Improving the quality of ECEC services: the European Quality Framework as a catalyst for change

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Over the last decade, the issue of quality in early childhood education and care (ECEC) has gained increased attention in research, policies and pedagogical debates both at EU and at national level. There is an increased awareness that attendance of high-quality ECEC services can make a difference in the lives of young children and their families, and the focus has shifted from expanding the quantity of provision in order to improve work-life balance to promoting educational success and social inclusion through quality provision.

Having participated as a researcher in the process that led to the development of the European Quality Framework and follow-up initiatives, I would like to share it as an example of how reciprocal dialogue and ongoing cooperation between policy-makers, researchers and stakeholder organisations can significantly contribute to the advancement of ECEC practice for the benefit of children, families and local communities. 

What is high-quality ECEC? And how can it be achieved?

There is an agreement on the conditions needed to improve educational and care practices in early childhood services and the ECEC system. The Proposal for key principles of a quality framework for early childhood education and care (EU ECEC QF), elaborated by the ECEC Thematic Working Group (2012-2014) under the auspices of the European Commission, is a key document formalising the consensus achieved in this area among EU Member States’ policy-makers, researchers, educational experts, professional associations and NGOs active in the field. The document highlights a shared vision of ECEC where care and education are viewed as inseparable in the early years and, by doing so, clearly outlines the values and understandings constituting the pillars of high-quality ECEC provision. Based on these principles, the process led to the formulation of 10 action statements articulated across five areas of implementation of the framework:

  • accessibility
  • workforce
  • curriculum
  • monitoring and evaluation
  • governance and funding

These agreed statements make it possible to embrace the diversity of ECEC systems, cultures and policy approaches in Europe. Moreover, they can provide guidance for all stakeholders who want to improve the quality of ECEC provision in their own local contexts and support local administrators, coordinators and service providers in the process of overcoming common challenges by drawing on a solid base of European research and examples of good practices.

In a time of growing momentum to reform ECEC policy and provision at European as well as national levels, the Quality Framework has been proactively used by the stakeholders involved in the Thematic Working Group – among which NGOs and professional associations – for sustaining policy advocacy and bottom-up qualification processes at local, regional and even national level.

A (soon to be released) report by the NESETII network describes how the Framework was translated in several languages (French, German, Italian and Portuguese), and shared in many countries by local stakeholders engaged in policy advocacy, research and training initiatives. In these countries, the Framework acted as a powerful catalyst for change by feeding in policy consultation processes that sustained existing reform pathways. It even triggered reforms in the sector, as was the case in Italy, where the document contributed to the policy advocacy process that led to the integrated system of ECEC under the Ministry of Education, overcoming the previously existing split system.

The Framework is also being used as an inspiring tool for the training of early childhood practitioners. The International Step by Step Association has thus developed the training package 5 Steps to Quality for supporting quality improvement of ECEC services at providers’ level. The manual focuses on awareness-raising, reflection and dialogue on the EU QF ECEC principles and links these to ECEC policies, regulations and guidelines enacted in the contexts where training is implemented.

As revealed by the experiences illustrated in the NESETII report, the EU Quality Framework can offer multiple possibilities for fostering innovation in policy and practices according to local societal needs and collective aspirations. In fact, if it is used as a culturally sensitive tool for stimulating dialogue and furthering the debate on quality and its improvement across diverse contexts, the Framework can play a powerful role in sustaining the agency and proactive initiative of all players engaged in the processes of consultation, advocacy and development. This, in turn, will allow us to find solutions that are tailor-made for each national, regional and local context, therefore serving the best interests of children and their families within the diverse communities they live in.

Arianna Lazzari is research fellow at the Department of Education of Bologna University. She has been involved in several research projects funded by the European Commission and by Eurofound. Recently she collaborated with the DG Education and Culture for the review of research evidence in support of the document Proposal for principles of a Quality Framework for ECEC (2014).