Only eight European countries - Denmark, Germany, Estonia, Malta, Slovenia, Finland, Sweden and Norway - guarantee a legal right to Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) soon after a child's birth, normally after the end of paid maternity or parental leave. In all other countries, the gap between the end of maternity / parental leave and legal entitlement to ECEC is more than two years (see figure 1). This is one of the main findings of a new report published by the European Commission.
The report shows that the provision of quality ECEC is affected in many countries by lack of funding, staff shortages, employees with low qualifications and an absence of educational guidelines for teachers and other staff. This is a serious concern, as one in four children in Europe under the age of six is at risk of poverty or social exclusion and may need specific support for their educational needs.
"Supporting young children, particularly the most vulnerable ones living in poverty, should be an obligation," said Androulla Vassiliou, Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth. “Early childhood education and care is increasingly accessible but many EU Member States need to make significant improvements. Quality ECEC is an essential building block for economic and social fulfilment and mobility later in life.”
Other findings from the report, Key Data on Early Childhood Education and Care in Europe 2014:
- Affordability is the key factor for ensuring that all children have access to ECEC. Fees vary greatly across Europe and reductions are often provided for low-income families and those facing hardship. Fees for children under three are highest in Ireland, Luxembourg, the UK and Switzerland (countries where private provision dominates). Charges are lowest in Eastern European and Nordic countries. As most Eastern European countries do not offer a legal entitlement for ECEC places, demand often outweighs supply. In contrast, ECEC is much more accessible in Nordic countries.
- Good teaching and learning practices largely determine the quality of ECEC. Educational steering guidelines are essential for setting standards. However, these guidelines are restricted to ECEC provision for children aged three or above in around half of the countries surveyed (BEnl, BEde, BG, CZ, CY, FR, IT, LU, AT, PL, PT, SK, UK (Wales and N. Ireland), LI and CH. For children under 3 the emphasis tends to be on care rather than stimulating educational progress.
- In many countries the qualification requirements for staff working with the youngest children are lower than for those working with older children, where they normally need at least a bachelor level degree. In ten countries (BE, CZ, IT, CY, LU, PL, RO, UK, LI and CH), staff working with younger children are not required to have more than an upper secondary qualification. In two countries, there is no minimum level of qualification for working with younger children (Ireland and Slovakia).
The collection of this information is guided by policy developments at European level in the early childhood field. The European Commission is working with Member States to develop a strategy for provision of quality ECEC with recommendations based on five main pillars: access, governance and funding, evaluation and monitoring, workforce and curriculum.
The Commission will propose a framework document, together with the Eurydice report, at a conference in Athens today where European-wide ECEC policies will be discussed between policy-makers, major stakeholders including Eurochild and the European Parents Association (EPA) and international organisations.
The Eurydice report, Key Data on Early Childhood Education and Care 2014, combines statistical data from Eurostat and system-level information to describe the structure, organisation and funding of ECEC in Europe. It covers access to ECEC, governance, quality assurance, affordability, professionalism of staff, leadership, parental involvement, and measures to support disadvantaged children.
The report covers 32 European countries – all EU Member States except the Netherlands, plus Iceland, Turkey, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. National information sheets at the end of the report provide a concise overview of the key features of each country’s ECEC system.
Figure 1: Legal entitlement and/or compulsory ECEC, including starting age and weekly hours, 2012/13
Legal entitlement to ECEC refers to a statutory duty to secure publicly subsidised ECEC for all children living in a catchment area whose parents, regardless of their employment, socio-economic or family status, require a place for their child. Legal entitlement or compulsory ECEC that applies only to certain categories of learners (e.g. disadvantaged learners) is not considered.
Country specific notes
Bulgaria: Compulsory ECEC: 5-year-olds – 20 hours; 6-year-olds – 24 hours.
Germany: From August 2013, the legal entitlement to subsidised ECEC applies when a child is 12-months-old.
Croatia: From September 2014, one year of pre-school ECEC programme will be compulsory.
Malta: In April 2014, the entitlement to free ECEC was extended to all children of working/studying parents.
Hungary: compulsory ECEC 20 weekly hours.
Austria: Weekly hours of compulsory ECEC vary between Länder.
Poland: From September 2015, all 4 year olds will have a legal entitlement to ECEC.
Romania: From September 2014, all 5 year olds will have a legal entitlement to ECEC.
Finland: In November 2013, the government decided to introduce compulsory pre-primary education.
Sweden: 525 yearly hours were divided by a common length of school year (178 days) and then multiplied by 5 to reach a weekly figure.
United Kingdom: In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, in the most economically deprived areas, legal entitlement is extended to 2 year olds. In Scotland, the entitlement is extended for 2 year olds who are looked after or under a kinship care order. In England and Wales, children reach compulsory school age at the start of the school term following their fifth birthday. For autumn and spring born children, therefore, part of the reception year (classified as ISCED 0) is compulsory. In Scotland, 475 yearly hours were divided by 38 weeks, which is a common length of school year.
Switzerland: In 19 cantons (out of 26) pre-primary education is compulsory. Depending on the canton, compulsory pre-primary provision lasts one or two years. In those cantons where pre-primary education is not compulsory, children from the age of 4 or 5 are legally entitled to a publicly subsidised place.
Press release by the European Commission
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