Many family-friendly policies centre on providing early childhood education and care (ECEC) for children younger than compulsory school age. Up to now, however, much of the European debate on such services has been driven by the attempt to encourage female participation in the labour market. Targets have therefore tended to be based on quantity rather than quality.
As part of efforts to promote high quality services that are in the best interests of children, Eurochild, an international network of organisations and individuals working in and across Europe to improve the quality of life of children and young people, organised a seminar in Tallinn, Estonia on “Ensuring quality: the path for early years in Europe and the role of community-based services” on 30 September and 1 October 2010.
In setting the scene, Bronwen Cohen of Children in Scotland highlighted the difficulty of coordinating high quality ECEC services, as in most European countries responsibilities are divided among different ministries and departments. There is broad agreement that firstly, ECEC services can enhance children’s subsequent school performance and development only if they are of a high quality and secondly, that poor quality ECEC may do more harm than good, especially to children from poorer backgrounds (NESSE report, 2009:6). However, defining high quality ECEC, deciding on what should be measured, conducting cross-national and cross-cultural comparisons, agreeing on common indicators and finding the right balance between economic, pedagogical, social inclusion and rights interests is complex.
One approach to assessing community needs and quality of services was suggested by Margaret Kernan of International Child Development Initiatives, a non-profit organisation based in the Netherlands. Positive stakeholders - parents, children, teachers, NGOs and other actors with an interest in children’s wellbeing – would take a walking tour of a specific area with a view to assessing factors critical to good ECEC, such as risks, community engagement, the role of the municipality, etc. Much of the assessment would be subjective, but structured gathering of information could include scoring the different dimensions against lists of ‘positive factors’ that could or should be present. Analysis of the ‘positive’ scores for each dimension can be issued as score cards.
Community-based approaches would involve the ‘golden triangle’ of formal ECEC facilities combined with non-formal (provided by non-professionals but with some level of formal agreements) and informal (provided by family members and friends without such agreements) services. Such initiatives can be rated against dimensions such as child friendliness, connectedness, staffing and sustainability (reliance on external support or based on the community’s own resources).
The Early Years Organisation, introduced by Margaret Alton and Shirley Hawkes, follows a community-based approach to delivering early childhood care in Northern Ireland. The organisation provides advice and support to groups of parents who wish to set up playgroups and other childcare facilities. Typically they help with fund raising and recruitment activities and can help in making the link between these informal groups and non-formal and formal serices.
The philosophy aims to tackle communities’ problems by using the energy and leadership of the people that live there. With an approach that concentrates on children’s physical and emotional well-being, and making them visible in the community, the organisation has played an important role in intercommunal cooperation since the 1960s.
A study visit also took seminar participants to visit two Estonian childcare centres. Estonia guarantees maternity leave of up to 18 months, so ECEC is provided only for children of one-and-a-half years of age onwards. Primarily funded by municipalities, topped-up with modest fees paid by parents, places are available for all pre-school children and centres are open from 7am to 7pm, with meals provided.
Nóra Milotay of the European Commission’s DG Education and Culture highlighted the EU perspective, also mentioning that a Communication on this topic is in preparation for publication in early 2011. The Communication will be followed up by an Hungarian presidency conference in February and two European Commission studies to be published in 2011, one on “Ensuring early acquisition of literacy: study on parental support” and another on “Competence requirements of staff in early childhood education and care”.
She explained that the European Commission considers ECEC, defined as services provided to children from birth up to compulsory school age, an intersectoral issue that needs a coherent vision of childhood early years from all stakeholders. This vision should facilitate a holistic, child-centred approach to the integration of care and education, aiming to ensure accessibility and affordability, and providing quality through pedagogical frameworks and staffing.
Ms Milotay reminded the participants that in 2009 a European benchmark was set of at least 95% of children between four years old and the age of starting compulsory primary education participating in ECEC, to be achieved by 2020.
Benoit Parmentier, Director of the Office of Childhood from the Francophone Community Government of Belgium, presented the draft of a declaration on Member States commitments towards more and better early years services, sponsored by the Belgian Presidency of the European Council for signature by all EU member countries.
According to the draft, all EU Member States would commit themselves to orienting their policies in favour of the well-being of children. In considering this as an investment for the future, they would aim to allocate 1.0% of GDP to early childhood education and care for children under three years of age.
Further, EU countries should guarantee a right for all children to access high-quality, diversified and integrated ECEC services in order to suit all situations experienced by children and their families. Governments should therefore commit to developing a high-quality supply of education and care services, with reference to objectives set in 2002 by the Barcelona European Council. Countries having achieved the Barcelona objectives should set a more ambitious objective for the decade ahead.
In conclusion, participants in the seminar emphasised that while these new initiatives from the Commission and Member States were welcome, it would be undesirable to end up with a “box-ticking” top-down approach to setting quality standards. The examples of community engagement in providing ECEC services that had been presented showed the great potential of alternative approaches.