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Conceptualizing the Professional Role in Early Childhood Centers: Emerging Profiles in Four European Countries

Pamela Oberhuemer
Staatsinstitut für Frühpädagogik (IFP)


Drawing on data from a recent cross-national study, this paper looks first at how European Union countries—through the framing mechanisms of training and provision—conceptualize the role of early childhood professionals. Four broad categories are delineated. These different role typologies raise questions related to the concept of professionalism. Professional knowledge and representations of early childhood professionals appear to be linked to the particular sociocultural discourse used to define and evaluate these concepts. Some recent contextual changes in four countries—Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and England/United Kingdom—are outlined that are considered potentially to be changing the structure and content of professional activities. Finally, key dimensions of an emergent role profile are described along with some challenges and opportunities that this profile may bring, both for the profession and for public perceptions of early years education and care.

Professional Role Typologies in Selected European Union Countries

Who counts as an early childhood professional? Based on data from a recent cross-national study in the 15 European Union countries (Oberhuemer & Ulich, 1997), a categorization system has been developed to describe the overall role profiles of the practitioners with group responsibility in the main form of publicly funded early childhood provision in each country. Four broad categories emerge (Table 1).

Table 1
Professional Role Typologies—European Union Countries
Role Typology Focus of Training Selected Countries
Early childhood pedagogue Children from birth to compulsory school age Finland (lastentarhanopettaja)

Sweden (förskollörare)

Spain (maestro de EGB especialista en educación infantil)

Preschool specialist The two or three years preceding school entry Belgium (institutrice/instituteur de maternelle/kleuterleid(st)ter)

Greece (nipiagogos)

Luxembourg (instituteur/Institutrice de l'éducation préscolaire)

Teacher Nursery and primary education
(age range 3 – 11/12)
France (professeur des écoles)

Ireland (national teacher)

Netherlands (leraar basisonderwijs)

Social pedagogue Various work fields including early childhood education Denmark (paedagog) (age range 0-99)

Germany (Erzieherin/Erzieher) (age range 0-14-27)

Luxembourg (éducateur/éducatrice) (for work with all ages outside the education system)

As we can see from Table 1, training is conceptualized for different categories of professional:

Issues of Professionalism

These different role typologies reflect different cultural notions of what it means to be an early childhood professional. Behind these various profiles are varied histories and varying ideas about how societies view the role of early childhood institutions and the people who work in them. These views in turn shape the images that early childhood professionals have of themselves. Teachers or preschool specialists rooted in public education systems with a prescribed framework of accountability are more likely to perceive their work as predominantly child oriented and educational, whereas the early childhood pedagogues and the workers with a broader based, sociopedagogical training are more likely to view their profession in a wider context—child oriented, but also family and community oriented. These are issues around the concept of professionalism.The different role typologies would seem to suggest that what counts as professional knowledge or as professional action is a matter of interpretation, depending on the particular cultural discourse used to define and evaluate these concepts.

In the field of mainstream schooling, teacher professionalism is currently a much-discussed issue. In a wide-ranging analysis of studies in various national contexts, Hargreaves and Goodson (1996) come to the following conclusion: "What it means to be professional, to show professionalism or to pursue professionalisation is not universally agreed or understood" (p. 4). This is certainly the case in the traditionally female-dominated occupational field of noncompulsory early childhood education and care (see, for example, Finkelstein, 1988; Ebert, 1996; Tallberg Broman, 1997; Penn & McQuail, 1997; Colberg-Schrader & Krug, 1999; Owen, Cameron, & Moss, 1999).

A further complication lies in the fact that the main knowledge base that has long informed professional action in early childhood institutions—developmental psychology—has been challenged in recent years as the dominant discourse in the field (Dahlberg, Moss, & Pence, 1999). It has been argued that the content of most training courses concerning the parameters of socialization, growth, learning, and teaching is based on predominantly Western scientific and pedagogical traditions. Cultural diversity and cultural politics even today remain under-addressed issues—not only in training, but also in policy and research.

While professionalism is an unclear and a contested concept, it is nevertheless generally agreed that it is linked to "quality of action" within a specific occupational field. It would therefore seem useful to examine some of the present challenges for early childhood professionals that are transforming the structure and content of professional activities.

Change Mechanisms Affecting the Practitioner Role

In a subsequent study, I have started looking more closely at the practitioner role in four countries: Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and England. During the preliminary phase of the project, besides interviewing researchers, administrators, and practitioners in these countries, I have been reviewing data on recent changes in legislation, policy, and steering systems. In most cases, decentralization and local government reform have been taking place in the context of restrained public spending and a climate of raised expectations concerning accountability for outcomes.


In Germany, 1990—the year of unification—marked the merging of a socialist state system of extensive child care into a more market-oriented and less-subsidized western German approach towards publicly funded services. In the same year, a new Child and Youth Services Act came into force, and despite the common task of adaptation to this new legislation, the divergent starting points in the eastern and western parts of the country have precipitated two distinctly different lines of development.

In the western part of Germany, the focus has been on the expansion of provision in order to meet a pledge in the Child and Youth Services Act to introduce legal entitlement to a kindergarten place for every child from the age of 3 years. This goal has been more or less reached in quantitative terms. However, the quality of the places offered is still a matter for debate. Both dimensions have been affecting the work of practitioners in kindergartens. On the one hand, the expansion drive—in a climate of economic constraint—has left center staff in many regions facing cuts in the standards of their working conditions. On the other hand, expectations are growing concerning the pivotal role of practitioners in the development of high-quality services (Oberhuemer & Colberg-Schrader, 1999).

The picture in the eastern Länder looks quite different. Here the major issue over the past decade has been one of reducing services within a context of a sharp fall in the birthrate, a high rise in unemployment, particularly among women, and a different overall policy of child care. This changed policy framework in 1990 included the move from a centralized to a decentralized (federal) system, from services provided free of charge to fee-paying services, from administrative responsibility under Education (and high public esteem for kindergartens) to administration under the auspices of Social Affairs ministries, from a centrally regulated curriculum to a system of provider autonomy in curriculum matters, and so on. Cutbacks in services and the above-mentioned demographic changes have had predominantly negative effects on job availability, on staff employment chances and patterns, and on professional self-esteem. Also, it was the younger practitioners who were the first to lose their jobs. In the west, 23% of the staff in early childhood institutions are under 25, whereas in the east, this figure is only 4%. Conversely, only 15% are older than 45 in the west, whereas this age bracket accounts for 33% of the total staff employed in the east. This picture reflects the contrasting historical and political contexts of the profession before 1990 (Oberhuemer & Colberg-Schrader, 1999).

At the same time, the Child and Youth Services Act places the professional activities of educators in both the eastern and western Länder in broader parameters than before. Besides providing both education and care (Betreuung, Bildung, und Erziehung) and helping to "advance the development of the child into a responsible member of society," kindergartens and other day care facilities are required to educationally and organizationally adapt to the needs of the children's families; they are expected to include parents more in decision-making processes, to collaborate with other local agencies concerned with children and families, and to be involved in local planning policies.

These expectations come at a time of local government reforms aimed at streamlining administrative practices, of increasing marketization of services, and of accompanying moves towards deregulation. The providers of early childhood services—municipalities, churches, and other welfare organizations—face the pressure of increasing competition and accountability. Practitioners are clearly key links in the process of repositioning early childhood centers in the context of the current "quality debate."


In Denmark, a well-established decentralized system has given individual centers a considerable degree of autonomy. For some years now, parents have been guaranteed by law a central role in consultation and decision-making processes. Together with parents, the center staff draw up a plan of activity for the coming year. For the practitioners, this new collaborative framework entails making taken-for-granted routines explicit, it demands transparency with regard to educational goals and practices, and it involves reflecting on and evaluating the center program through the eyes of committed nonprofessionals. Interesting questions with regard to the system in Denmark are: What effects is this changed framework having on the practitioners' self-image and concept of professionalism? Where do they see the advantages, where the problems of this close collaboration?

In a recent review of changes in early childhood education in Denmark, Broström (1999) suggests that—following the results of an international comparative study on reading standards that showed Denmark to be performing lower than many other countries—signs of a "back to basics" movement are emerging in what has traditionally been a system that highly rated children's independence and self-initiated activities. Could this finding indicate that practitioners are changing their views? Or that they are taking a backseat in a discussion dominated by politicians, parents, and researchers? Questions such as these would appear to need some unraveling.


In Sweden, decentralization is a more recent phenomenon. The transition from a centrally regulated to a decentralized and for the first time partly privatized system of early childhood education and care in the 1990s means both more autonomy and more opportunities for individual initiative; it also holds more risks concerning the program that centers choose to follow. How do practitioners react if parents express wishes for a more formalized learning setting than traditional preschool culture in Sweden? How are differences of opinion as to what is "best for the child" negotiated? And how do women practitioners cope with the element of competitiveness that this new positioning in the local community involves? On the one hand, researchers are suggesting that early childhood institutions need to resituate themselves in the community as projects of social, educational, and cultural significance (Dahlberg, Moss, & Pence, 1999). On the other hand, Sweden has a rather weak tradition of parental involvement, and the idea of centers as neighborhood centers is a fairly recent one. At present, a quite different issue is the current focus of professional discussion. For the first time in Sweden, practitioners are required to work within a stated curriculum framework. This requirement is one of the outcomes of the restructuring of early childhood services in 1997, when they were placed for the first time under the responsibility of the Ministry of Education. The guidelines accompanying the curriculum expressly state that the center team is responsible for ensuring that work is directed towards the goals of the curriculum. Practitioners are therefore currently more concerned with strengthening the inner dynamics of the center's work.


Compared with Denmark or Sweden, England is a country that has a diverse and, up to now, fragmented system of early childhood services. Over the past two years or so, the New Labour government has introduced a series of policy initiatives aimed at improving this situation. One of these initiatives is the Early Years Development and Childcare Partnerships scheme, which hopes to produce more effective region-based planning and coordination among the great variety of service providers. How will these partnerships affect the practitioners in the various settings? How actively will they be involved in decision-making processes, and how will this involvement affect the way they see their own practice? Another initiative has been the introduction of so-called Early Excellence Centres. The institutions that have been chosen for this purpose are mostly "one-stop shops," that is, multifunctional centers linking educational provision for children with diverse services for families. A high-profile institution of this kind is the Pen Green Centre for Under 5's and Their Families, which is well known for its innovative forms of parental involvement, in particular father involvement, and for establishing links with all kinds of further and higher education institutions to ensure that the center is also a place for continuing learning, not only for staff, but also for parents (Whalley, 1997). How will these Early Excellence Centres influence role perceptions in other early childhood settings?

Emerging Role Profiles—Challenges and Chances for the Early Childhood Profession

Creating a stimulating learning environment in which all children are encouraged to explore their full potential has long been a stated task of early childhood institutions. However, the developments I have briefly outlined suggest that—at least in the four countries I have chosen for analysis—a conscious step is under way towards extending traditional educational perspectives. Drawing on my knowledge and experience of the situation in Germany (Oberhuemer & Colberg-Schrader, 1999), it would appear that a new profile of professional activities is emerging, one that may also be related to developments in Denmark, Sweden, and Britain. This profile includes the following dimensions:

Little is known about practitioners' views on this emerging role transformation, with its new emphasis on negotiating and networking competencies. For example, research in the United States on early childhood educators' belief systems suggests that a majority of practitioners believe that early childhood centers should serve children alone, rather than families (Burton-Maxwell & Gullo, 1995). Here—referring back to the different role typologies—we can conclude that this question will need to be addressed by initial and further training. A number of British universities have taken a welcome step forward by introducing Early Childhood Studies degrees that take a broader view of early childhood services than most teacher training courses (Calder, 1999). In Germany, initial training—even though it is broad based in principle—is certainly in need of reform to meet the requirements of such a role profile (AGJ, 1998). A recently endorsed 16-Länder agreement on the initial training of educators has provided the potential framework for developments in this direction.

These emerging shifts in the practitioner's role are taking place in a context and climate of economic rationalism. The accompanying pressure of accountability is likely to produce an ambivalent stance among practitioners. Some may view these developments as a chance to enhance and extend their professionalism. Others—possibly the majority—may perceive them as a threat. This delicate interplay of contradictory forces needs to be recognized and addressed by both research and policy. Given the necessary backing, early childhood practitioners can contribute actively, not only towards reconstructing their own professional role, but also towards raising the visibility and status of early childhood education and care in the public domain.


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Author Information

Pamela Oberhuemer works at the State Institute of Early Childhood Education and Research in Munich, Germany (Staatsinstitut für Frühpädagogik, IFP). Her research in recent years has focused on early childhood education and care policies and the training of personnel in the 15 European Union countries. She has also been involved in research and development in intercultural pedagogy for many years and has published widely (in German and English) in these areas. In the current OECD Thematic Review on Early Childhood Policies (http://www.oecd.org/els/ecec) in 12 countries, Pamela Oberhuemer was a member of the review team for the United States. She is currently contributing to a project consortium "National Quality Initiative," focusing on the development of self-evaluation materials for service providers in Germany. She is an editorial board member of two United Kingdom-based early childhood journals and is actively involved in committee work in both national and international professional organizations concerned with improving the quality of early childhood education and care.

Pamela Oberhuemer
Staatsinstitut für Frühpädagogik (IFP)
Prinzregentenstr. 24
D-80538 München, Germany
Email: pamela.oberhuemer@extern.lrz-muenchen.de