Early education and care has become a central policy area in the UK. In the run up to next year's general election, Labour is promising to extend the free entitlement to 25 hours a week, while the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats last week announced plans for a new tax-free childcare allowance (see page 5), alongside the introduction of an Early Years Pupil Premium.
Services for young children occupy a central position in the political debate of other countries too. These services are seen as important both because of their role in helping people balance work and family life, and because of a growing understanding that early childhood is a key developmental stage. Research evidence shows that early years provision can have a lasting impact. Furthermore, as the benefits are greatest for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, services have the potential to narrow gaps and level the playing field as children enter primary school.
To deliver, though, provision must be high quality - warm, sensitive and supporting child development. For policy makers, the challenge is therefore to increase the number of places while ensuring that access is equitable and quality is high, a challenge made only harder in a climate of fiscal restraint.
In our new book, An Equal Start? Providing Quality Early Education and Care for Disadvantaged Children, we bring together experts from eight countries to examine how different governments grapple with this challenge. Beside the UK, the countries included are Norway, France, the Netherlands, Germany, New Zealand, Australia and the US.
These countries are of course very different: from a huge nation like the US to small child-friendly countries such as Norway. Parental leave varies widely too - from generous in Norway and Germany to non-existent in the US. And school starts at different ages.
These differences - among many others - are important, but the central challenge is similar everywhere: there are tensions when trying to deliver what we might call the 'childcare triangle' - access, affordability and quality.
We focus on the nuts and bolts of policy and ask: what can governments do? The policy levers at their disposal are essentially three: direct provision, funding and regulation. Here, we examine some of the key issues thrown up in relation to each.
Our eight countries were chosen because early education and care is delivered, albeit to a varying extent, by a mixed economy of providers from different sectors - the state, the voluntary sector and often the private for-profit sector.
In the UK, the for-profit sector is large, a feature shared with the other English-speaking countries and the Netherlands. What impact does this have on quality and access? First, while for-profit providers can help create new places, we found no evidence that competition in itself pushes up quality. Strong regulations seem essential to keeping quality high. For example, in Norway, for-profit providers are increasingly involved in running kindergartens, but there are strong quality requirements in place alongside caps on both fees and profits: profits are only allowed if they are 'reasonable' - and they are not considered reasonable if personnel costs are significantly lower than in municipal kindergartens. So high state subsidies to the sector are spent on the service and do not leak out into profits.
A second issue is that the mixed economy can result in segregation between children from different backgrounds, as commercial providers have an incentive to serve higher-income families. The example of the Netherlands is telling: low-income families are served almost exclusively by non-profit providers operating shorter hours, while for-profit provision is concentrated on more advantaged children.
Within the UK, England runs a similar risk, with school-based provision disproportionately catering for poorer children. Does this matter? If quality is no higher in commercial settings, arguably not, but research suggests that children benefit from a mixed environment. In France, social mix is an accepted quality criteria, and there are incentives governments can use to reduce segregation.
We find that when the state funds providers directly, it is easier to build in incentives or requirements for a more equal and higher quality service. For example, in New Zealand providers receive funding on the basis of workforce qualifications - the higher the proportion of qualified teachers, the higher the funding. In England, local authorities can give providers quality supplements in their free entitlement funding, but as authorities themselves receive a fixed budget from central Government few make use of this.
In France, private providers who receive public funding need to operate with income-related fees fixed at national level and to ensure that they have a mixed intake. In Germany, Hamburg and Bavaria have funding formulas that include supplements for children from disadvantaged families.
Outside the free entitlement, the UK funds early education and care via subsidies for parents. Other countries use subsidies too, but they are often more generous and inclusive. While in the UK only lower-income working parents receive the tax credit, the Australian Child Care Benefit is income-related but available to all. Australia, like New Zealand, also allows subsidies to be paid directly to the provider, so parents can avoid the hassle of claiming money back.
As for generosity, let's compare the UK to the Netherlands. On this side of the English Channel, as things stand, working parents need to pay between 30 per cent (if they receive the maximum reimbursement) and 100 per cent of the fees. In the Netherlands, working parents pay from 3.5 per cent to 66 per cent of fees.
All our eight countries regulate similar aspects of provision - staff qualifications, child:staff ratios and the curriculum - and they all use a supervisory or inspection system to check compliance. But there are marked differences in emphasis.
For example, in Norway the curriculum sets only broad aims, and supervision is up to the municipality. But graduate-level teachers are required in all kindergartens, and heads and pedagogical leaders must also be specialised graduates.
In New Zealand, both the curriculum and staff qualifications are given high importance. Because the curriculum requires practitioners to be reflective, research-oriented and equipped with relevant knowledge, its introduction has been instrumental in promoting a teacher-trained workforce.
By contrast, in the UK, and in England in particular, there is a stronger reliance on the curriculum and on inspections. While there has been investment in a new graduate qualification, the proportion of graduate staff remains low and the quality of vocational training at lower level is patchy. This raises concerns about whether the curriculum can be effectively delivered. The UK also appears unique in that inspections are carried out in a much more systematic and centralised way than elsewhere, with official ratings by the education (or care) inspectorates publicly available.
On the issue of child:staff ratios, we do find some evidence of a trade-off between ratios and qualifications. For example, both New Zealand and Norway have more highly trained staff than the UK, alongside higher child:staff ratios, certainly for younger children. But some caveats are needed. In New Zealand, there are concerns that ratios are too high. In Norway, national requirements simply state that ratios need to be 'adequate', but in practice kindergartens operate with ratios very similar to those in the UK.
At the end of the book, we pull out some policy lessons, and we conclude here in a similar way.
First, increasing the number of places while improving quality and without compromising affordability requires further public spending; this is true for all countries. Increases in spending in the UK in past 20 years have delivered improvements in quality and coverage, and some improvements in affordability, but spending needs to continue to rise if we want to make further progress. Cross-national spending comparisons are fraught with difficulty, but it appears that the UK spends substantially less than Norway and France, which look to be the countries to emulate.
Second, it is encouraging that the need for continuing investment seems to have been widely accepted across the political spectrum, with Labour promising to extend the free entitlement to 25 hours a week for working families and the Conservatives and Lib Dems putting forward plans for a new tax-free childcare allowance to cover up to 20 per cent of childcare costs, together with the introduction of an Early Years Pupil Premium for disadvantaged threeand four-year-olds. But could money be spent more wisely than at present? To an extent, yes.
The UK appears to do a poor job at integrating funding with regulation: it channels money to both providers and parents without strings attached, relying instead on regulation to ensure quality. We would like to see state funding linked to quality indicators, and in particular to staff qualification levels. Funding for the entitlement could be linked to the presence of graduate staff, either teachers or professionals specialised in early years.
Beyond the entitlement, funding could support investment in qualifications. Designing funding in this way would help with a gradual transition to a higher qualified workforce and would ensure lower income families are not priced out of quality provision.
Third, a stronger link could be created between state funding and disadvantage. Currently, the funding of the free entitlement is a flat per capita rate. This penalises providers with a more disadvantaged intake, and is detrimental to those children who have most to gain from high-quality provision. Additional funding for disadvantaged children would address this, and here the Coalition's proposed Early Years Pupil Premium is likely to help, depending on the scale of the investment. However, a stronger link is also needed between state funding and area disadvantage, as beyond the entitlement all funding flows via parents, supporting parental choice but not sustainability in poorer areas.
All countries struggle to ensure that early education and care services continue to expand, are affordable and high quality. Because the challenge is universal, there is a potential for learning from what other countries do.
Ludovica Gambaro was at the time of writing research officer at the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion (CASE), now research officer at Centre for Longitudinal Studies, University of London. Kitty Stewart is associate professor of social policy at London School of Economics and Political Science and research associate at CASE
An Equal Start? Providing Quality Early Education and Care for Disadvantaged Children edited by Ludovica Gambaro, Kitty Stewart and Jane Waldfogel (Policy Press at the University of Bristol, £70) is available priced £56 at www.policypress.co.uk/display.asp?ISB= 9781447310518&.