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European Commission calls for universal access to quality pre-school education

28/02/2011

The Commission recently published a Communication in which it encourages EU Member States to work together on improving their policies on early education and care of young children. The text calls for every child to have a better start in life, which would lay the foundation for their future lifelong learning, social integration, personal development and employability. The Communication proposes action at a time when nearly 19 million European children are estimated to be at risk of poverty.

Breaking the cycle of poverty

Androulla Vassiliou, European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth, said that “investing in early education and care is one of the best investments we can make for our children – and for Europe''s future”.

She stressed that investing in quality pre-school education is much more effective than intervening later, as it gives children a better chance in life and saves money in the long run. “Breaking the cycle of poverty and disadvantage also means lower costs for the taxpayer for health and hospital services, remedial schooling, welfare and policing”, she pointed out.

She said she believed that focusing on the needs of young children is a good way to prevent problems in later life, and reduce the risk of students dropping out of school before they have completed their secondary education.

A comprehensive action plan

In most EU member states, compulsory full-time education starts at the age of five or six. For children who are too young to attend school, there are wide differences in the availability and provision of pre-school education and care services across the EU countries.

The Commission''s proposals come in response to a request from education ministers’ meeting in May 2009, following their adoption of the Strategic Framework for Cooperation in Education and Training, to measure and analyse progress across the EU in improving access to early childhood education and care and to identify best practice. During the meeting, ministers agreed that 95% of four year-olds should have access to pre-school education. The current EU average is 92.3%, but there are wide variations in the number of hours per week as well as the quality of services.

The Commission proposal aims to improve these figures and encourage all EU Member States to provide universal access to quality pre-school education, based on stable funding and good governance, and an integrated approach to education and care, taking account of children''s needs in a holistic way. The proposal also aims to ensure that education and care is accessible for all young children, including those from disadvantaged groups and ethnic minorities, such as the Roma.

Improving the quality of pre-school education is seen as a key priority. This includes looking at the training and qualifications of staff, as well as their salaries and working conditions. Other important aspects stressed by the proposal are the need for age-appropriate curricula, quality assurance systems and standards to monitor progress in each country.

Looking ahead

At EU level, the Commission stressed it would work with the Member States to promote the exchange of good policies and practices, while supporting the development of innovative approaches by funding transnational projects and networks. The Member States will be encouraged to invest in these areas via the EU''s structural funds, in particular through supporting staff training and developing accessible infrastructure.

The proposal’s aim is to contribute to the objectives of three Europe 2020 flagship initiatives ''Youth on the Move'', ''Agenda for New Skills and Jobs'' and the ''European Platform against Poverty'', with a further goal of contributing to two of the headline targets of the ''Europe 2020'' strategy – reducing the share of early school leavers to under 10% and to lift at least 20 million people out of the risk of poverty and social exclusion.

The proposal will be discussed by EU Education Ministers in May 2011.

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