International perspectives on Early Years – part one

International perspectives on Early Years – part one

A report by the UK Government on international perspectives in Early Years, published last year, looks at the aims and purposes of Early Years provision in an international context. It also reflects on where England is within the international context. In this first part in a series of four, we look at what the report says on availability and access to Early Years.

Participation

The report details how children participate in Early Years provision at different ages across countries. Children under the age of three are less likely to attend an Early Years service compared to older children. Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Iceland have the highest participation for children under the age of three. In countries such as Bulgaria and Romania, participation for children under three is very low, standing at 16 per cent and 13 per cent respectively. In Ireland, 38 per cent of children under three participate in Early Years care.

Participation of children over the age of three is much higher, with countries like Denmark, Iceland, and Spain having a participation rate of over 95 per cent. In the UK and Ireland, the participation rate is 100 per cent. The report acknowledges that comparing participation rates internationally can be difficult, with the rates possibly being skewed by parental leave policies. These policies can vary among European countries, with some not providing any parental leave and others offering more than a year. Longer parental leave can reduce participation rates among children under the age of three.

Affordability

The cost of Early Years provision also varies across European countries. The report notes that fees are regulated in most European countries with some countries having a specific limit on fees. For others, the limit may be a proportion of a family’s income or setting’s cost. In Norway, kindergarten fees are limited to 6 per cent of a household’s income, whereas in Denmark, the income from fees cannot be more than 25 per cent of a setting’s estimated gross operating cost.

Many countries provide a period of funded Early Years care and are more likely to fund places for older children. Denmark, Germany, and Norway all offer funded places to children from a very young age, between six and eighteen months. Almost half of all European systems offer a funded place from the age of three. The number of countries making attendance compulsory in the final one or two years of provision is growing with Bulgaria, the Netherlands, and Greece joining the list.

Access for all

Across countries in the OECD, children from low-income families are less likely to participate in Early Years care than others. This can be seen in England. To increase participation among children from low-income families, England offers additional free Early Years places beyond the usual entitlement for three- and four-year-olds. An example of this is that children whose parents receive certain benefits are eligible for 15 hours of free provision at the age of two. In 2022, 92 per cent of three- and four-year-olds were registered for their entitled provision whereas only 72 per cent of eligible two-year-olds were registered.

Some countries offer priority access to Early Years care to certain groups. For example, Hungary, Slovenia, and Serbia offer priority access to children under social protection or in foster care. Ireland does the same for children who are homeless whereas Greece and Spain give priority access to children of women in shelters fleeing domestic violence. Croatia, Cyprus, and Albania have specific measures that support access to provision for Roma children, and Ireland has a programme that offers free part-time provision for refugees.

Availability

The report notes that there is a shortage of places for children under the age of three. For children over  three, the supply of places is usually better with nearly all countries providing an adequate supply of provision for children in their last year of Early Years care. This could reflect a perception of the purpose of Early Years care at different ages. There are many who consider education to be a more important aspect of Early Years provision as children grow older for example in relation to school readiness .

In some countries, poor availability of places in Early Years settings means that not all children who are eligible for funded provision are able to attend. In Germany, children are legally entitled to an Early Years place from the age of one but not all children are able to enrol due to a lack of places. Children over the age of three are more likely to receive a place than younger children.

In the next part of this series, we will look at what the report’s findings on the Early Years workforce.

Get in touch

If you have any questions regarding this report, please contact our policy team.

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