An introduction

Policy  makers have  recognised  that  equitable access to  quality early childhood education and care  can  strengthen  the  foundations of  lifelong  learning for all  children and  support the  broad educational and social  needs of  families. There  is a  need  to  strengthen  knowledge of  the  range  of  approaches  adopted by different  countries, along with the successes and  challenges  encountered.  Recognising that  this cross-national information and analysis  can contribute  to the improvement  of  policy  development,  the  Education Committee launched the Thematic  Review of Early Childhood Education  and Care Policy in  1998.

Twelve  countries  volunteered  to participate  in  the  review: Australia, Belgium (Flemish and  French Communities),  the Czech  Republic, Denmark, Finland, Italy, the  Netherlands,  Norway,  Portugal,  Sweden, the  UK, and  the USA. The review has taken a broad and holistic approach that considers how policies, services, families, and communities can support young children’s early development and learning.  The term  early childhood education and  care  (ECEC)  includes all arrangements providing care and education for children under  compulsory  school  age,  regardless  of  setting, funding, opening  hours, or  programme content. The methodology of the study consists of four elements:

  1. preparation by  participating  countries of the Background Report;
  2. review team visits  to participating countries;
  3. preparation of  the  Country Note;  and
  4. Preparation of the Comparative Report.



The first part  of  this  chapter  reviews  the  main contextual  trends  and  developments  that  have shaped  ECEC policy and provision. The second  part  of  the chapter explores  how  these contextual  issues  have  shaped different  views of  early  childhood, the roles of  families, and the  purposes  of  ECEC,  and in turn,  how  these views have  shaped  policy and practice.

1.2.1 Demographic, economic, and social trends

  • Ageing populations,  declining  fertility  rates,  and  a greater proportion of  children  living in lone-parent families  are  part  of  the changing demographic  Countries  with  the highest  female employment  rates are those with  higher competed fertility rates, which suggests  that  female  employment  and childrearing are  complementary activities. −
  • The sharp rise  in  dual-earner households, spurred by  increased  female employment, makes ECEC  and parental  leave policies  more  important  for  the  well-being of families.  Women are more likely than men to work in non-standard employment which carry lower economic and social status. −
  • Paid and job protected  maternity and family  leave policies are  widely  accepted in almost  all participating countries as  an essential  strategy  to help  working  parents reconcile  work  and family  life  and  to promote gender  The length, flexibility, level of payment and take-up by men and women vary across countries.
  • While taxes and  transfers can help redistribute  income  to  families with young children,  in  a few countries more  than  20%  of  children still  live  in relative poverty. Income support, measures to improve parent employability and targeted early interventions may improve children’s life-course chances and promote social cohesion.

1.2.2 Recognising diverse views of children and the purposes of ECEC

  • The reasons for investing in ECEC  policy and  provision  are  embedded in  cultural  and  social beliefs about young children, the roles of  families and government, and the purposes  of ECEC in within  and across countries.
  • In many countries, the education  and  care  of  young  children is shifting from the  private  to the public domain, with  much  attention to  the  complementary  roles of  families  and ECEC institutions  in young children’s early  development and learning.
  • Many countries are seeking to balance  views  of  childhood  in  the  ‘here and  now’  with  views of childhood as  an  investment with  the future adult in    These diverse views have important implications for the organisation of policy and provision in different countries.



Drawing on  the Background Reports, Country Notes,  and  other materials  collected  during  the  review process,  this  chapter explores  seven current  cross-national policy  trends:

  1. expanding provision toward universal access;
  2. raising the quality of provision;
  3. promoting coherence and  co-ordination of  policy and  services;
  4. exploring strategies  to  ensure adequate  investment in the system;
  5. improving staff training and work  conditions;
  6. developing appropriate pedagogical  frameworks  for young children;  and
  7. Engaging parents, families, and communities.

1.3.1 Expanding provision toward universal access

The age  at which  children typically  make  the transition  to primary education ranges from four to seven,  meaning  that in  some  countries,  children may  spend  at least  three years in  ECEC, while  in others,  they will  spend  at  most  three years prior  to beginning primary  school. In several countries, access to ECEC is a statutory right from age three (or even younger). The  trend  in  all  countries  is  toward full  coverage  of  the three- to  six-year-old  age group, aiming  to give  all children at  least  two years of  free publicly-funded  provision before beginning compulsory  schooling.   Out-of-school provision for children of working parents has not been a policy priority in most countries in the review.  Yet, demand is high, which suggests the need for attention to the concept, organisation, funding, and staffing of this form of provision.  Policy for the under threes is closely linked with the nature of available parental leave arrangements and social views about caring. While there  have  been  government  efforts toward  expanding  provision  and  increasing  the  educational  focus,  there is still  differential access and quality  for  this  age group.

Countries are trying to develop:

  1. more flexible and diverse arrangements  while  addressing the  regional and  local variation  in  access  and
  2. strategies to  include  children  in need of special  support  (i.e., children from  low-income families, children with  special educational needs,  children  from ethnic, cultural, and linguistic minorities).

1.3.2 Raising the quality of provision

Definitions of quality differ considerably among stakeholder groups and across countries. Although national  quality guidelines are necessary,  they need  to be  broad enough  to allow individual  settings  to respond to  the developmental needs  and  learning  capacities of  children. Many common elements in definitions of quality exist, especially for provision for children from the age of three.  Most  countries focus  on similar  structural  aspects  of quality (e.g., staff child ratios, group  size, facility conditions,  staff  training),  which tend to  be  weaker  for infant/toddler provision. To measure quality, some countries use standardised observation scales and child assessment measures. Other countries favour co-constructing the programme aims and objectives at local level, engaging a range of stakeholders in the process.

The responsibility for quality assurance tends to be shared by external inspectors, pedagogical advisors, staff, and parents (and occasionally children). There is a trend toward externally-validated self-evaluation to promote ongoing reflection and quality improvement. Major quality  concerns  that  emerged during  the  review  include: lack of  a  coherence and coordination  for ECEC policy and provision;  the  low status  and training  of staff in the social welfare  sector;  the  lower  standards of  provision  for children  under three; and the tendency  for children  from  low-income  families  to  receive inferior  services. Governments promote  quality improvement through:  framework  documents and  goals-led steering;  voluntary  standards  and accreditation;  dissemination  of  research and information; judicious use of  special  funding;  technical support to local management; raising the training and status of  staff;  encouraging self-evaluation  and action-practitioner research; and establishing a  system  of  democratic  checks and balances which  includes parents.

1.3.3 Promoting coherence and co-ordination of policy and services

Unified administrative auspices can help promote coherence for children, as can coordination mechanisms across departments and sectors.  In particular, there is increasing trend toward co-ordination with the educational sector to facilitate children’s transition from ECEC to primary school.   The trend toward decentralisation of responsibility for ECEC has brought diversification of services to meet local needs and preferences. The challenge  is  for  central government  to balance  local decision-making  with  the need  to  limit variation  in access and quality. At the  local  level,  many  countries have  recognised  the importance  of  integrating  services  to meet  the needs of  children  and  families  in a holistic  manner. Services integration has taken many forms, including teamwork among staff with different professional backgrounds.

1.3.4 Exploring strategies to ensure adequate investment in the system

In almost  all countries in  the  review, governments pay  the  largest  share  of  costs,  with  parents covering 25%-30%. Direct provision through services and schools makes up the bulk of government assistance in most countries. Even  when the  mix of public  and private  providers  is  great,  a high  percentage of services  receive direct or  indirect  public funding. Countries  have  adopted  a range of  financing mechanisms  to improve  affordability  including: direct funding, fee subsidies, tax  relief, and  employer  contributions.  Affordability remains a barrier to equitable access, particularly in systems where the cost burden falls on parents.

While  most  countries seek  to expand supply and  raise  quality through direct  subsidies to providers,  a  few  countries favour indirect  demand-driven subsidies, fee  subsidies and tax relief  to  parents.  In both cases, there are equity concerns about access to and quality of provision. Regardless  of  the  financing strategy adopted, it is  clear  that  substantial  public  investment  is necessary for the development  of  an equitable and well-resourced  system  of quality ECEC.

1.3.5 Improving staff training and work conditions.

Countries  have  adopted two main  approaches to staffing:  a  split regime  with  a  group of teachers  working with  children over  three and lower-trained workers in  other  services; or  a pedagogue  working  with  children  from birth  to six, and sometimes older  in a  range of settings.  There  is  a cross-national  trend  toward  at  least a three-year  tertiary degree  for ECEC staff  with the main responsibility  for  pre-school children. While  the  degree  of  early  childhood specialisation and  the balance between  theory and practice varies across  countries, there  appear  to  be  common training  gaps in the following areas: work with parents,  work with  infants  and  toddlers, bilingual/multi-cultural  and special education, and  research and evaluation.  Opportunities to participate in in-service training and professional development are uneven. Staff with the lowest levels of initial training tend to have the least access. Low pay, status, poor working conditions, limited access  to in-service  training and  limited career  mobility  are a concern, particularly  for staff working with  young  children in  infant toddler,  out-of-school, and family day care  settings.  As ECEC provision expands, recruitment and retention are major challenges for the field. Many countries are seeking to attract a diverse workforce to reflect the diversity of children in ECEC. Another major issue is whether a more gender-mixed workforce is desirable, and if so how it can be achieved.

1.3.6 Developing appropriate pedagogical frameworks for young children

Most countries in  the  review have developed  national pedagogical  frameworks  to  promote  an even  level of  quality across age groups  and provision, help guide  and  support professional staff  in their practice, and facilitate communication between  staff,  parents, and children.  There  is  a trend  toward frameworks which cover  a  broad age span and  diverse forms of settings to  support continuity  in children’s learning.  For the most  part,  these frameworks focus  broadly  on  children’s holistic development  and well-being,  rather  than  on narrow literacy  and  numeracy objectives. Flexible  curricula developed  in co-operation with  staff,  parents, and  children,  allow practitioners  to  experiment with different  methodological and  pedagogical approaches  and adapt  overall  goals for ECEC  to  local needs  and  circumstances. Successful  implementation  of  frameworks  requires  investment  for staff support,  including in-service  training  and pedagogical guidance,  as well as favourable structural  conditions (e.g., ratios, group size,  etc.).

1.3.7 Engaging parents, families, and communities

Parent engagement seeks to:

(a)  Build on parents’ unique knowledge about their children, fostering continuity with learning in the home;

(b) Promote positive attitudes and behaviour toward children’s learning;

(c)  Provide parents with information and referrals to other services;

(d)  Support parent and community empowerment.

Patterns of parental, family, and community engagement in ECEC differ from country to country. Several formal and informal mechanisms may be used to foster full participatory and managerial engagement. Some of  the challenges  to active  engagement  of  parents include,  cultural,  attitudinal, linguistic, and  logistical  barriers  (i.e.,  lack  of time).  It is particularly difficult to ensure equitable representation and participation from across families from diverse backgrounds.



The report identifies eight key elements of policy that are likely to promote equitable access to quality ECEC. The elements  presented  are  intended to  be broad  and  inclusive so  that they  can  be  considered in  the light  of  diverse country contexts  and  circumstances, values, and beliefs.  They should  form  a  part  of a  wider multi-stakeholder  effort  to  reduce  child poverty, promote gender  equity,  improve education  systems,  value diversity,  and  increase the quality of  life  for parents  and children. The eight key elements are:

  1. A systemic and  integrated  approach  to policy development and  implementation  calls for a clear vision for children, from  birth to  eight, underlying  ECEC  policy,  and  co-ordinated policy frameworks at  centralised and decentralised  A  lead  ministry  that  works  in  cooperation with other departments and  sectors  can  foster  coherent and  participatory  policy development  to  cater  for  the  needs of  diverse children  and  families. Strong links across services, professionals, and parents also promote coherence for children.


  1. A strong and equal partnership with  the  education system  supports  a  lifelong learning approach  from birth, encourages  smooth transitions  for children, and  recognises  ECEC  as  an important  part of  the education  Strong  partnerships with  the  education system provide  the opportunity  to bring together  the  diverse  perspectives  and methods  of both  ECEC and schools, focusing on  the  strengths of  both  approaches.


  1. A universal approach to access, with  particular  attention to  children  in need of  special support: While access to  ECEC  is  close  to universal for children from  age  three, more attention  to  policy  (including  parental  leave)  and provision  for infants  and toddlers is necessary. It  is  important  to ensure  equitable access, such  that  all children have equal opportunities  to attend quality ECEC,  regardless  of family  income, parental employment status,  special educational needs or  ethnic/language background.


  1. Substantial public investment in services  and  the  infrastructure:  While ECEC may be  funded by a combination  of  sources,  there  is  a need  for substantial  government  investment  to support a sustainable system  of quality, accessible  Governments need  to  develop  clear  and consistent  strategies  for  efficiently allocating scarce resources, including investment  in  an infrastructure  for  long-term planning and quality  enhancement efforts.


  1. A participatory approach  to quality  improvement and assurance: Defining, ensuring,  and monitoring  quality should be a  participatory  and  democratic  process  that engages staff, parents,  and children. There is a need for regulatory standards for all forms of provision supported by co-ordinated investment.  Pedagogical frameworks focusing on children’s holistic development across the age group can support quality practice.


  1. Appropriate training  and  working conditions  for staff  in all  forms of  provision: Quality ECEC depends  on strong staff training and  fair  working  conditions  across the  Initial and in-service training might be broadened to take into account the growing educational and social responsibilities of the profession. There  is  a critical need  to develop  strategies  to  recruit and retain a  qualified  and diverse, mixed-gender workforce and to  ensure  that  a  career  in ECEC is satisfying,  respected  and financially viable.


  1. Systematic attention to monitoring and  data  collection  requires  coherent  procedures  to  collect and analyse data on  the status  of  young  children, ECEC provision, and the  early  childhood workforce.  International efforts are necessary to  identify  and  address  the  existing  data  gaps  in the  field and the immediate priorities for data  collection and monitoring.


  1. A stable framework and long-term agenda  for  research  and evaluation:  As  part  of  a continuous improvement  process,  there needs to  be  sustained  investment to  support research on key policy goals.  The research agenda also could be expanded to include disciplines and methods that are currently underrepresented. A range of strategies to disseminate research findings to diverse audiences should be explored.

Countries  that have adopted some  or  all of  these elements of  successful  policy share  a strong  public commitment to  young  children and their families.  In different ways,  these countries have  made  efforts to ensure  that  access  is  inclusive  of all  children,  and have initiated  special  efforts  for those  in need of  special support. Quality  is high on  the agenda as  a  means  to ensure  that  children not only have equal  opportunities to  participate in  ECEC  but also to  benefit from  these experiences in  ways  that  promote  their development and  learning.  While remarkable efforts in policy development and implementation have been achieved in recent years, there are still several challenges remaining.  It is hoped that this report will contribute to future policy improvement efforts in the field.

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