Children represent 20% of the EU’s population, yet, even before the pandemic, almost 18 million children were experiencing poverty and social exclusion. Very young children are often overlooked, despite overwhelming evidence of the benefits of a healthy, safe and nurturing environment on their later life chances.
The First Years, First Priority campaign has surveyed the current state of early childhood development (ECD) across nine European countries (Bulgaria, Finland, France, Hungary, Ireland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, and Spain) on six key areas – child poverty, maternal and child health and nutrition, child’s safety and security, early learning including early childhood education and care (ECEC), parenting and family support, and cross-sectoral coordination for ECD. The analysis highlighted the following key challenges:
1.The scarcity of data on children’s early years – especially children under three – across policy areas, indicates insufficient knowledge of, and attention to, early childhood development. This is despite widespread recognition that children’s early years are fundamental for their lifelong healthy development and wellbeing and should be a priority for governments and policymakers.
2. Limited or non-existent disaggregated data on the lives of young children under six – especially those under three – who are living in poverty and social exclusion hinders efforts to improve public policy and investment for young children facing multiple and intersecting vulnerabilities. Comprehensive and comparable data is necessary, at the country and European level, to inform policy-making and public spending on early childhood, so that all children can have the best start in life.
3. Across countries there is a need to guarantee universal access to early childhood education and care (ECEC) services – especially for children under three and those who are most in need – alongside greater support for families with young children. This requires increased public investment in ECEC and parenting services and strengthening the capacity and professional development of ECEC staff to respond to children’s needs in their very early years.
4. There is a need for an integrated multi-sectoral approach to early childhood, with leadership and coordination that addresses children’s and families’ needs in a comprehensive way. The European Child Guarantee is an opportunity for governments to address poverty and social exclusion from children’s earliest years, with a holistic approach to ECD policies and financing, and a comprehensive system of parenting and family support, especially in light of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Initiatives such as the European Child Guarantee, the Council Recommendation on High Quality Early Childhood Education and Care and the EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child should be harnessed by governments to support early childhood development as a national priority. The analysis highlights priorities that can help policymakers identify where to act, especially as national action plans to implement the European Child Guarantee are developed in the coming months.