Early childhood education and care workers must be recruited, rewarded, recognised and retained.
Every child in the European Union has the right to affordable and high-quality early childhood education and care (ECEC). This is recognised in the European Pillar of Social Rights and The EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child and the European Child Guarantee.
Studies by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development consistently highlight the critical importance of quality ECEC in shaping future success and wellbeing. Children who are beneficiaries are more likely to develop strong cognitive, social and emotional foundations, providing a springboard for lifelong learning.
As part of the European Education Area initiative, adopted in December 2022, EU member states have agreed that at least 96 per cent of children between three years old and the starting age for compulsory primary education should be participating in ECEC by 2030. A chronic shortage of qualified educators and caregivers however impedes achievement of this target. Inadequate staffing, exacerbated by high turnover, compromises moreover the sustained individual attention crucial for optimal child development.
Demonstrations and strikes organised in the past year by affiliates of the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) are testament to how exhausted, marginalised and undervalued ECEC workers feel. In February 2023, members of ver.di in Germany took action on staff shortages, estimating that childcare services lacked 170,000 trained staff. In Norway Fagforbundet followed suit the next month and again in October, with Delta joining in, in its case over pensions. In Spain the CCOO has challenged precarious employment, resorting to industrial action in November to put pressure on employers to negotiate—the union argues that pay and working conditions fail to compensate for the wide-ranging responsibilities of childcare workers and the training required of them.
ECEC is in crisis and its workforce deserves better. Addressing the crisis requires comprehensive, multi-prolonged strategies:—
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Better pay: low wages contribute significantly to recruitment difficulties by deterring many potential candidates, despite their passion for early childhood development.
Improved working conditions: poor conditions and the emotional toll of working with young children, coupled with the often unrecognised and undervalued responsibility of shaping their formative years, contribute to burnout and high turnover.
Increased recruitment and a focus on retention: the demanding nature of the work, nurturing and educating young children, requires a unique set of skills, as well as patience and dedication. Inadequate union representation of ECEC professionals to highlight their concerns in broader policy discussions hinders the recognition and support required for effective recruitment and retention.
Continuous professional development: obtaining the necessary qualifications for ECEC careers involves significant investment of time and money, dissuading some potential candidates, yet staff shortages also limit the ability in post to pursue CPD and engage in lifelong learning. Restricted opportunities for recognition and advancement also discourage qualified individuals from going further.
Raised profile and professional appreciation: ECEC work is often not even perceived as a professionalcareer and is (relatedly) highly dominated by women, raising issues of gender equality as well as making work-life balance challenging for individual staff.
Children who participate in well-designed programmes tend to exhibit better social behaviours, with more ability to regulate themselves and stronger interpersonal relationships. These foundational skills contribute to later success educationally and then professionally.
ECEC is thus especially important for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Lack of public funding however exacerbates inequality, as children from better-off households will have greater opportunities to avail themselves of private facilities.
Austerity not the answer
The EPSU is concerned, therefore, by the proposed revision of the EU fiscal rules, as agreed by the Council of the EU at the end of last year. This could result in annual cuts in public spending of up to €100 billion across the union, at the expense of public services—including quality, publicly funded ECEC.
Staff-to-child ratios in ECEC are pivotal in fostering a nurturing environment. Safe ratios ensure each child receives not only adequate supervision but also personalised learning and emotional support. This is essential to address the diverse needs of young learners and sustain a secure setting for their development. While it goes without saying that adequate staff-to-child ratios enhance the working conditions of ECEC workers, they also contribute significantly to the positive learning experiences and overall wellbeing of participating children.
In 2019, the council adopted a Recommendation on High Quality Early Childhood Education and Care Systems, approved by EU member states’ education ministers. While the recommendation supports member states in their efforts to improve ECEC access and quality—and facilities co-operation among them—the content and structure of national systems remains the competence of the relevant domestic authorities.
To address the systemic challenges faced by the sector, however, underscored by the evidence, investment in comprehensive strategies is essential. This should include fair compensation, opportunities for CPD and greater societal recognition of the critical role played by ECEC staff in shaping the future. This is not only a service to young children and their families but an effective and efficient social investment.
Samantha Howe is policy assistant on social services in the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU), with a strong emphasis on care in Europe, including early childhood education and care and long-term care. She previously working with people with disabilities in Canada.