Admission requirements and choice of ECEC setting
The early childhood education and care (ECEC) system in Iceland is based on a single-setting model (i.e. same ECEC setting for children of different ages). Depending on availability in the ECEC setting, children can attend preschool from around the age of 1 year to the time they start compulsory school in the year they turn 6 years old. In practice, most children are offered a place in a public ECEC setting when they are aged 18–26 months, following the submission of an application by the parents and guardians to the municipality where they live. As paid parental leave of absence from work has a duration of almost 1 year, not many parents and guardians need ECEC before the age of 12 months. During the time before the child is normally offered a place in an ECEC setting and after the parental leave has finished, most parents and guardians use home-based settings. As ECEC is the responsibility of the municipality, the parents and guardians can normally apply to an ECEC setting close to their homes, although they might not immediately be offered a place in the setting closest to their home but rather within the municipality. In the case of capacity constraints, the place can be assigned in a setting other than the one that the parents and guardians applied for. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are often given priority in admittance. Children with special needs have the same right as other children to attend municipal ECEC settings and programmes are to be adapted to their abilities and needs. The parents and guardians can also apply for a place in a private ECEC setting.
Group size and child/staff ratios
The maximum number of children per adult is not regulated by law. Instead, the head teacher of each ECEC setting together with the school board of the local municipality are to make the decision about the number of children per group, based on the incoming age group and the individual needs of the children. This allows for flexibility of group size depending on need, but in most ECEC centres, as per figures from Statistics Iceland from 2019, the ratio is, on average, under 5:1 (children per contact staff member) and there are somewhat fewer children in younger groups. ECEC centres, although single settings for all ages, are normally divided into age groups of children aged 0–2 years and 3–4 years, with a special preschool group of children aged 5–6 years during the time prior to starting school in the year they turn 6 years old.
The ECEC personnel responsible for children must have appropriate education or training. One in three staff members in ECEC centres must have a higher education degree. The minimum requirement for a preschool teacher (leikskólakennari) is a master’s degree (International Standard Classification of Education level 7). However, a shortage of qualified teachers in Iceland is a challenge.
Annual, weekly and daily organization
The annual schedule usually starts in August, as does the primary school year; however, the annual calendar and daily opening hours are locally decided as this is a municipal responsibility. The ECEC centres are closed during shorter and longer vacation periods such as Christmas, Easter and the summer holidays. Most ECEC units are closed for 3–5 weeks during the summer and for a few days over Christmas and Easter. Most ECEC settings also close for special preparation days (2–4 per year), which are used for the preparation and organisation of upcoming schoolwork.
There are no national regulations concerning weekly and daily timetables.
Most ordinary ECEC centres are open for at least 41 hours a week (Monday–Friday) and some of them for even longer. Children may attend part time or full time. Full-time attendance is 40 hours or more per week; however, how much time the parents and guardians choose to use is optional. Normally, the preschools are open at 7.00 or 8.00 and close at 17.00 or 18.00.
In ECEC, healthy warm meals are provided at noon and cold meals (snacks) are provided at regular intervals. Mealtimes are an essential part of children’s well-being and most ECEC centres have their own kitchen and kitchen staff who provide home-made meals. Relaxation or sleep is also part of the school routine and playing outside plays an essential role in the Icelandic ECEC pedagogy.