, 11 November 2015 – The National Audit Office finds that although the situation has improved considerably over the last years, there is still a big shortage of nursery school places in local governments with growing populations. Better cooperation with the private sector could resolve this problem and several local governments have already opted for this. The waiting list for nursery school places must be made visible to parents. The strict legal norms regarding the positions and numbers of employees with which nursery schools can be operated should also be eliminated.

Briefly about the audit:

  • There is a shortfall of more than 2,300 primary school places in 45 local governments in Estonia, half of which are located in Harju County and Tartu County. However, the situation is improving.
  • A big part of the shortfall could be resolved with better cooperation between local governments and the private sector, but the law is too inflexible.
  • It should be possible for parents to monitor waiting lists for nursery school places online, and a balance should be achieved between prevention of abuse and data protection.
  • The recession is over, but many nursery school teachers in Tallinn still work part-time.
  • The inflexible legal requirements for the composition and positions of nursery school staff should be eliminated and the head of the nursery school and the local government should be allowed to make flexible decisions about these, as is the case with municipal schools.

The number of children waiting for a place in a municipal child care institution as at the end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015 was ca 16,100. Many of them had not yet attained nursery school age and there were also a few children who had been offered a place, but it had not suited the family for one reason or another. The number of children to whom the local government had actually been unable to provide a nursery school place was 2,335 (i.e. ca 3% of the total number of children aged 1-6) and they divide between 45 local governments (ca 21% of all local governments). Half of these local governments are located in Harju County and Tartu County.

For example, the number of children left without places was ca 400 in Tallinn, ca 300 in Viimsi, ca 280 in Saue Municipality, ca 240 in Rae Municipality and ca 200 in Harku. The problem is mostly faced by local governments where the number of residents has grown rapidly. The local governments either failed to see the impact this would have, did not react adequately to the situation, or made a mistake in setting their priorities.

The National Audit Office carried out an in-depth audit of the problem of nursery school places in eight local governments (the city of Tallinn and the municipalities of Viimsi, Harku, Rae and Kuusalu (all in Harju County), and the city of Tartu and Tartu and Ülenurme municipalities (all in Tartu County). Information about all other local governments in Estonia was also analysed in the course of the audit to characterise the situation and problems on a broader scale. “Good access to nursery school places is important for the development of children, but in addition to this, it also creates opportunities for many families to improve their ability to cope economically,” said Airi Mikli, Director of Audit of the Local Governments Audit Department. “When children go to nursery school, their parents can return to the labour market and earn a living for the family.” The Director of Audit emphasised the opinion of the National Audit Office that instead of dwelling on the mistakes, it is more important to take a look at the attempts made to resolve the problem.

The analysis indicates that local governments have been active in recent years. New places have been created and the situation is improving. For example, the number of new places created from 2011-2013 was 1,620 in Tallinn, 520 in Rae Municipality and 251 in Tartu City. This trend will continue in the coming years and there are also plans to use EU grants to create ca 3,200 additional places. However, as the number of children in Estonia is starting to decrease, the demand for nursery school places will presumably start going down as well.

In seven of the eight audited local governments, the authorities had reduced the shortage of nursery school places in cooperation with the private sector by providing financial support to private child care institutions. Tartu City and Ülenurme Municipality support private child care institutions in such a manner that a parent’s expenses do not exceed the fees of the local government’s own child care institutions. This means that the expenses of the families are the same irrespective of whether the child has a place in a municipal nursery school or a private nursery school, which receives support from the local government’s budget. The other audited local governments did not have such agreements with all of the supported private nursery schools.

In the opinion of the National Audit Office, this indicates that cooperation with the public sector can offer good opportunities for providing nursery school places, reducing the investment expenditure of the public sector and finding the most suitable solutions for families. The problem here is the inflexibility of the law, because the provision of nursery school places for children aged 4-7 in cooperation with the private sector is not considered performance of the local government’s functions. A sizable private nursery school market has developed in Estonia, where customers can choose between different prices and quality. Similar to municipal nursery schools, private ones are also obliged to stick to the national curriculum, their premises and staff must comply with requirements, and so on. In principle, the quality of the service in a private nursery school cannot be lower than in a municipal one. It would be reasonable to use all of this in the performance of a local government’s functions.

The deficit of a public service also creates good conditions for corruption. Preferring someone unjustifiably when nursery school places are divided constitutes abuse of power. The bigger the shortfall of places, the bigger the risk of abuse. No uniform rules have been established for keeping account of children waiting for a place in a child care institution and local governments have the right to organise this at their own discretion.

The waiting list for a place in a child care institution was public in five of the eight auditees. Five of them also used a separate information system, the remaining three used an Excel spreadsheet. In Tallinn and Viimsi Municipality, a parent is notified when their child’s place in the waiting line changes, but they cannot check whether their child’s rise or unchanged position in the queue is logical in light of the rules. Distributing such limited information makes the waiting list less transparent for the parents than it would be if they had access to the entire list. There was no access to the waiting list at all in Tartu Municipality, as each child care institution keeps their own list.

It must be said that the balance of transparency and personal data protection in making the waiting list information accessible to parents is very important, but the National Audit Office believes that it’s achievable when access to the waiting lists is only guaranteed for parents who have applied for a place in the child care institution. As the practice of the audited local governments indicates, the achievement of a balance is still a long way off: they have either disclosed all of the data, very little of it, or nothing at all.

Local government do not check systematically whether the heads of child care institutions actually proceed from the waiting lists when they compile groups. Generally, children have been admitted exactly according to the waiting list, but there were cases in all local governments where some children had overtaken others in the list when groups were compiled, and there were some cases in Tallinn, Tartu City and Tartu Municipality where no explanations could be given as to why some children had been preferred to others. The National Audit Office was unable to inspect the compilation of all groups in Viimsi and Tallinn, as the waiting list information had not been preserved. The National Audit Office also considers it wrong that preferring the children of own employees to others was permitted in some local governments.

The number of children in groups in the audited local governments mostly complied with requirements, but this was not always the case. There were several institutions, mostly in Tallinn, where the number of children was bigger than permitted. The lists of child care institutions contained ca one thousand more children than the norm. The norm was usually exceeded in relation to part-time places. Part-time places had been created in 95% of the groups in Tallinn where the number of places exceeded the norm.

Complying with the norms established for the number of staff is the biggest problem for local governments. In general, compliance with the requirements set for the composition of staff was poor in 2014. Only 10 of the 183 audited institutions had employed enough people to fill all of the positions inspected during the audit. For example, all of the eight audited local governments had a shortage of speech therapists, seven did not have enough health workers, and six lacked physical education teachers and music teachers. Usually, several institutions struggled with these problems at the same time. Group teachers usually worked full-time, excl. Tallinn, where teachers in several institutions worked with a partial workload (e.g. 0.9). The workload of teachers was reduced during the last recession and although the crisis ended a long time ago, the workload has not been restored.

When the workloads were added up, the number of teachers usually complied with the norm. The flexibility of staff composition requirements was recently increased, but the question in the opinion of the National Audit Office is whether such requirements are necessary at all. A pre-school child care institution is an educational institution of the local government, just like a general education school, but the state treats them differently in terms of requirements. Uniform requirements also applied to the staff composition of general education schools, but they were eliminated on 1 September 2013. It was decided that guaranteeing the services and the quality of teaching stipulated by law is important, but it should be left to the managers and principals of schools to decide which positions and how many employees they need to achieve this. The National Audit Office finds this very reasonable. However, the current situation is such where local governments are trusted with the composition of staff in one case, but not in another. Making such a difference is neither justified nor reasonable.

The majority of the audit recommendations are addressed to the Minister of Education and Research. The National Audit Office recommends updating the Pre-school Child Care Institutions Act to promote cooperation between the public and private sectors in the provision of places in child care institutions. The same act should also stipulate the obligation to make the entire waiting list of a nursery school visible online in real time for parents who have applied for a place in the nursery school. The regulation of part-time places and the requirements established for child care institutions must also be reviewed. The Minister of Education and Research promised to consider compliance with the recommendations made by the National Audit Office.

Background

The National Audit Office audited the sufficiency of nursery school places in eight local governments, the manner in which account was kept of the children waiting for a place, and compliance with the requirements set for child care institutions. Information about all other local governments was also analysed in the course of the audit to characterise the situation and problems on a broader scale. The good accessibility of nursery school places is important for the development of children, but in addition to this, it also creates opportunities for many families to improve their ability to cope economically. When children go to nursery school, their parents can return to the labour market and earn a living for the family.

653 pre-school child care institutions operated in Estonia in the 2014/2015 study year, 594 (91%) of them were municipal ones. The rest are private nursery schools. There are 396 licenced child care service providers, 29 (7%) of which are municipal institutions. Seven local governments do not have a municipal pre-school child care institution: the municipalities of Alajõe, Kohtla (Ida-Viru County), Meeksi, Piirissaare (Tartu County), Ruhnu, Torgu (Saare County) and Palupera (Valga County).

The operating costs of municipal child care institutions in 2014 amounted to ca 207 million euros. The total costs of local governments have more than doubled over a period of ten years. The share of pre-school education in the operating costs of local governments in various areas has also increased. Ten years ago it was 15%, but as high as 20% in 2014.

Tallinn invested ca 2.8 million euros in 26 nursery schools from 2011-2013. Rae Municipality was the auditee that made the biggest investment in this period: approximately 8 million euros was spent on three nursery schools. Tartu City also invested a relatively large amount, spending ca 3.1 million euros on nine nursery schools.

Buildings have been taken on lease instead of buying new ones. For example, new nursery school complexes in Viimsi and Harku municipalities were built in cooperation with private companies and given on long-term lease to the local government. Tallinn and Tartu Municipality have taken removable building modules on lease to create new nursery schools (so-called module nursery schools) and located them next to existing nursery schools.

According to population forecasts, there will be a 7% decrease in the number of children aged 1-6 in Estonia by 2020 in comparison with 2014. By 2030, however, the number of children will have decreased by as much as 17-20%. All counties will be facing a decrease, but in Harju County and Tartu County it will be somewhat more modest than elsewhere. The audited local governments were the city of Tallinn and the municipalities of Viimsi, Harku, Rae and Kuusalu (all in Harju County), and the city of Tartu and Tartu and Ülenurme municipalities (all in Tartu County).

 

Toomas Mattson
Head of Communication Service, National Audit Office
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  • Posted: 11/11/2015 11:00 AM
  • Last Update: 11/13/2015 10:43 AM
  • Last Review: 11/13/2015 10:43 AM

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