The conference “Excellence and Equity in Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC)” was held on 21 and 22 February in Budapest. This first expert level event on education under the Hungarian EU Presidency brought together experts from member state ministries, policy makers and various international organisations.
The conference came just a few days after the Commission released a Communication that calls for universal access to quality pre-school education across the EU. The participants discussed the benefits of early education, the structure, governance and funding of early childhood education and care systems, comprehensive pedagogical frameworks and staff competences and the need for partnership with parents and the local community.
In their opening speeches, both Rózsa Hoffmann, Hungarian Minister of State for Education of the Ministry of National Resources and Androulla Vassiliou, European Commissioner for Education, reminded of the importance of quality early childhood education for the well-being and overall development of children. They stressed that greater investment in early education was crucial.Commisisoner Vassiliou, pointed out that “In the EU, one in five 15-year-olds has reading difficulties and one in seven in the same age group drops out of school, or leaves school for good. We need to close this gap”. She further stressed that early childhood education plays a key role in meeting the Europe 2020 Strategy goals of reducing the number of drop-outs below 10% by 2020 and lifting 20 million people out of poverty.
The participants broadly agreed that quality childcare and education from an early age enhances children''s future educational outcomes, their cognitive and non-cognitive skills, provides a good basis for lifelong learning and helps to combat educational disadvantage and early school leaving.
Professor Edward Melhuish, from the University of London, explained that equitable and high quality early childhood education and care provides the best return in human capital development and a solid foundation for success: better educational achievement, better social development, better skills and occupational success, fewer drop-outs, and more efficient public spending.
Deborah Roseveare, from the OECD, analysedvarious economic aspects of ECEC, pointing out that although all children stand to gain, benefits are significantly higher for children from low-income families and socially excluded groups, such as immigrant children and the Roma. “Children from low-income families start school with disadvantages in learning, writing and social skills. Early education is especially important for their successful learning and catching-up at a later stage”, she underlined.
John Bennett, from the British Thomas Coram Research Institute, warned about enormous differences across Europe in terms of structure, governance and quality assurance of ECEC services. He stressed the importance of having integrated structures and coordinated approaches to ECEC within national ministries.
“Most countries have been largely successful in maintaining public pre-school education for 3-6 year olds, with high enrolment rates. Yet, the quality and outreach of these services could, in many instances, be greatly improved” said Mr Bennett. He further highlighted that services for children under 3 years are often weak and in many countries still remain under-financed and under-regulated. Vulnerable populations, such as Roma families, are unable to access early education services and successful transition to primary school remains a huge barrier for these children.
The European Commission Communication published days before the conference was entitled ‘Providing all our children with the best start for the world of tomorrow’. The text calls for access to good quality early education to for all children, which would lay the foundation for their future lifelong learning, social integration, personal development and employability.
The Commission''s proposal came in response to a request from education ministers’ meeting in May 2009, pointed out Commissioner Vassiliou. “The countries have realised that children will reap the benefits as they become better prepared for life-long learning, and have a prospect of a better life” she added.
Providing an overview, Adam Pokorny, from European Commission’sDirectorate General for Education and Culture, said: “The communication is historic because up to now the EU focused on ECEC from the point of view of the labour market. The focus is now on how to broaden access and improve quality of institutional pre-school education for the benefits of the children. The communication shows that earlier the enrolment, the higher the benefits, especially for disadvantaged children. If we want to break the poverty cycle, this is when we need to intervene”, he added.
He further explained that the texts aims to 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.
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.
High quality pedagogy and the involvement of parents and the community in ECEC were among the topics discussed in specialised workshops. Participants agreed that appropriate learning environments with high quality buildings and pedagogical environments were crucial, as well as the availability of good pedagogical materials to which young children have free and appropriate access. It was also stressed that children’s active engagement in activities such as singing, music and art and craft activities help short and long term impacts on development, as well as on the ego and the self-esteem of the child. Irene Nagy Jenoné, from the Szent István University in Hungary, presented a new arts educational programme that intends to enrich and differentiate children´s moral, intellectual and aesthetic responses to art.
Parental involvement and strong family support for early childhood development were also identified as critical for successful pre-school education. Miriam Mony from ‘L’École Santé Social Sud-Est’ in France, introduced the concept of ECEC “including” parents. This approach involves parents by sharing a part of their time to be active in the child care institution. This involvement on volunteer basis contributes to quality in several ways. Parents experience other children in contact with their own.
The results of the conference will serve as an input for the Council in developing and adopting conclusions about improving access to quality ECEC, with a wider goal to establish a policy framework for further European cooperation in this field.
The Commission Communication, 17 February 2011, "Early childhood education and care: providing all our children with the best start for the world of tomorrow ".