Provision of Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) services was put firmly on EU and national-level agendas in May 2019 when EU ministers adopted a Council recommendation outlining early childhood education objectives.
Children's access to education and care from a young age is vital.Share on Twitter
Children's access to education and care from a young age is vital as it has been shown to have a positive impact on their development, improves their education and work outcomes and is key to breaking the cycle of disadvantage. Children who attended a pre-school for at least two years perform better at age 15, on average, compared with others.
A new RAND Europe report, Recent Trends in Child and Family Policy in the EU, developed as part of the European Platform for Investing in Children, examined key developments in ECEC policy and practices across Europe as part of a broader update on changes in child and family policy.
Compared with 2008 data, researchers found that ECEC participation rates in 2017 had increased in most member states. However, just 85 per cent of children aged three and above across EU had access to ECEC services in 2017, short of the agreed Barcelona target of 90 per cent. Agreed during the Barcelona Summit in 2002, these targets aim to ensure that at least 33 per cent of children under age three and at least 90 per cent of children between age four and mandatory school starting age would have access to formal ECEC services by 2010. The Barcelona target for the older age group was still not met in 2017 in 15 EU countries.
Building on the good progress in increasing ECEC participation rates, member states are continuing to invest heavily in expanding the number of ECEC places, to further increase accessibility. The Austrian government, for example, is investing €552.5 million to expand childcare services from 2018 to 2021.
Several member states have also sought to improve ECEC provision by developing knowledge-sharing platforms that offer a central information point to help parents find information about ECEC establishments and enroll children into these services. In Denmark, the Ministry of Education's website provides parents with information (e.g. about staffing, languages, etc.) on two thirds of the country's day care centres.
Various member states have also committed to increasing the affordability of ECEC by reducing or entirely abolishing ECEC fees for some groups of vulnerable parents. In Germany the introduction of the Good Daycare Facilities Act (January 2019) led to the reduction of fees for low-income parents and abolition of fees altogether for certain parents.
However, simply increasing the accessibility of ECEC services has a limited effect on child outcomes if no attention is given to the quality of the services. The available evidence is clear that the positive link between ECEC and educational and employment outcomes depends heavily on the quality of the ECEC provision. In this respect, member states are putting increasing efforts into developing high quality ECEC services. The aforementioned Good Daycare Facilities Act in Germany has allocated €5.5 billion towards improving the ECEC quality between 2019 and 2022.
Some countries are improving the quality by ensuring ECEC professionals are better qualified, such as the introduction of new bachelor programmes in Austrian universities to qualify preschool and nursery educators to lead their own ECEC centres. Several other member states have focused on teaching approaches, for instance, the introduction of a multilingual education programme in Luxembourg preschools in 2017.
Progress has been made and the focus on quality is welcome, but the end is not in sight in terms of providing for those children who need it. Large differences in access to those services and the quality of child care exist between countries. Bridging this gap would require more efforts at the EU and national levels to guarantee that each child has access to services that will have lasting effects on their development.
Barbara Janta is a senior analyst in the Home Affairs and Social Policies research group at RAND Europe. She is involved in research for the European Platform for Investing in Children (EPIC). Carlijn Straathof was an intern at RAND Europe and a graduate student at the Hertie School of Governance. In collaboration with RAND Europe, she contributed to research for EPIC.
Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.