European mothers and fathers increasingly rely on public childcare to be able to reconcile their professional and family lives. After centuries of childcare being a family affair, the care of young children is therefore increasingly evolving into an out-of-home activity organised by governments and private enterprise. A European Commission seminar examined this shift, and how best to guarantee the welfare of children, while promoting employment for parents.
The event furthermore looked at early childhood education and care systems across Europe and the impact of institutional childcare on children’s development. Held on 25 June 2010 in Brussels, it brought together representatives of ministries of EU countries, and academic observers.
During the first part of the seminar Dr Mária Herczog, from theNational Institute of Family and Social Policy in Hungary, highlighted the potential benefits of collective childcare for young children. Dr Herczog is also a member of the European Economic and Social Committee and the President of Eurochild.
Dr Herczog stressed that consistently high quality of care and education in the earliest years of children''s lives is vital both for their well-being and future learning and development. “While the role of parents is essential, the care of qualified professionals in the early years is very important”, she explained. “Research shows that in the long run, it is beneficial for children to spend time with well-trained professionals and with other children”.
She added that access to childcare facilities is even more important for children from vulnerable and socially excluded households. “Evidence shows that even if the children from poor and socially excluded families are placed into childcare that is not of exceptional quality, they still achieve better later on in life than those who are cared for at home”, explained Dr Herczog.
She further stressed that if the child is not granted a place in a childcare facility, then their parent(s) have more limited employment opportunities and the family is at an increased risk of poverty and social exclusion. Intervening after a school dropout is simply too late to make a difference for many children. Investing in the first three years of a child’s life has significant long-term benefits in terms of their overall life perspective, engagement in criminal activity, substance abuse and their own parenting skills, she said.
Dr Herczog reminded that there is a very strong commitment on behalf of the EU to increase the provision of childcare not only because this is in the interest of the child, but also because women are increasingly needed on the labour market. Ensuring suitable childcare provision is also an essential step towards equal opportunities in employment between women and men.
In 2002, at the Barcelona Summit, European governments agreed to set the targets of providingchildcare by 2010 to at least 90% of children between 3 years old and the mandatory school age and at least 33% of children under 3 years of age. However, even if most European governments invest public resources in early childhood services, only 5 out of 27 EU countries have reached the Barcelona targets for childcare provision for both age groups. There also strong regional disparities within the countries themselves.
Dr Herczog warned that the potential benefits of out-of-home childcare could be lost and social inequalities deepened if governments of EU member states do not guarantee high quality early years care and education for all, especially the most disadvantaged.
She further emphasised that poor quality childcare at a young age may harm a child’s development. The poorest families often cannot afford high quality childcare meaning that children born into these families face the double disadvantage of poverty and substandard care.
The second part of the event was devoted to a discussion on the level and quality of provision of childcare across the EU. Most country representatives reported a severe lack and high cost of childcare places. They stressed the difficulties their governments are facing in financing more childcare places, especially as a consequence of the current financial crisis. Some commented that many unemployed mothers say they would work if they could rely on affordable, high quality childcare. They also reported insufficient involvement of fathers in the upbringing of small children and the lack of male carers. In EU countries, childcare workers are almost exclusively women. Their work suffers from low prestige, lack of recognition and is poorly paid.
The discussion also revealed very different approaches to early education and care due to a variety of cultural and social reasons. In some EU countries, early childhood services are as well established and well funded as the education of older children. In others, services are often muddled in purpose, uneven in access, patchy in quality and lacking in systematic monitoring of access, quality, child-to-staff ratios or staff training and qualifications.
Also, it was stressed that from the point of view of the best interests of the child, the situation in many EU countries leaves room for improvement. As such, it deserves closer monitoring and a more focused debate among political leaders, professional groups, the media and the public.
Participants agreed that high quality childcare provision is dependent on the professionals who work within it. Well-qualified, knowledgeable and skilled staff need to have access to continuing professional development. They agreed that in order to raise the professional status of carers, policies are needed to support and encourage increased levels of qualification, high quality professional development and increased pay based on national pay scales.
The participants also called for better support for informing parents about children''s development and learning, and advice on how to play an active role in their children''s education, in particular through informal home learning activities. Parents need greater guidance and support about locally available childcare, nursery and school provision, and about recognising quality in these services.
In conclusion, policies for childcare and early education must focus as much on the needs and interests of children as on their parents. This means investing fully in children''s immediate needs and also equipping them to live fulfilling lives in the future.