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Brussels, 16 February 2009

Early childhood education and care in Europe: tackling social and cultural inequalities

This study produced by the Eurydice network gives a detailed picture of the provisions available for the care and education of young children in some 30 countries participating in the EU Lifelong Learning programme. It addresses some major issues faced today by the nearly one in eight households across Europe which are caring for a child under the age of 6. More specifically, the study examines the measures taken to favour participation of the most disadvantaged social groups. It is part of the follow-up to the 2006 Commission Communication on Equity and Efficiency in European Education and Training Systems.

The study presents the available cross-national data and examines national policies on early childhood education and care (ECEC) in Europe. It aims to answer the following questions: how is early childhood education and care organised in Europe? What are the benefits? Which policies facilitate access to it for all? It also draws some tentative conclusions as to what might be needed in order to provide effective ECEC.

The data of the study relate to the school year 2006-2007 while the background data from Eurostat mostly refer to 2005-06.

87 % of 4 year olds attend an educational institution in Europe

The European Commission has recently suggested a new benchmark, whereby 90% of 4 year olds should participate in pre-primary education by 2020. In 2006 on average, 87% at this age were already involved in some form of pre-primary education, but national situations vary significantly. Also, the enrolment of 3 year olds in such programmes is a growing trend since 2000 and currently reaches 74% across Europe (10% growth on average with a sharper rise in Luxembourg, United Kingdom, Denmark, Germany, Romania, Sweden, Slovenia and Norway for example).  All countries in Europe offer some form of early programmes for children before the start of compulsory schooling, yet major discrepancies exist between countries or even regions, in terms of starting age, participation rates and type of ECEC provision available.


Participation of children 3-6 years in pre-primary education 2005/06


Figures and graphics available in PDF and WORD PROCESSED





Eurostat, UOE.

Belgium : Data exclude independent private institutions.

Ireland : no public-sector provision for pre-primary. Many children follow a pre-primary curriculum in private institutions but data are lacking for the most part.

Luxembourg & Netherlands : Participation of children aged 4 is closed 100% but the method of calculation does not fully reflect it (enrolment is measured at the beginning of the school year while some children enrolled later that year)

The current state of play: a choice between two main models

Two main organisational models for ECEC services are apparent in Europe:

a unitary setting for all children of pre-school age (Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Norway, Slovenia and Sweden): children 0-6 can be enrolled in a single structure. Educational staff have the same qualifications and salary scales regardless of the age of children in their care.

a separate provision for children aged 0 to 3 years and 3 to 6 years (generally). Staff qualifications, quality requirements and funding differ between those two levels and are often managed by different administrations. This last model is most widespread in Europe.

In a few countries, both models co-exist (Cyprus, Denmark, Greece, Lithuania, and Spain). The United Kingdom is currently implementing some unitary provisions for preschool children as well.

Most countries which provide a unitary setting recognise a universal right to access to early childhood education and care generally from the age of 1 and therefore offer corresponding provisions for all parents (Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Slovenia). This right is also guaranteed in Denmark and Spain which follow a mixed model.

In the majority of European countries, where provision is split by age group, there is a significant shortfall in capacity for the youngest children. For children from 3 to 6, access to pre-primary is free and guaranteed in around half of European countries.

Main models of ECEC provision according to the age of children 2006-07


Figures and graphics available in PDF and WORD PROCESSED



Source: Eurydice.

Policies for disadvantaged children: access and quality for all?

The combination of several social, cultural and economic factors may create serious risk of educational failure for children. However, poverty has the strongest impact. Nearly one in six European households with a child under the age of 6 lives on the at-risk-of-poverty threshold. This is of special concern in Estonia, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal and the United Kingdom.

A substantial body of evidence as summarised in the scientific literature review of the study, and stressed previously in the 2006 Communication on Efficiency and Equity in European Education and Training systems, shows that high –quality pre-school education brings major benefits both by providing all children with a good basis for lifelong learning and by helping to close the educational gap for children at risk. Investment in pre-primary education is the most efficient tool to address those issues both in term of long-term results and cost-benefit ratios.

Ethnic minority children who belong to underprivileged families as well as single-parent families have the lowest participation rates. However, research shows that it is precisely in these groups that the greatest benefits from ECEC are obtained, as it provides a long-lasting integration in the education system and greater chances of future success.  The most common exclusion factors from ECEC provisions include level of fees (for under 3s, a parental contribution is required in all European countries except Hungary), lack of available places (a particularly acute problem in rural areas) and access criteria related to factors such as employment etc. 

Means of enhancing affordability of ECEC 2006-07


Figures and graphics available in PDF and WORD PROCESSED



Source: Eurydice.

N.B: This figure looks at fee-paying ECEC provision only, whether in the public and/or private government-dependent sector combined.  ECEC provision that is free of charge (such as school-based provision) is not therefore represented.

Promoting access for particular target groups has been at the heart of several national policy initiatives: from admission policies (Flemish Community of Belgium) to evaluation measures and supplementary training for staff (Denmark) as well as additional resources (France) and specific information to parents to increase the enrolment of disadvantaged social groups (Netherlands) or priority access (Hungary) to name a few examples. Guaranteeing access to high-quality ECEC services, particularly for the most disadvantaged sections of the population, is one of the main challenges for any policy designed to integrate children and ensure educational success from the earliest age. 


Measures targeted at socially, culturally and/or linguistically disadvantaged children - 
Accredited and subsidised provision for over 2-3 years 2006-07


Figures and graphics available in PDF and WORD PROCESSED



Ensuring high quality standards and adequate funding

Regulations regarding health and safety are applied throughout the entire ECEC cycle, but a majority of countries do not provide for central recommendations or guidelines regarding the curriculum for children under 3. In addition, the multiplicity of ECEC provision types, for which data are not always gathered, gives an incomplete picture of the quality of the care received by the youngest ones.

The most important elements to ensure high standard care and education comprise:

A favourable child/adult ratio. Most countries establish some form of guidelines for provision for children over 3 years (usually for pre-primary education) which on average varies between 20 to 25 children for one teacher with or without an assistant. In the 0-3 age range, one adult is usually responsible for less than 10 children. However, it is to be noted that in countries with unitary settings, similar low staff ratios apply for all age groups.

High-level training for educational staff (tertiary education), both in learning and cultural approaches as well as health issues. This is not yet very common for staff dealing with children under 3 in the majority of countries which apply separate provision for the two age groups.

Parental involvement is essential in preserving the benefits of pre-primary education in the long term, but it remains the exception rather than the rule. However, initiatives such as networking, direct involvement of parents in certain activities and partnership are growing.

Minimum requirements for the level and duration of initial education and
training for staff working with children under 2-3 years 2006-07


Figures and graphics available in PDF and WORD PROCESSED



Source: Eurydice .

Funding modalities vary widely between countries. Apart from countries which have implemented a universal right to ECEC, the number of places is not yet adequate to cope with demand. Funding is generally provided by local authorities and parental contributions for the first age group (under 3s) while the central contribution increases for the 3 to 6 age group. In most countries covered by the study, guaranteeing a place for all children and ensuring high quality childcare provisions would require significant additional funding from public authorities.  Nevertheless, the evidence shows that this is the most effective point to invest limited resources if the goal is to achieve equitable and efficient education systems.


Finance of public sector and publicly-subsidised private ECEC settings:
central level, local level and family contributions 2006-07


Figures and graphics available in PDF and WORD PROCESSED



Source: Eurydice.

The full study Early childhood education and care in Europe: tackling social and cultural inequalities is available in French and English

on the Eurydice website:

on the Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency website:

Printed copies of the study in English and French will be available from April 2009. The German translation will be available shortly afterwards.

Other key documents of interest:

2008 Commission Communication on An updated strategic framework for European cooperation in education and training

2006 Commission Communication on Efficiency and equity in European education and training systems  

Background information on the Eurydice network

The Eurydice network supports and facilitates European cooperation and the development and implementation of national policies in education by providing information on and analyses of European education systems and policies. It consists of 35 national units based in all 31 countries participating in the EU Lifelong Learning programme ( 27 Member States, Lichtenstein, Norway and Iceland, as members of the European Economic Area (EEA) and Turkey) and a central coordinating unit based in the EU Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency in Brussels. It produces regular studies on various aspects of European education systems and provides detailed descriptions of the systems in each participating country.

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