This report provides an overview of the current situation regarding early childhood education and care provision in Scotland, England, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Slovenia, France and the Netherlands.

1 Introduction

The importance of investing in early childhood education and care (ECEC) provision has been widely acknowledged by governments of advanced economies. High quality ECEC services benefit children's development, boost educational attainment, encourage female labour market participation and contribute to a reduction in child poverty.

There is considerable movement at the European and international level with respect to early years provision. Most European countries have reformed their ECEC system or are in the process of reforming it, and access to ECEC services has been extended considerably in the last ten to fifteen years across Europe. The OECD, the EU and the UN have published a series of comparative reports in recent years emphasising the significance of early childhood education and care and its relevance to economic and social policy in advanced economies.[1] In February 2011, the European Commission issued a Communication urging national governments to take action by analysing and evaluating their national ECEC provision, improving access and quality and investing in ECEC as a long-term growth-enhancing measure. As such, the expansion and development of high quality ECEC in all Member States is an integral part of the European Union's overarching Europe 2020 Strategy.[2]

While the incentives and objectives for developing ECEC provision are similar across Europe, the approaches taken and the organisational structures of national ECEC systems differ considerably: some countries have moved to fully integrated systems providing early childhood education and care for all age groups of preschool children, often also featuring integrated approaches to school education and after school care, while others are developing provision within a system that differentiates between early education and childcare. In some countries ECEC is predominantly public, in others the development of childcare markets has been encouraged. Structure and levels of financing, curricular orientations and staff qualifications also differ between countries.

In light of the increased policy attention to ECEC in European countries, and the consequences of public spending restrictions, it is important to understand the different systems of ECEC provision and financing, and to identify their positive aspects and challenges. Thus, the commissioning of this international review by the Scottish Government comes at a very timely moment. In its Early Years Framework in 2008, the Scottish Government set out a ten-year vision for achieving a more coherent and community-based approach to supporting Scotland's families that focuses on equal access to high-quality universal services to deliver prevention and early intervention;[3] and in 2011 it made the pledge to develop its ECEC system to 'match the best elsewhere in Europe'. We hope this report will help to draw policy lessons from other national experiences in order to support the development of early years policy in Scotland and internationally.

1.1 Aims and objectives

This report provides an overview of the current situation regarding early childhood education and care provision in Scotland, England, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Slovenia, France and the Netherlands. For each of these nations the review provides a country report (chapters two to nine) with detailed information on the national frameworks of ECEC, guiding principles and objectives, governance, types of services, types of providers, funding and costs, systems of quality assurance and access levels. There is, of course, some duplication of information in the Scotland and England chapters, as many relevant areas are not fully devolved. In addition, the report covers the provision of after school care in the eight countries.

In line with the extensive work on the subject by the OECD, the European Commission and other international organisations, ECEC is defined here as all educational and care arrangements for children from birth to compulsory schooling, regardless of setting, funding, opening hours, or programme content.[4] As this wide definition indicates, ECEC can take many forms. A key objective of this report is to provide insight into the different ways in which ECEC is organised in the eight countries that form part of this review. While presenting our findings in English we have aimed at staying as close as possible to the national terminology so as to better convey the national understandings of ECEC. However, a few conceptual clarifications are in place regarding some general terms that are common in international and national discussion about ECEC, but that tend to be used in slightly different ways across European countries.

An important distinction is often made between formal and informal non-parental ECEC provision. In some countries represented in this report, such as Denmark or Sweden, formal ECEC is extensive and informal care uncommon, whereas in the Netherlands, England or Scotland, parents rely heavily on informal childcare arrangements. Nevertheless, it may be important to note that in all European countries, irrespective of how comprehensive their ECEC systems are, the dominant form of ECEC in children's lives is parental care. In this report we follow the OECD definition where formal ECEC is understood as government-regulated non-parental ECEC provided outside of the child's home which includes creches, day care centres, family day care/registered childminders, and preschool programmes. In line with this definition, the terms ECEC services and formal ECEC are used synonymously here. Informal childcare we define as non-parental childcare arranged privately by the child's parent either in the child's home or elsewhere, and provided by relatives, friends, neighbours, babysitters or nannies. Informal ECEC can be paid or unpaid, but is generally unregulated.[5] In practice the distinction between formal and informal ECEC is not always clear-cut. For example, playgroups, generally considered a form of formal ECEC, often have a rather informal set-up and character as a meeting place for babies and their parents, and sometimes not requiring formal enrolment of the child or specific staff qualifications. While public support for meeting costs is generally geared towards formal ECEC provision, in recent years some countries have moved towards also supporting certain forms of informal childcare. For example, in England and Scotland it is possible for parents to register nannies to take advantage of childcare related tax deductions.

Another important distinction is that between 'public' and 'private' in terms of funding and provision: while in some countries, such as Slovenia, ECEC is mainly funded and provided by the state, ECEC provision in most European countries is a mixed economy with both public and private funding and provision. The proportion of public and private involvement in ECEC, however, differs considerably between countries. For example, in Norway a fairly high proportion of private ECEC providers exists, but all ECEC services are predominantly state-funded. And in some countries, such as England and Scotland, we see a public/private split according to type of ECEC service, where preschool education is mainly public, while private providers dominate on the childcare market. Different countries tend to use different definitions of 'public' and 'private'. 'Public' in this report refers to the state and its agencies at the central, regional and local levels (in terms of funding this means mainly tax-financing); 'private' encompasses all non-state actors including individuals (e.g. parents), voluntary organisations and corporations. Private ECEC can further be divided into non-profit and for-profit provision.

The last distinction we would like to introduce is that between integrated ECEC and split ECEC provision. While the term 'early childhood education and care' is now commonly used as a technical umbrella term for all forms of early years provision, it nevertheless carries the implication, or aspiration, that early years provision contains both an educational focus, aiming to further the young child's development, and a care component, providing care for the child while the parent has other commitments, usually employment or training. Thus, there is the sense that 'education' and 'childcare' are integral aspects of early years provision. In practice there is a more or less strong distinction in many European countries between services that focus on childcare and others that predominantly deliver educational programmes for preschool children. However, in recent years, there have been developments across Europe for a stronger integration of ECEC provision. Integration can happen on different levels: firstly, in terms of governance structures we have seen a move in many countries to unite responsibility for early years provision under one ministry where this was split between different government departments in the past. Responsibility for ECEC provision has frequently been moved over to Ministries of Education from Ministries of Social Affairs or Family Affairs. This trend indicates a second form of integration: one that strengthens the educational dimension of 'childcare', or in other words, integrates 'education' and 'care' on the level of service provision itself. Not all countries that have integrated governance structures have also followed suit with integration of services: a stronger emphasis on early years education does not imply that all preschool programmes are also suitable as 'childcare', by, for example, supporting employed parents with their care obligations. Finally, there is a third form of integration: a continuity of ECEC for children across the life course, from birth to young adulthood. In some countries, such as Denmark, there has been an emphasis on policy coordination so that an entitlement exists to good quality care and education for a child at all ages, leaving no gaps between parental leave, access to ECEC for babies and toddlers, older preschool children and after-school care for school-aged children. In other countries universal access to ECEC exists for certain age groups of children, mostly three to five year olds, but with no guaranteed provision for younger or older children. In this report we define those ECEC systems that present integration on all three levels as fully integrated.

This last point leads to another important aspect of ECEC provision. ECEC is embedded within wider socio-economic and policy contexts and the success of any ECEC policy strategy will depend on the way it links in with families' economic and social needs and other policies. A second objective of this review is to provide information on wider issues related to ECEC provision: on socio-economic context and employment patterns in the eight countries, as well as on maternity and parental leave policy and uptake patterns. Each country report also includes a section on the wider welfare system and social support for families, giving the interested reader an overview of benefits available to families in each of the selected countries.

For over three decades the European Union has been concerned with promoting the reconciliation of work and family life.[6] The issues of early years provision and parental leave became particularly pertinent at the European level following the inception of the Lisbon Agenda in 2000:

  • The Lisbon Strategy set the targets to increase female labour market participation across Europe to 60% or more.
  • In 2002, the European Council in Barcelona set targets for ECEC provision to coverage of at least 90% for preschool children (age three to school-age) and of 33% for under-threes.
  • In 2010, the EU issued a parental leave directive, followed by the above mentioned Communication on Early Childhood Education and Care in 2011.

These steps by the EU demonstrate the importance of early years provision and reconciliation policies to the EU's agenda. The OECD, the UN, and the World Bank are similarly emphasising these issues.[7] While in the beginning of the 2000s the international policy debate was focused on expanding early years provision in quantitative terms, there has now been a shift in perspective towards the quality of ECEC provision.[8]

In its 2011 Communication the European Commission recommends that Member States:

  • improve access to universally available, high-quality and inclusive ECEC services that are based on efficient and equitable funding systems;
  • develop quality through the integration of 'care' and 'education' and the professionalisation of the ECEC workforce.

As a third objective this review discusses to what extent the eight countries are meeting EU targets and recommendations (chapter ten).

1.2 Methodology for this review

A series of large-scale international projects on ECEC cover the eight countries discussed in this review, and these are extensively referenced in the report. However, these earlier projects do not combine an overview of ECEC systems, parental leave systems, employment patterns and broader contextual factors. Furthermore, early years policy has been developing rapidly in recent years, such that information on ECEC is quickly out of date.

The aim of this project has been to collect the most up-to-date information available. For this purpose it draws on the following sources:

  • the most recent national government reports on various aspects of ECEC;
  • communication with civil servants in national ministries and national experts for feedback and to ensure that we have collated the most recent and accurate information in this report;
  • national and international statistics providing macro-level data (such as general employment rates; fertility rates, enrolment rates in ECEC); preference has been given to national statistical references in line with the tender guidance; OECD and EUROSTAT data has been used where national data are not available (e.g. not all countries make social expenditure data publicly available), or where it is particularly authoritative (e.g. EUROSTAT data on employment);
  • relevant publications providing analyses of micro-level data (such as maternal employment patterns; duration of ECEC attendance, informal care arrangements);
  • academic literature for broader background information.

There is often at least a twelve month, if not a 24 month delay in the release of annually collected national statistical indicators, so data for 2010/11 is often the most up to date available. For some indicators, data is not published annually, so earlier years have been used. Data availability and measurement varies considerably across countries, reflecting the needs of different national systems, so indicators are not always directly comparable. This means that direct comparisons across countries should not be made due to these data issues.

We have relied extensively on our communication with national experts to ensure that we have the most up-to-date information and the most authoritative sources currently available.

Most financial information has been presented in the national currency but also includes a conversion to British pounds sterling using the Bank of England spot exchange rate for 5 October 2012.


Email: Gita Anand

Back to top