We cannot afford to avert our eyes from early childhood education

Image: ISSA & McConnico

We are going through a very challenging period in the field of early childhood education and care (ECEC). For decades we struggled to put a spotlight on the importance of the early years for the entire life of each individual and to highlight the benefits of quality early years. We believed that soon ECEC would get a priority place on the European and global agenda. Now, as we learn about the chain of impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, we look back at the priorities before the crisis, and then turn our eyes to what today’s reality is (sadly) revealing. What do we see?

Let us collectively reflect on ECEC systems by using the pre- and post-crisis lenses.

Before the crisis, concern about the quality of ECEC systems was recurrently brought into the policy arena until, at the European level, it led to the May 2019 Council Recommendation on High-Quality ECEC Systems. This first-of-its-kind document to be endorsed at the European level represented a promising step in recognising the importance of systemic quality in ECEC and the need for sustained investment in early years.

Challenges in improving quality revolved around at least three dimensions:

  • access – low access especially for the youngest children (under 3) and for the most vulnerable children and families;
  • staff – an aging workforce, low-paid and with low retention, precarious working conditions and with little opportunities for career and professional development;
  • governance and funding – overall an underfunded sector, with insufficient infrastructure and weak coordination, especially across child age groups, and especially in split systems.

And what is happening now, in this rapidly changing landscape when we still need to learn about the magnitude of impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the ECEC systems?

In many countries, the ECEC infrastructure was already insufficient to cover families’ demand (or entitlement?). Now we foresee even fewer chances that access to ECEC services will improve, especially for those who historically have been on the margins of society. If, before the crisis, access to ECEC reflected the extent to which governments prioritise investment in the youngest generations in their countries, now the low access to and participation in ECEC will reflect and aggravate the inequalities and inequities in societies and will contribute to widening the gaps between different groups of children.

Unless there are policies that provide families with the support they need so that they can be economically self-sufficient, the same children who most needed the ECEC services will continue to be denied their fair start, and sadly their number will grow as family poverty will increase. Perhaps now, more than ever, ECEC must be seen as a public good and an essential service in society, available and affordable for all children. Fighting against inequalities and inequities in societies starts from there.

Before the crisis, ECEC staff already suffered from low remuneration, thus lower recognition of their work, and insufficient opportunities for professional and career development. ECEC systems desperately needed investment to help retain and grow their professionals. Now, they worry about losing their jobs (some have already lost them), despite overcoming the unprecedented challenge of working from a distance. High pressure and responsibility are put on their shoulders in the re-opening of services.

ECEC staff are an essential buffer at the community level and an important lever in creating safety nets for children and families. Parents care and worry most about their young children. And ECEC staff care with professionalism for all children and families.

Will their work be at last appropriately and publicly recognised? A fair and lucid analysis of the services that count decisively in the fabric of well-functioning and generative societies (and economies) will provide solid evidence for prioritising ECEC on the list of rapid investments needed now and in the aftermath.

Dr Mihaela Ionescu

Dr Mihaela Ionescu is Programme Director at ISSA - International Step by Step Association. She is an ECEC expert and a doctor in Education Sciences. She has been working for the last 25 years as a researcher in the education field, as a policy developer, trainer and programme and project coordinator aiming to improve the quality and equity in ECEC services.