The arguments for investing more public funds into the upbringing of very young children are overwhelming. Intervening during the early years, in particular in the case when children come from a disadvantaged background, can prevent a lot of social misery later on in a child’s life. Then problems can only be set right at a very high cost. This is because the brain continues developing till a child is around 5 years old. What you learn at the start of your life you will remember for the rest of your life. In particular early childhood education and care (ECEC) turns out to be very effective.
Moreover it is also crucial for gender equality. Affordable quality childcare makes it possible for both parents to take on a job and we know that paid work is the best cure against child poverty. Several studies show that childcare pays to a large extent for itself because the additional working mothers will pay more in taxes and social contributions.
We should also not forget that every child that does not manage to become a productive taxpaying citizen will in the end have to be supported by our welfare state and thus weaken it. This is something our ageing societies in Europe cannot afford. It is not surprising that the European countries that invest the most in their young children, like the Scandinavian, the Benelux and France, tend to have the highest fertility rates. Parents should of course be free to choose but when there is no affordable quality ECEC then there can obviously not be freedom of choice.
The early years (0−3) are crucial in a child’s development. There is a broad consensus that the experiences of very young children shape the foundations for their later life. Attendance of high-quality ECEC positively impacts all aspects of a child’s development. It enhances basic cognitive skills (literacy and numeracy) that facilitate further acquisition of specific skills related to language, general knowledge and mathematics.
As more and more children have no siblings or are raised in single parent families, access to ECEC gives them an opportunity to play with other children of their age and to develop their social skills. There is much evidence showing a substantial positive relationship between the quality of ECEC and children’s non-cognitive development such as pro-social behaviour, self-control and learning dispositions. These long-lasting effects of ECEC on socio-emotional development are less straightforward and under researched, perhaps because of the relative novelty of the research on non-cognitive development of children.
The famous OECD survey, Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), reveals that a two year part time participation (i.e. 4 mornings per week) in ECEC corresponds to one year of extra schooling at the age of 14. Quality ECEC is arguably the cheapest policy measure to reduce early school leaving because it can effectively compensate for the handicap of growing up in a disadvantaged family.
Already in 2002 the EU agreed on common so-called Barcelona targets for childcare capacity. The target for children under 3 is that there should be a place in a formal childcare facility for at least 33% of all children. The target for all children between 3 and the mandatory school age is more ambitious and was set at 90%. The average score for the EU member states in 2012 was 28% for the youngest group and 86% for the oldest. The biggest deficiencies are found for the youngest age group in the member states with the highest rates of child poverty.
In 2013 more than a quarter of all children in the EU member states were considered to be at risk of poverty and social inclusion. Poverty is defined as either growing up in a household that is living on an income below 60% of the median income or in a household that is materially deprived of at least 3 out of 9 things - ranging from not having more than one pair of shoes, not having a warm meal with meat or fish every second day, not having a week of holiday a year to being behind in paying rent and utility bills.
In this context the European Commission adopted in February 2013, as part of a larger Social Investment Package, a long awaited recommendation on “Investing in children: breaking the cycle of disadvantage”. Four months later this recommendation was unanimously approved by the Council which means that every member state has voluntarily taken on a moral obligation to implement its contents.
The recommendation is rights-based, starting from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The convention has been ratified by all member states. The recommendation also pleads for an integrated approach. Unfortunately some of the worst cases of child abuse happen because there is not enough coordination between the many specialised child protection services that are responsible for the well-being of a child at risk in a known troubled family.
The recommendation is built around a three pillar structure. Member states are urged to step up their investment in young children by making sure the following:
- Parents have access to resources - ideally in the form of paid work or family income support
- They have access to quality services such as early childhood education and care
- Children are allowed to participate in legal decisions which concern them (divorce) and in afterschool activities such as culture and sports
The implementation of the investing in children recommendation is monitored by the EU. During the annual policy cycle the European Commission discusses the socio-economic reform efforts with the member states. The cycle culminates in the adoption by the Council of the European Union (Council of ministers) of a number of Country Specific Recommendations (CSR).
In 2014 almost all member states received recommendations that touched on education and support measures for families and their children. The EU also helps with money. For the 2014-2020 programming period, 20 % of the European Social Fund or about €16 billion has been ring-fenced for projects in the area of social exclusion which also covers investment in children.
More information on the recommendation can be found at the European Platform for Investing in Children (EPIC) - see https://europa.eu/epic/news/index_en.htm. This is a website on Europa that contains a repository of evidence based practices in the area of child and family support. It also has a section with short up to date country reports on family policy for each of the member states.
The best time to plant a tree is always 20 years ago, but the second best time to plant one would be now!
Evolution of share of children at risk of poverty or social exclusion (0-17) between 2008 and 2013
Source: Eurostat (EU-SILC), EU27 for 2008. No 2013 data for IE. Not reliable for ES/ UK (due to break in series) they are classified as increase/stable based on latest available changes