Even Europe’s most family-friendly countries don’t invest enough in their youngest kids

Figuring out how to universally care for and educate these babies is the next frontier for family-friendly societies.
Figuring out how to universally care for and educate these babies is the next frontier for family-friendly societies.
Image: REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
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Europe has some of the world’s most family-friendly countries.

By the time they turn four, almost every European child will have access to some form of early childhood education and care. But despite successfully prioritizing this care, even these countries are struggling—if not outright failing—to invest enough in their youngest kids.

Science shows that a child’s experiences from birth through age five—everything from where they grow up to what they eat and what their relationships with adults around them is like—shape how their brains develop and, ultimately, who they become. That’s also when inequality sets in and widens the gap between rich and poor kids.

But there’s emerging evidence that the most crucial years for kids’ development are more specifically from birth to age three, when babies’ brains form more than one million new neural connections every second. “Children are competent learners from birth,” write the authors of a UK government report (pdf) on this period. “In the process of caring for, and, in the broadest sense, educating young children, no time is too soon to begin.”

Recognizing this, the EU approved a document in 2017 outlining a set of “pillars” of social rights, including that all children have the right to affordable, good-quality early childhood education and care.

And yet a new report written by the European Commission shows that 66% of European kids under three don’t have access to early childhood education and care. The report collected data from 38 European countries, including all EU member states and 10 other European countries. It shows that only eight countries—Denmark, Germany, Estonia, Latvia, Slovenia, Finland, Sweden, and Norway—guarantee a spot in publicly-funded early childhood education and care programs for babies starting between six and 18 months, around the time when parental leave typically ends. Half of the countries start offering this to kids starting at age three, and almost all of them offer it by age four.

Access is one component. But quality and affordability are also key. What kids need most during these crucial years are interactions with loving and supportive adults. Since most parents work full-time, qualified educators can step in, helping them develop the skills they need to succeed. And yet the report notes that “good quality” childcare programs for the under-three are not yet available in many European countries.  (There’s a lot of debate about what “good-quality” actually means in relation to early childhood development; the report defines it as “clear educational content for all children delivered by highly qualified staff and supported by consistent policies.”)

This type of high-quality care is especially helpful to poor kids, who don’t always get the same stimulation and care at home as their wealthier peers. Yet, the report notes that most European families have to pay for education and care for younger kids. Only Latvia guarantees a free public spot for every child from as young as 18 months old. In the most expensive countries, like Switzerland, or The Netherlands, childcare outside the home for kids under three is essentially left up to private corporations and “market-driven mechanisms.” This can lead to monthly fees as high as €771 ($867) in Ireland, for example. 

As the report makes clear, even world leaders in early childhood are struggling to deal with the gaps in affordability, accessibility, and universality of childcare.

Read more from our series on Rewiring Childhood. This reporting is part of a series supported by a grant from the Bernard van Leer Foundation. The author’s views are not necessarily those of the Bernard van Leer Foundation.