Almost every report that has been published on services for children under five within the past 10 years has commented on the injustice of the present system. Children have unequal access to services, and the services which do exist differ widely in their costs, in their staffing, and in what kind of premises they are located. At the root of the problem is, as the Audit Commission euphemistically put it, an unresolved "debate" about central policy questions.
"What the UK shares with most advanced countries is a long-standing debate about the principles underlying early-years policy: the state's role in supporting parenthood, the best means of supporting children's development, the pattern of adult employment." (Audit Commission, 1996) The voucher system now preoccupying local authorities might have offered a solution had it arisen out of a policy debate about the contradictions between part-time nursery education, support for vulnerable families, and day care for working parents. But vouchers were always conceived of within an education framework, as a way of spreading part-time nursery education - as defined by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority - through the private and voluntary sector merely by changing the definition of what nursery education is, and by reorganising how it is paid for and regulated.
If this policy debate had taken place in the UK, what might it have come up with? This week the European Commission Childcare Network publishes its quality targets, the outcome of 10 years' work examining the patterns of services for young children in each member state, including the UK.
The report has been prepared within the framework of the Council Recommendation on Childcare to which the UK was a signatory. It sets out what a comprehensive early-years service would look like if it were to meet the varying needs of families and children in a coherent - and economical - way. It suggests that these targets can be met within l0 years by all member states given the political will. It lists nine "domains of action", 40 targets in all.
Each target has already been achieved in one or more of the member states, although no member state has yet achieved all of them. The UK, for instance, has some of the clearest education targets for children aged three and four and some of the best local policies about parental involvement, but is weakest on national policies and is one of the lowest spenders on early-years services.
The overriding principle of the commission's report is that European governments should prepare a comprehensive policy encompassing all aspects of an early-years service. They "should draw on professional and public opinion to provide a published and coherent statement of intent for care and education services for young children aged 0-6, in the public and the private sector, at national and at regionallocal level. This policy should set out principles, specify objectives and define priorities, and explain how such initiatives will be coordinated between relevant departments".
From that statement, other measures can be developed. It can be worked out how much services actually cost, and how those costs should be met - what the balance is between what parents pay and what the state pays, and how those costs are administered. The target for expenditure in the report is 1 per cent of gross domestic product, or roughly 20 per cent of the education budget for children 0-6. Scandinavian countries and France already spend more than this. In most countries, including the UK, the statistics are simply not good enough to be able to say exactly what we do spend though meeting the target would mean spending roughly about four to five times what we currently give to early-years services.
But, as a number of other UK reports have indicated, if the services were comprehensive, and provided child care for working parents as well as nursery education, the costs recouped from tax would be considerable. In addition most countries expect some kind of parental contribution, at least for the care elements - in France, Belgium and Spain, for example, this is commonly set around l0-l5 per cent of household income.
The report also suggests targets for the levels and types of services. They suggest that they should cater for at least 90 per cent of three to six-year-olds, and for at least 15 per cent of children under three. The emphasis is on flexibility, on services which offer parents some choice within as well as between themselves - unlike the rigid UK nursery education scheme.
The enviromental and health targets would be among the most to achieve within the UK. The report takes the physical well-being of children seriously. It takes the view that "space is liberty" and insists that children are not cooped up in a spare hut or vacant hall - as is frequently the case in the UK - but have well designed and health-promoting facilities which include decent outdoor space, and, if children stay for meals, proper food.
The poor physical condition of young children in the UK is increasingly lamented, but it is not merely a problem for individual parents, it is also an institutional and political problem which can - and has been - resolved elsewhere. The report cites the woodland kindergartens in Denmark and the ecological nursery programme in Frankfurt as prime examples of what can be done.
Other targets include staff:child ratios, and staff employment and training. The report stresses the need to explore the participatory and decision making roles of parents, and to reflect the ethnic diversity of local communities. Finally it emphasises monitoring and evaluation - including financial evaluation - and highlights the importance of setting performance targets not merely as centralised and externally-imposed conditions, such as is proposed in the UK. Here the examples of northern Italy and Belgium are cited. In northern Italy some municipalities provide a cost-analysis of services which enable managers and parents to discuss qualitycost ratios.
The report is short and it is not prescriptive - the European principle of subsidiarity ensures that. But it does show how a framework for early childhood services can be drawn up. It lists the issues which need to be addressed and it shows how different European countries have come to terms with them. It makes a cogent argument for change. The question is, will any of our politicians take any notice? Can experience and logic triumph over ideology?
Helen Penn is senior research fellow at the Institute of Education, London University, and was a contributor to the report.