Most European children spend a large part of their early childhood in some form of out-of-home care. At the same time, there is a broad consensus among experts that loving, stable, secure, and stimulating relationships with caregivers in the earliest months and years of life are critical for every aspect of a child’s development, especially for disadvantaged children.
The issue of “child well-being and quality of childcare” was discussed at a workshop organised by the European Commission in the framework of the European Alliance for Families on 30 June in Brussels. The event brought together representatives of ministries of EU countries, European Commission and EU-level NGOs.
The morning session was dedicated to presentations of experts on key issues that surround the quality of early childhood education and care (ECEC).
The emotional well-being of children was one of the main aspects of quality ECEC stressed by participants. Josette Hoex, from the Netherlands Youth Institute, presented a tool that is designed to assess the degree of well-being of children who are placed in formal childcare. The tool called ‘working on well-being’ was conceived as an instrument for childcare workers to observe and evaluate emotional well-being.
Leonardo Menchini, from the Unicef Innocenti Research Centre gave an overview of the internationally applicable benchmarks for early childhood care and education – a set of minimum standards for protecting the rights of children in their most vulnerable and formative years. The benchmarks include the length of parental leave, childcare provision levels, education and training of childcare staff, child poverty levels, and public expenditure on ECEC. According to this approach, Sweden ranks first and Ireland last.
Participants also agreed that quality of childcare largely depends on well-educated, experienced and competent staff. Jan Peeters, from the University of Ghent in Belgium, presented the results of a study commissioned by the European Commission on the kind of competences needed by childcare workers. The study notes wide differences in professional profiles across Europe: some are very detailed, and most only focus on the child, with less attention paid to working with parents. 50% of all childcare staff assessed have no degree or have a very low-level degree.
Some of the recommendations of the study include the need for an adapted and practical training for non-qualified carers, mandatory working in the context of diversity of ethnic backgrounds, attracting more male carers, and increasing status and pay with qualification.
Nora Milotay from the European Commission’s DG Education and culture explained that the study was a consequence of the recent Commission communication on ECEC. She stressed that accessibility and quality of childcare was one of the key policy areas tackled at the EU level in the framework of the Open Method for Cooperation. She further said that for children’s needs to be met it was crucial to have professional, highly-skilled, heterogeneous staff. She added that the Commission will set up an expert group on ECEC from autumn 2011 to continue work and exchange of best practice in this area.
The afternoon presentations illustrated examples of national childcare systems and schemes in the Netherlands, Denmark, France and Slovakia.
Bente Jensen, from Aarhus University, presented the Danish “VIDA” programme that promotes child well-being through special education and training of preschool teachers. The goal is to reduce inequalities and social exclusion of children in daycare centres. Teachers learn about inclusion, methods to implement a child-centred curriculum that meets the needs of all children.
Hélène Escande, from the French ministry for solidarity and social cohesion, gave an overview of the French childcare system. She stressed that France has a wide variety of state subsidised childcare options. Childcare workers either work in collective childcare centres or in their homes. Mrs Escande highlighted two innovative childcare options: micro-nurseries and child-minder houses.
Micro-nurseries accept a maximum of ten children of less than six years of age and employ three staff with at least two years’ experience of working with very young children. They are particularly welcome in rural areas. Childminder houses can accommodate a maximum of four childminders who take care of up to four children each. They can authorise the temporary delegation of care for their child to another carer working in the same centre.
Finally, Daniel Gerbery, from the Slovakian Institute for Labour and Family research, presented the features and outcomes of public childcare in Slovakia. He pointed out that the public policy focuses on older children, while children under three years of age are mostly looked after by their parents. Slovakia has one of the lowest provisions in the EU for care of children under three years of age (2% of this age group are catered for versus 28% in the EU as a whole).
The participants agreed that it is crucial that childcare institutions and workers create a healthy and stimulating environment for children. But parental involvement and strong family support for early childhood development were also identified as critical for successful pre-school education. “The involvement of parents in ECEC is essential, especially for parents who have had negative childhood experiences themselves”, stressed Jana Hainsworth, Secretary General of Eurochild, a European network of organisations promoting the rights and welfare of children.
Josette Hoex - Department Education & Care – Netherlands Youth Institute
Jan Peeters - Research and Resource Centre for ECEC
Leonardo Menchini - Child Poverty and Social and Economic Policy
Jonas Himmelstrand - HARO! Sweden
Nora Milotay - European Commission, DG EAC
Jana Hainsworth - Eurochild
Bente Jensen, country experience: Denmark
Hélène Escande, country experience: France
Daniel Gerbery, country experience: Slovakia