Research by the United Nation's Children's Fund (UNICEF), published today (11 December), calls for the governments in economically developed countries to spend 1 per cent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on early childhood services. The report says that poor quality care has the potential to cause both immediate and long-term harm.
The report, The childcare transition: A league table of early childhood education and care in economically advanced countries, estimates that England spends around 0.5 per cent of GDP on early childhood education and care, which means that the British Government would have to double its current expenditure to meet the recommended target.
Of the 25 countries featured in the report, only Sweden, Iceland, Denmark, Finland, France and Norway met or exceeded the 1 per cent target.
The study set ten benchmarks for evaluating and comparing the early childhood services on offer in the 25 countries it surveyed. It said that the benchmarks - which included having 80 per cent of childcare staff trained, child poverty rates of less than 10 per cent, staff ratios of 1:15 in pre-school education and parental leave of one year at 50 per cent of salary - were an 'internationally applicable set of minimum standards by which the rights of young children might be protected'.
England met the criteria for five of the ten benchmarks, and was placed in the middle of the 'league table'. Only Sweden met all ten of the benchmarks.
The report argues that early childhood services should be accessible for all and affordable, to bring together children from different backgrounds rather than reinforce concentrations of disadvantage. It says that universal services would also be more popular with the public and lead to greater public concern for quality. 'Too often, services for the poor have meant poor services,' says the report.
However, it says that priority could still be given to disadvantaged children by channelling additional funds to childcare centres that serve low-income families or children with special educational needs.
Sue Owen, director of well-being at the National Children's Bureau, said, 'England has come out quite well in the league tables - ten years ago we would have been well below average, which shows that enormous progress has been made.
'The report poses some interesting questions at an interesting time in terms of early years policy - for example, is the quality of provision good enough for young children going into daycare? We've never been in a position before to take a strong policy stance on quality. I think one of the main messages from the report is that we can't stop now, we need to keep asking questions and keep moving forward.'
Emma Knights, joint chief executive of the Daycare Trust, added, 'The report shows that we are currently halfway up the league table, and that if we want to join the countries at the top, then we absolutely have to spend more. If we want to do early education properly, then it is going to cost us."