Low child poverty often goes hand in hand with early years services which do not split education from care and are universally accessible and affordable.
That was the message from a major research report, Working for inclusion: an overview of European Union early years services and their workforce, launched last weekend in Norway by Bronwen Cohen, chief executive of Children in Scotland.
Dr Cohen, who is programme director of Working for inclusion, said the key message from the report was that integration mattered. "Early education and childcare services are not a magic cure for poverty and inequality, but countries with fully-integrated systems - where services for under- threes have been brought up to the same levels as those for older children - are also the countries with the lowest social differences in the use of services," she said.
"There are big gains for children under three, who are more likely to be attending properly-regulated, well-staffed services which cost less, and where there is no difference in attendance rates between children of parents with higher and lower educational qualifications.
"By contrast, in countries with split or partially-integrated systems - such as the Netherlands and the UK - children of those with high levels of education are three times more likely to attend formal services than those from less educated families."
The research, carried out over two years and covering 10 European countries, was by John Bennett, former co-director of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Starting Strong reports, and Peter Moss, professor of early childhood education at the University of London's Institute of Education. They say the key indicators of high-quality early- years systems and services, that make a difference to inequalities resulting from parental income and education background, are:
- a fully-integrated government system of service delivery, which takes responsibility for services and access, funding, regulation and workforce;
- a well-educated and well-paid workforce that works with children from birth onwards;
- a unified workforce that is not divided into working with different age- groups (that is, under three and over three);
- strong parental leave that is connected to entitlement to early years services from six months to one year.
The cost of services for under-threes in the UK is 25 per cent of the earnings of an average production worker, compared with 6 per cent in Sweden, 8 per cent in Finland and Denmark, and Norway 10 per cent.
Fully-integrated systems make access a right for all children, providing direct funding to services rather than parents. They offer reduced costs to parents, introduce educational curricula, and bring about significant improvements to the education and status of the workforce.
In Sweden, Denmark and Finland, where services are fully integrated and there are high overall attendance rates at formal services for children under three, there is little difference in attendance rates between children of mothers of lower and higher levels of education.
In Denmark, attendance rates for under-threes vary from 70-75 per cent, with children of mothers with high education levels having the lowest attendance rates. The corresponding figures for Sweden and Finland are 47- 52 per cent and 22-25 per cent respectively.
In the Netherlands, the difference in attendance rates between children with low and high levels of maternal education is 16-59 per cent, and in the UK, 13-39 per cent.
Scotland's Minister for Children and Early Years, Adam Ingram said: "The Scottish Government has supported the Working for Inclusion programme because we believe it is important we learn with and from other countries. This study offers us valuable information and we will be considering how it can help us in developing our policies, in particular the early years framework which is currently being implemented."
Elizabeth Buie, email@example.com.