The OECD has recently released Education at a Glance 2023, the latest edition in its informative series on the state of education around the world. The series addresses a range of issues, providing key data for analysis by governments, academics and organisations seeking policy change for children and young people. It covers all levels of education, from Early Years to third level. Throughout the document, it refers to Early Years education for children under the age of three and to pre-primary education which refers to children between the ages of three and five not in primary education.
Participation in Early Years education is not compulsory for children under the age of three in any OECD country. In 2021, around 75% of three-year-olds were enroled in formal Early Years settings across the OECD. The share of enroled three-year-olds ranges from four per cent or less in Costa Rica, Greece, and Switzerland, to 100% in France, Israel, and the UK. The availability and length of Parental Leave influences whether children are enrolled in Early Years services.
Factors such as maternal employment and cultural perspectives on the role of women in the workplace or as primary caregivers are also important. In Sweden, the enrolment rate for children under the age of two is 25% and at the age of three is 91%. 82% of mothers with children under the age of three are also employed, compared to the OECD average of 60%. In Hungary where the enrolment rate for children at the age of two is 11% and 13% in Slovakia, the employment rate of mothers whose youngest child is under three is below 20%.
Although participation is not compulsory in all countries, it is still very common for children over the age of three to be enrolled in Early Years care. In more than half of OECD countries, the enrolment rate for children between the ages of three and five is nearly universal. The highest enrolment rate for children aged four years in Early Years care and primary education is in Belgium, Japan, and Luxembourg.
On average across the OECD, 18% of educators at level are under the age of 30. This varies across countries with the share being 3% in Portugal and 49% in Japan. Staff who are 50 years old or older make up 30% of all educators at a pre-primary level on average across the OECD. In 17 out of 38 countries with available data, the share of teachers over the age of 50 is double the share of those under 30.
Women also dominate the workforce, accounting for 96% of pre-primary educators across the OECD. Very slow progress has been made towards greater male representation as women made up 97% of the workforce in 2013.
Child-staff ratios and group sizes are important indicators of the resources devoted to education. Regulating ratios can be used to improve the quality of Early Years care. The ratio of children to teaching staff ranges from five children or less per teacher in Iceland and Ireland to more than 30 in Colombia and the UK. Lower child-staff ratios are particularly critical for high-quality interactions with children under the age of three. Apart from Hungary, Indonesia, Mexico, and Romania, the child-to-educator ratio in Early Years development services is consistently lower than for pre-primary education across the OECD.
In most OECD countries, the salaries of pre-primary educators aged 25-64 are substantially lower than those of full-time, full-year workers in third level education. In Hungary and Slovakia, pre-primary teachers earn 60% of what those who work in third level education earn. However, pre-primary teachers in Australia earn five per cent more than workers in tertiary education, and this rises to 40% in Lithuania and Portugal.
It is estimated that a third of children who were displaced from their homes in the Ukraine are under the age of six. However, only one in three refugee children is registered for Early Years provision in their host countries. Ukrainian refugees face many barriers to accessing Early Years including language barriers, financial barriers, lack of information, and staff shortages in the sector. Some countries have introduced specific measures to help Early Years staff support incoming Ukrainian children. For example, in Slovakia, the Ministry of Education arranged for teachers to be provided with specific materials and voluntary training on psychological support and integration. Estonia has organised extra funding and support for preschool institutions in regional counselling centres, which include speech therapists, special education teachers, and psychological and social-pedagogical counselling. Extra funding was also provided to support the training and hiring of specialist support teachers.
Some countries have reported expanding their Early Years sector following the arrival of refugee children from Ukraine. Spain has created a specific funding programme to help educational institutions at preschool, primary and secondary levels to support the young refugees. This funding programme includes transport subsidies for Ukrainian school assistants, school transport for students and school meal subsidies. In Slovenia, parents under temporary protection are entitled to reduced kindergarten fees and under certain circumstances, their fees are paid in full.
Expenditure on pre-primary education per child has risen by three per cent per year on average across the OECD between 2015 and 2020, however, this varies across countries. The largest increases were in Estonia, Romania, and Lithuania where the annual rate was seven per cent or more. Expenditure fell in a small number of countries such as Ireland where it decreased by four per cent. Increases in expenditure per child may be a result of increases in the amount of funds or a fall in the number of children enrolled. Ireland, where expenditure figures include all Early Years educational programmes and not just pre-primary school, experienced an increase in expenditure as a whole between 2015 and 2020, but the number of children enroled exceeded the increases in funding resulting in a fall in the expenditure per child.
Across OECD countries, expenditure on Early Years programmes represented 0.9% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). For programmes only, the average share is 0.7% of GDP. Iceland and Sweden have the highest level of expenditure on Early Years education, spending 1.2% of their GDP. When looking at expenditure on children between the ages of three and five who are enrolled in Early Years education and primary education, the average across the OECD is 0.6% of GDP. This ranges from 0.3% of GDP in Greece, Ireland, and Turkey to at least 1% of GDP in Iceland and Norway.
As part of Early Childhood Ireland’s Budget 2024 submission, we proposed increasing investment in Early Years and School Age Care to €4 billion or 1% of GDP and that this should be accompanied by a five-year plan. If you have any questions regarding our Budget 2024 submission or this OECD report, please contact our policy team.