Studying with child

"You can forget about discretion - or: clear, legal rules help everyone!

Marcel Schmitt - Representative of the day-care centres of the Studierendenwerk

With a total of 55 employees in three daycare centres in Landau, Ludwigshafen and Worms, Marcel Schmitt is the head of the second largest department of the Studierendenwerk. Up to 142 children are cared for in eight groups.

How was the year 2022, Mr. Schmitt?
It's nice to be able to start the review of the past financial year with something positive, and that's why I want to do it: I am absolutely thrilled and grateful about how the team of our three daycare centres in Landau, Ludwigshafen and Worms is mastering the increasingly difficult situation in the daycare sector: committed, creative and responsible. Despite the most adverse circumstances, we continue to develop and, for example, push ahead with digitalisation. Apart from that - and this should also be said here - it is nice that we are back to our everyday professional lives without a pandemic. How we have longed for this in recent years...

But that's the end of the positive part about 2022. Because - I have to be honest - the daycare system is crumbling, it's creaking and squeaking all over the place and the professional fatigue is clearly noticeable in my whole team. Enthusiasm, stamina, creative handling of exceptional professional situations and resilience are unfortunately finite factors. And as it appears to me, we are facing the breaking point. I hope that this everyday realisation, which I experience in exchange with my team, will finally be followed by real, everyday and sustainable political solutions to the problem.

More and more often I have conversations with colleagues who can't and don't want to do this anymore and who are facing ever greater burdens without seeing any professional perspectives or improvements. In these conversations I notice that the so important profession of educators is losing more and more esteem and perspectives.

The erosion has already begun and - you don't have to be a prophet to see this - it will get worse and worse if no quick and clear political countermeasures are taken.

What exactly are the points that cause these difficulties?
An example: You have several cases of illness among the day care centre staff and one or two children with increased care needs. At some point, the management of the day care centre has to decide at its own discretion when the conditions for smooth operation can no longer be guaranteed and has to close the day care centre group or, in the worst case, the whole day care centre. In the case of small day-care centres, this can happen quite quickly with the current staffing ratio. Probably the most important point in this context is the inadequate staffing ratio. The ratio is far too low and does not take into account sufficient staff availability, staff absences due to holidays and/or illness, and management duties.

The politicians are shirking their responsibility here, because there is no legally defined specialist-child ratio that regulates how many specialists have to be present to run a group or a day-care centre. Basically, you can run a large day care centre with one specialist and otherwise only unqualified staff at your own discretion. The only problem is that if something goes wrong, it is the nursery staff who are to blame. When staff members have to decide on the viability of childcare situations without political support, I advise my colleagues to be cautious rather than overestimate themselves. Recommendations from the state - which are then withdrawn again when asked - are simply no longer enough. We finally need regulations that are laid down in law.

What bothers you most about this?
I am particularly annoyed by the fact that more and more the impression is being created that the day-care centre system has to obey economic dimensions. But children are not products or goods, they are individuals. There is too little money in the day care system, too little professional incentive and - let me be honest - too little appreciation. And if the business glasses are really supposed to be the non-plus-ultra, then they should finally be put on the right way round. Obviously, it has still not been understood on the political side that every Euro more that goes into early childhood education saves a lot of money later on. So the equation works the other way round, as it is currently lived out in everyday professional life: more money in the Kitas and in the professionalisation of the team is a clear, obvious savings measure. But then please also professionalise with financial incentives, not through the great idealism of our staff.

In addition, it is increasingly expected that educators must now also be communication professionals who explain closures to affected parents. The regulations are so confusing and flexible that the professional discretion of the institution often seems arbitrary to the parents - and rightly so. If you ask the state about this, there is no consensus there either. We receive different statements and our favourite (note irony) is this one: "You have to decide that in practice".

And the issue of personnel continues to be a big construction site. We find too few staff for the desired requirements and are developing more and more from an early childhood education institution to a preservation institution. In this way, we are also postponing solvable early childhood problems to later institutions such as schools, where they can no longer be solved or can only be solved with difficulty. An educational disaster, and an economic disaster at that. In my opinion, this is what a lose-lose situation looks like.

How does that affect the team?
My team is telling me more and more often in individual conversations: We can't do it anymore! The increase in sick leave speaks the same language. The general conditions of the educators' posts do not promise any improvement. We are threatened with a massive brain drain, especially because issues like work-life balance, future prospects and benefits are becoming more and more important for committed staff in job interviews. To be honest, as a provider I now find it quite difficult to tell applicants why a job as an educator is attractive. Because, I want to make that quite clear here: Positive perspectives are currently lacking here.

Without my current daycare team, which has shown resilience and has always given the maximum even in times of crisis, the situation would probably look even worse. But I urgently warn against waiting until the stress erosion becomes an avalanche. The Kita system has not survived in the past years because the framework conditions of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate were the best, but because a great deal of commitment that goes beyond the working hours of the Kita was made to maintain the system!

To me it looks like this:
  • Fewer and fewer people will decide to train as educators if the career prospects remain the same.
  • More and more colleagues - who often work part-time - will decide to change jobs if the workload does not decrease.
  • More and more colleagues who are ready to go to the next level of professionalisation will realise that this is of no use to them at all in their career within the nursery, certainly not financially.
  • The absenteeism due to illness and thus also the closing times of the Kitas will increase.
I am also amazed to see time and time again that with my team, it is not even necessarily more money that is in the foreground, but actually rather the better, less stressful working conditions.

A stress test also for the "educational partnership" of parents and day care centre, isn't it?.
Definitely. I can understand the parents, their complaints too. Very well, in fact. But the resentment about the situation is in the wrong place. Despite the difficult situation, through joint parents' evenings and individual discussions, a great deal of cooperation and mutual support has developed between the parents and the day-care centres.

Decisions made at our "own discretion" (for example, in the case of closures by our staff) are accompanied by too much responsibility. I cannot therefore blame the kindergarten colleagues for a certain caution in closing groups or entire facilities. There is only one solution to the problem: a binding, legally regulated and adequately designed specialist-child ratio must finally be established, to which facilities can refer in a binding manner. Passing on the responsibility to our staff cannot and must not be the right solution. So far, upon request, there is only a recommendation on how to deal with the discretion. And even this was withdrawn by those responsible at the state when questioned in detail. When staff members have to decide on the viability of childcare situations without political support, I advise my colleagues to be cautious rather than overestimate themselves. And then the day-care centre is closed. Of course, this puts a strain on the educational partnership.

Quite a difficult working environment at the moment!?
A very nice one, but currently also a very difficult one, yes. Unfortunately, political decisions always miss the reality of life and work in the Kita system. For example:
The cleaning of day-care centres by third-party companies is no longer refinanced. They should please hire cleaning staff for the daycare centres. What sounds like a real improvement turns out to be unrealistic in everyday professional life, as the teachers have to take over cleaning tasks when the permanent cleaning staff is sick. As a rule, an external cleaning company does not drop out and can reorganise staff in case of illness.

The fact that the negotiations of the independent providers with the municipalities on the refinancing of day-care places have also failed does not make things any easier. The demand for a recalculation of the financial resources for independent providers - in terms of personnel and material costs - did not lead to any result. So the uncertainty, which also affects the unrest in the educator sector, remains and grows.

What are your forecasts for 2023 and beyond?
Due to the compensation of sick staff, the burden on existing staff continues to increase. This has been countered with a constant adjustment or revision of the deployment and staffing plans. However, this also has its limits. The problem is exacerbated by the shortage of skilled workers on the labour market, as well as by the fact that the new law on day care centres does not provide enough positions to compensate for holidays and illness in general.

Concrete wishes?
Yes, I would have them and they are:
  • Increase in the staffing ratio, oriented to the actual need. To this end, management activities must be completely exempted, irrespective of the size of the enterprise.
  • My personal goal is to successfully fill the vacant positions, to launch the digital parent app and to continuously improve our facility management.

I think investments are also necessary due to increased numbers of children and changes in childcare hours, and the indoor and outdoor spaces also need to be adapted to increased numbers of children through furniture and play equipment.
There is also talk of a significant increase in pay at the end of the year 23 when the collective agreement of the federal states follows the collective agreement of the TVöD. I can only cross my fingers that this will be the case.
My greatest wish, however, is that we finally get more time for the Kita as an educational institution, so that the pedagogical work can once again take centre stage and not the management of the shortage.

Your contact person for the area
Marcel Schmitt
Head of Kita Department
Xylanderstraße 17
76829 Landau
Tel.: +49 6341 9179 190