A recent OECD Policy Brief on early childhood education and care (ECEC) discusses the importance of ECEC, the current landscape in Europe and the policy structures which could help young children and contribute towards breaking the cycle of disadvantage. ECEC matters. When it is affordable parents have the opportunity to engage in the workforce and bring in additional income. When it is of high quality, children can enhance their cognitive and social development, particularly children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Access to ECEC
However, participation rates in ECEC vary across OECD countries and in some cases between the most socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged groups. Roughly one-third of children under the age of three are in ECEC and, approximately 70 per cent of children (aged between 3 and 5) are in ECEC, where participation is measured by at least one hour’s attendance a week. In some countries, like Iceland and Denmark, children’s participation tends to be high (as high as three-fifths for children under the age of three). In these countries rates of participation in ECEC are similar regardless of a child’s socioeconomic background. Gaps remain in other countries, such as Ireland and France, where higher participation rates are observed among the most economically advantageous than the lower income groups of children under three. Similar patterns emerge in the UK, Switzerland and the Netherlands where children in the same age cohort from less economically advantageous families are considerably (between a quarter and a third) less likely to participate in ECEC.
Differences in the structure of ECEC in these countries, as well as how it is organised, can explain the disparities. In many other European countries, provision is subsidised or public. However, in the UK, the Netherlands and Ireland, private ECEC services abound with little control on fees which mean that parents bear the brunt of the costs with some support from public coffers (except in Ireland).
Policies to increase ECEC participation
There are ways to boost ECEC participation, according to the authors. For example, an expansion of legal rights to access ECEC could go some of (but not all) the way towards ensuring greater participation. Furthermore, some policy instruments can assist parents with childcare, such as refunds though cash benefits (Australia), tax credits (Portugal) or means testing families to provide free or reduced rate access to ECEC services for low to middle income families (Denmark). Similarly, policies which encourage women’s workforce participation are useful, such as paid leave programmes, reducing participation taxes on second household earners, or reducing childcare costs for lower income families on second wage earners.
Enduring impacts of ECEC
The World Bank Group highlights the lasting effects of early stimulation interventions on language, socioemotional developments and schooling throughout an individual’s lifetime from age 6. In addition, early stimulation has significant effects on cognitive developments from the age of 13 and on the employment and labour market outcomes from the age of 18. As such, this highlights the ECEC is an investment in social and human capital.