Fawcett Society report: International Learning and Transforming Early Years

Fawcett Society report: International Learning and Transforming Early Years

In December 2023, the Fawcett Society in the United Kingdom published its report Transforming Early Childhood Education and Care: Sharing International Learning Part 1. This background report is part 1 of a two-part project which examines five other countries and territories, all of which have undergone significant reforms to their Early Years systems and considers them in relation to the system in England. The report explores market structures, the complex interactions between providers, regulators and service-users, and transformation. The questions which arise are – how best to plan for change, and how this change is implemented?

The Fawcett Society

The Fawcett Society sees high quality Early Years provision as part of England’s critical social infrastructure. Since the Fawcett Society published its last study on early education and childcare in 2021, there has been increasing consensus that the UK Early Years system needs substantial reform. The Fawcett Society advocates for universal, free, inclusive, high quality Early Years, and this study explores how this can be achieved. The report compares England with countries/territories which have undergone substantial reforms to Early Years: Australia, Estonia, France, Ireland, and the Canadian province of Quebec, to understand how they implemented change and how their systems work now. This first report aims to provide the key facts about Early Years systems in the chosen countries/territories and understand how change was implemented, part 2 will be forthcoming in later in 2024.

Ireland in the research

The report notes that Ireland’s journey of transformation is of special interest to England and indeed the UK, due to our proximity, similarity of context, culture and challenges, and the different measures being explored. It is recognised that despite the plans to substantially increase public funding, total public spending on Early Years in Ireland remains low compared with other OECD countries and the cost for parents remain high in absolute terms, accounting for more than a third of median earnings for women and affecting low-income families to a greater extent.

However, it should be noted that reforms are relatively new and evaluation of reforms is only just starting to take place. The report highlights that the ‘First 5: Whole-of-Government Strategy for Babies, Young Children and their Families’ was introduced as a long-term strategy for 2021-2028 focusing on access, affordability and quality with reforms including a focus on workforce, funding, childminding and governance.

Key findings in the research

In addition to these findings for Ireland, the following was also found:

  • No country (or territory in the case of Quebec) has a perfect Early Years system, but other countries have been more willing to grapple with the challenges and potential trade-offs than England. While change can take time, other countries are already reaping the benefits of earlier commitment to reform. England needs a clearer idea of where it wants to get to, and how it wants to get there, rather than continuing with piecemeal reform.
  • If the goal is to expand provision of Early Years, workforce qualifications, ratios and pay must be addressed early to deliver greater capacity. This takes significant time and therefore needs a clear workforce plan in place with transition, monitoring, and upholding of standards.
  • Without a clear focus on inclusion for low income, children with special needs and disabilities and other vulnerable children, transformation will not happen. Not accounting for these children early in the process exacerbates inequality.
  • Cultural inclusion has been highlighted as a priority in many systems, and there are indicators that this is associated both with higher participation of children from diverse social and cultural backgrounds, and higher outcomes.
  • Many countries have attempted to address the regional disparities of provision of places within Early Years – yet it is a persistent problem across the world.
  • There are widespread concerns, and some evidence, that elements of the ‘for- profit’ sector provides lower quality of education than ‘not-for-profit’ provision.
  • Parent involvement in regulatory systems varies across countries but is a key feature of some. For example, in Denmark and Norway parental boards are mandatory as part of the governance of centres. Parental surveys feature as part of wider regulatory systems in many countries. These boards should be inclusive and diverse to avoid replicating societal inequalities.
  • Affordable and accessible Early Years increases women’s labour market participation. Quebec’s universal system significantly increased the rates of women’s employment, and other countries have seen smaller, but significant increases in participation following the introduction of more free hours.
  • Parental leave can form an important part of a high-quality Early Years system, lowering the demand for formalised places particularly in the periods which require the highest adult:child ratios. However, for parental leave to form a genuine part of the system, it needs to be accessible with straightforward entitlements and timing.
  • There is no one model of perfect Early Years provision. The strongest models are rooted in their own cultural contexts, with priorities that align to wider social values and norm and grapple with their domestic challenges.
Conclusion

The report  by the Fawcett Society provides useful information that can be used as a reference for each of the countries included in the comparative review. The conclusions reached also provide important reflections, which can be considered as Ireland moves towards a publicly funded model of Early Years and School Age Care.

If you would like to know more about our work, you can contact us at policy@earlychildhoodireland.ie.

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