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Brussels, 17 February 2011

Commission calls for universal access to pre-school education

Nearly one in eight European households includes a child under the age of six. 19 million of them – one in five – are at risk of poverty. Today, for the first time, the Commission launches an action plan aimed at giving every child a better start in life and to lay the foundations for successful lifelong learning, social integration, personal development and employability later in life. The Commission's proposals, which include a call for universal access to quality pre-school education, will also contribute to two of the headline targets of the Commission's '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.

European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth, Androulla Vassiliou, said: "Investing in early education and care is one of the best investments we can make for our children – and for Europe's future. Investing in quality pre-school education is much more effective than intervening later. It gives our youngsters a better chance in life and actually 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."

Compulsory education starts at the age of 5 or 6 in most Member States, though earlier in Cyprus, Luxembourg and Northern Ireland in the UK. The level of services provided for young children up to the start of compulsory education varies considerably across Europe in terms of funding, governance and staffing policies.

In 2009, Education Ministers set a target for 95% of children from the age of 4 to receive early childhood education and care. The current EU average is 92.3%, but, here too, the figures vary widely and do not necessarily reflect the quality of services provided.

The European Commission's proposals come in response to a request from Member States 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.

The Commission's proposals

The Commission's proposals call for:

  • Universal access to quality pre-school education, based on stable funding and good governance

  • An integrated approach to education and care, taking account of children's needs in a holistic way

  • Age-appropriate curricula with the right balance of hard and soft skills

  • More focus on the professionalization of staff with appropriate qualifications, salaries and working conditions

  • Quality assurance systems and standards to monitor progress.

The Commission's plans will 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".

Next steps

The Commission's proposals will be discussed by EU Education Ministers in May. The Ministers will identify priorities and the Commission will encourage the exchange of ideas and learning from policies that work best. The Commission will also prioritise investments in the area of early education and care through the European Social Fund and European Regional Development Fund, as well as through support from the Lifelong Learning Programme and the 7th Framework Programme for Research and Development.

To find out more:

European Commission: Communication [COM(2011)66] "Early childhood education and care: providing all our children with the best start for the world of tomorrow".

European Commission: Early childhood education and care

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