Early childhood education and care services should provide a safe environment for children, giving them the emotional, physical, social and educational support they need to start developing their potential.
Education and care systems for children below the compulsory school age vary in different countries; Member States are co-operating to develop ‘pre-primary’ or ‘pre-school’ provision across the EU.
Recognising that early childhood education can lay the foundations for later educational success, especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, there has been an increasing focus on this sector at the European level in recent years.
Education ministers from across the EU set a target that by 2020 at least 95% of children between four years old and the age for starting compulsory primary education should participate in early childhood education. It is also increasingly recognised that the quality of such services is paramount.
In February 2011, the Commission set out the key issues for future European co-operation in early childhood education and care with the aim to improve access and quality of services from birth to the start of compulsory schooling: "Early Childhoold Education and Care - providing all our children with the best start for the world of tomorrow " .
In May 2011 EU Education ministers endorsed these plans and launched a process of policy co-operation at European level: Council conclusions on early childhood education and care .
The Communication on equity and efficiency in European education and training systems (2006) outlined the long-term benefits of investment in early childhood education, underlining the importance of the quality of the provision.
The 'Communication on 'Improving competences for the 21st century: an agenda for European cooperation on schools' (2008) highlighted the benefits of quality provision for all, particularly for low-income and ethnic minority children in the early years. Following this, Member States agreed to co-operate in this area in their Council Conclusions (2008).
The Council Conclusions on migrant education (2009)stated that comprehensive early childhood services help to integrate immigrant families, improve children’s health and better prepare children for school.
With one of its priorities to promote equity and active citizenship, the Communication on future cooperation in education and training for the period up to 2020 (2008) refers explicitly to addressing educational disadvantages through pre-primary education. Following this, Member States agreed to develop co-operation at European level to promote quality and equity in this sector.
A group of experts (one of several looking at different areas of education and training) from EU Member States and other European countries meets regularly to examine accessibility and quality of early childhood education and care across the EU Member States, discuss common challenges and exchange good practice. Find out more about these 'peer learning' discussions, and the policy conclusions they have reached, on the following themes:
Early matters - European symposium on improving early childhood education and care. Conclusions (2008)
Conference for policy makers and researchers on early childhood education and care, organised by the Hungarian EU Presidency (February 2011).