EU defines free access to high quality early childhood education and care

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The Council of ministers of EU countries responsible for Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs met on 14-15 June 2021 and adopted the Council Recommendation establishing a European Child Guarantee. This recommendation is more important than ever as across Europe, one in four children – which represents nearly 18 million children – are currently at risk of poverty or social exclusion. The COVID-19 crisis is greatly exacerbating existing inequalities.

Within the Council Recommendation, the EU Member States are recommended to fight against child poverty by ensuring consistency of social, education, health, nutrition and housing policies at national, regional and local level, and to “continue and where necessary step up investment in education”. The Member States are also urged to guarantee for children in need:

  • Effective and free access to high quality early childhood education and care, education and school-based activities, at least one healthy meal each school day and healthcare.
  • Effective access to healthy nutrition and adequate housing.

This Council Recommendation is an essential development as ensuring free-of-charge access for children to early childhood education (ECE) is a long-standing demand of ETUCE. However, it must be noted that the Council recommendation focuses mostly on children at risk and the recommendation asks that free access to ECE needs to be ensured while respecting national competences and in situations “where applicable. These additional remarks therefore do not automatically guarantee free-of-charge access to ECE for all children, but it is an essential first step.

The implementation process is key to achieve this goal as each EU country must present its action plan of implementation valid until 2030 to the European Commission within the next nine months. It is also important to mention that the Council Recommendation specifies the need for the EU countries to involve relevant stakeholders in the execution of the Recommendation. The role of education trade unions in the implementation is crucial as the Council also puts an emphasis on the role of ECE teachers in this process. Indeed, the countries need to ensure that “qualified teachers and other professionals are available, such as psychologists, speech therapists, rehabilitators, social workers or teaching assistants”.

ETUCE position on Establishing a European Child Guarantee (June 2021) emphasises that sustainable public investment is crucial to improve the professional preparation and qualification of ECE staff to acquire pedagogical competences and skills for inclusive education as well as for providing support to at-risk children and to learning languages. However, ETUCE member organisations report that unattractive salaries and unfair working conditions in the ECE sector persistently undermine the attractiveness of the profession and the quality of the sector as such. In several countries working conditions are poor, ECE staff has no job security, no health or holiday coverage, no pensions or social benefits and the teachers are often employed part time for short contracts only, resulting in recruitment problems and a high staff turnover rate. Therefore, the implementation of the Council Recommendation should also take these issues into account and ensure more attractive salaries and reliable career pathways in order to recruit and retain high-qualified ECE teachers and staff.