Understanding policy and practice to promote early childhood development in France

Nursery children playing with teacher in the classroom, photo by Teddy at rawpixel.com/Adobe Stock

Teddy at rawpixel.com/Adobe Stock

A range of formal childcare options are available in France, but provision and use are far from universal. Additionally, despite a growing emphasis on holistic early childhood development in the first three years, preschool priorities follow a different trajectory.

What is the issue?

This research forms part of a broader evaluation that RAND Europe carried out for the Early Childhood Development (ECD) Programme funded by Porticus in France. The Programme ran from September 2017 to December 2021. Its objective was to contribute to an improvement of the quality of ECD services in France to provide children aged zero to six—particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds—with better learning environments in which they can develop their social and emotional skills.

RAND Europe carried out an evaluation to understand how the ECD Programme works, the extent to which the programmatic approach adds value, and which areas (if any) could benefit from improvement. As part of this, RAND Europe sought to develop an overview of the key policies and practices in France relating to ECD and to assess how this landscape evolved over the course of the Programme.

How did we help?

This report provides a state-of-play for holistic early years education and care in the French context. A UNESCO report in 2014 noted that recognising development as ‘holistic’ means understanding that the physical, cognitive, socio-emotional and language domains of development ‘must all work together to enable progress through each step.’ Our report places a particular focus on the socio-emotional domain and the promotion of social mobility.

The research team provides an overview of developments in government support over the course of the 2017–2022 Macron presidency, as well as their drawbacks and limitations. The report also considers broader trends across French society and early years practice over this period to assess the extent to which practice is evolving and identify the key challenges that remain. Finally, in recognition of the importance of evidence-based policy, this report examines relevant gaps in research.

The objective of this report is to provide funders, decision makers and other actors who are new to the early years space with an introduction to recent developments in policy and practice and to areas where further action is still needed to support meaningful change.

This research was informed by a series of targeted document reviews and semi-structured interviews carried out in December 2018, May–June 2020 and November–December 2021. The targeted document reviews included official government releases and reports, charity and other non-governmental organisations’ research reports, and news articles. In addition, interviews were carried out with 22 relevant stakeholders – including policy officials, early years practitioners, funders, local authority representatives and academics.

What did we find?

  • A range of formal childcare options are available in France, but provision and use are far from universal.
  • Despite government measures, disadvantaged families still face a number of barriers to formal childcare.
  • Three key government initiatives have been introduced in recent years, but funding remains limited.
  • There is growing emphasis on holistic early childhood development in the first three years, but preschool priorities remain on a different trajectory.
  • Fragmented governance creates significant challenges for transforming the system.
  • A positive shift appears to be underway in relation to research and evaluation, but important gaps and barriers remain.