The Best Interest of the Young Child
Position Paper on Early Childhood Education and Care Needs and Provisions from the Parents’ Perspective
Setting the scene:
A good start in life is crucial for well-being, but is also crucial not only for physical, but also for social, emotional and cognitive development in later ages. A good start is best provided by parents in the framework of the home and the family. Part of this good start is the education and care provided by parents, the starting point of lifelong learning that will not end before the end of your life.
When defining early childhood education and care needs, designing provisions and allocating budget, the guiding principles must be the best interest of the child and the right of the parents to decide how they want to educate and care for their children – being their primary educators – having this best interest as a superior principle.
Each and every child is unique and their parents, knowing them best, are the people to be aware of their individual needs. It is not only the needs of children that are different, but each and every family is different and thus their needs for support in bringing up their children are also different. Each and every parent has adequate personal resources to bring up their children, while some of them need to be made aware of them, some other may need help in increasing them and most of them need material and/or financial support to use them best. For this reason early childhood provisions should on the one hand focus on empowering and supporting each individual parent, on the other hand they should be as much individualised as possible. Where parents require support in their parenting, that should be provided in a way which recognises their and their child’s individual needs.
The policy scene:
In 2002, at the Barcelona Summit, the European Council set the targets of providing childcare by 2010 to at least 90% of children between 3 years old and the mandatory school age and at least 33% of children under 3 years of age. This has been defined as „an essential step towards equal opportunities in employment between women and men”. This has been interpreted by both the EU and national governments as providing institutional care in a formal nursery or similar pre-school setting. While there has been no discussion about possible childcare needs for the other 2/3 of parents with children under 3, the Barcelona Targets have been met by only a few European countries, which together mean that most families with young children are still not provided the state support that they are eligible to under Article 18 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
A former Working Group on Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) by the European Commission has published key principles for a Quality Framework for ECEC, but it again focuses on institutional systems set up for children and not on the childcare and the empowerment needs of parents. Recent policy papers focus on pushing as many children as possible, as early as possible into institutional care and recent public consultations project a similar approach in forthcoming policy decisions, pushing for more institutions for children and more standards for them. In some European countries national ‘minimum standards’ have also been introduced, more often than not resulting in lowering general standards of institutional provisions.
Parents’ needs and demands
- Parents’ associations gathered in the European Parents’ Association have always pursued an approach that is based on the rights of the child and the rights of parents. Thus the primary demand is that parents must be given freedom to make decisions for their children and these decisions should not be restricted by financial constraints.
- Thus equal financial provisions should be in place for all forms of early childhood education and care (doing it at home, be it by parents, grandparents or nannies, sharing the job with peers or opting for institutional care – regardless who provides it). Governments should be obliged to set up institutions if that is the demand of parents – be it by direct funding or giving parents the right to establish institutions. Government policies and financial provisions should reflect the acknowledgement of parental decisions to opt out of institutional educational provisions in early childhood as well as at later ages.
- Financial provisions should reflect WHO recommendations and should encourage breast feeding until the end of the first year of life. Parental leave should be available at least until the end of the first year in a way that offers a free choice to parents to choose maternal or paternal leave or if they want to share the leave period. Employers should be obliged to guarantee all their employees, regardless their gender, family settings or other circumstances, the same access to parental leave without any discrimination in terms of salary or career pathways. There mustn’t be a gap between paid parental leave and child care provisions available for free, as it is now the situation in a number of countries across Europe.
- All early childhood institutions should be governed in a way that is based on parental engagement and also provides adequate settings for the voice of children to be heard and listened to. Parental engagement in this context should mean that the programme, opening hours, routines, methodology and other aspects of quality in early childhood education institutions are to be decided by the parents using it, with the help and support of professionals working there and with an open approach towards the community. This approach is impossible to apply in a culture of standardisation, so parents do not support it. The desired governance approach would result in inclusive approaches towards the (local) community and also a diversity of educational approaches and offer for parents to choose from according to their principles, beliefs and approach to education. Quality frameworks and professional standards are useful for parents to be used as guidelines, but they should not be set to be restrictive or to overwrite parents’ wishes. Professional standards developed for reference should be rendered transparent and should put a strong emphasis on the tasks and obligations of institutional staff in supporting parenting and empowering parents.
- Governments are responsible for listening to the needs and wishes of parents and should pursue a culture that celebrate the diverse needs of children, parents, families and communities and use that as leverage for inclusion. This is best done by applying the principle of subsidiarity, to define decision-making levels as close to the users as possible. This should be applied to setting up institutions or defining their programmes, respectively.
- Professionals regularly meeting young families (not only professional educators, but also paediatricians, nurses, social workers, etc.) have a crucial role in ensuring the best interest of the child by supporting parenting and they must be trained to become able to empower parents. This should be considered the primary responsibility of the state with regards to ECEC, focusing on supporting parenting from the time of the beginning of to the end of the third year of the child’s age, while making professional support available for parents of children older than 3, too, and it should apply a holistic approach.
- Early childhood education and care should be seen as part of the lifelong learning process and needs a holistic approach. Especially in local contexts where the needs of parents in this field are scarcely met or not met at all – especially where there is no early childhood institution – schools should become community learning centres, partly providing for early childhood needs, partly providing for the lifelong learning and empowerment needs of parents. This community approach is a means to foster intercultural learning and increased inclusion, building a basis for social inclusion for later ages of the child.
- When defining policy and regulations for child care, it shouldn’t be forgotten by policy makers that the burden of care on families does not end with early childhood, so these arrangements should be extended to minimum of 12 years.
- In early childhood, education should happen, especially in institutions in the form of playful learning and this approach should continue into primary school. When defining learning outcomes and curricula in the institutional care system, it should cover the areas of motoric development, personal development, language, culture, social competences etc. as these are the areas parents usually seek support in.