This blog is based on an article in the Journal of Social Policy. Click here to access the article.
This paper focuses on social investment in early childhood education and care (ECEC) – ‘childcare’, ‘nursery education’ or other ‘pre-school’ provision – in England, France and Germany. The provision of high quality childcare is seen as central to social investment and is expected to increase employment rates and to benefit the cognitive and non-cognitive development of young children. Whilst the extent of social investment in ECEC depends on financial expenditure, its effectiveness depends on certain conditions being met, namely affordable, high quality provision being available. On the basis of our analysis of wide ranging documentation, we conclude that for children aged three and over, social investment in ECEC can be deemed to be broadly effective in France and Germany, but not in England where the condition of quality is not fully met. For children under three, effective social investment is elusive in all countries although why varies between countries.
In France, for children from the age of three, participation in the école maternelle, part of the national education system, is the norm. Qualified teachers with degree level qualifications are employed, there is a common curriculum and a national inspection system. For children under three, the situation is different. Although disadvantaged two-year-olds should be prioritised for a place in the école maternelle, local discretion means that more advantaged children can be admitted instead. Childcare centres are the responsibility of the local authority, which is not obliged to provide such facilities. Moreover, the public subsidies are not sufficiently generous to ensure that formal childcare centres are affordable for parents on low incomes. Staff in crèches are not as highly qualified as teachers in écoles maternelles, but they are more qualified than childminders (assistantes maternelles).
England, unlike France was late developing publicly-funded ECEC, with private (for-profit/not- for-profit) provision historically meeting the childcare needs of working mothers. Since the late 1990s, governments of different political complexions have promoted and fostered local childcare markets comprising private providers and state schools. Outside the free government-funded early years provision (for three- and four-year-olds and disadvantaged two-year-olds), costs to parents are high, with no means-testing. There are no subsidies for parents with very young children who are not in work, which restricts access to ECEC for children below two from the poorest backgrounds. As regards quality, whilst there is a ‘level playing field’ across providers in terms of public funding and a common curriculum, there is no equivalence in terms of staff qualifications, with only state maintained nursery schools and nursery classes being required to employ qualified teachers.
In Germany, the roles of central, regional and local governments and decentralisation are fundamental to understanding availability. The higher levels of childcare provision in the Eastern German Länder are associated with the historically high levels in the former East Germany (GDR). Participation in, and institutional availability of ECEC continues to be higher in the Eastern than Western German Länder. The regulation of childcare centres – and hence quality – varies regionally with respect to staff qualifications and adherence to curriculum guidelines. Turning to affordability, across Germany, unlike either France or England, the public subsidies – via free provision as in the case of Berlin, or means-testing, or the waiving of fees elsewhere – can be seen to facilitate access for children from disadvantaged families.
Have the conditions for effective social investment been met in our case study countries? Financial investment, measured in terms of public expenditure, is far higher in France than in the other two countries. However, social investment as assessed in terms of availability, affordability, and quality of ECEC varies. For children between three and the start of compulsory education, social investment can be deemed to be broadly effective in France and Germany, but not in England. The conditions of availability and affordability are broadly met in all three countries: participation is near universal and full- or part-time provision is often available free of charge. However, only in France and Germany are the conditions for quality met, with well qualified staff (with degrees) being the norm. This is not the case in England as private (for- profit/not-for-profit) childcare centres are not required to employ qualified teachers.
For children under three, social investment cannot be deemed to be effective in any country. Participation is, unsurprisingly, much lower. France has a comparatively high level of participation, but there is limited availability of childcare centres. Participation is much lower in Germany, although it is higher in the Eastern than Western Länder. In all three countries, parents are normally charged fees. In Germany and France these are mainly means-tested, but in the latter costs are high for less well-off parents hampering access. In England, beyond the free provision, costs for parents are high as a result of the heavily marketised system and no means testing. In contrast to France and Germany, where staff qualifications in childcare centres are high, in England staff qualifications in private childcare centres are low. Training for childminders is minimal in all countries.
Our research raises questions about the concept of social investment: what matters is not only how much money is spent, but how it is spent and on what. Although in England expenditure on ECEC has increased dramatically, governments have promoted private investment at the expense of both quality and affordability. And in France, although expenditure is high, direct government subsidies to parents to employ childminders with minimal training, also militate against high quality and affordable ECEC.
In conclusion, England, France and German vary in the extent to which they meet the conditions for effective social investment. The extent of social investment rests fundamentally on levels of funding, but its effectiveness also depends on the role played by government in terms of commitment to ECEC, especially with respect to the type of public investment, and in a willingness to regulate to ensure high quality, which is particularly important for child development.
About the authors
Anne West is Professor of Education Policy at the London School of Economics.
Agnes Blome is Research Fellow at the Freie Universität Berlin.
Jane Lewis is Emeritus Professor of Social Policy at the London School of Economics.