WHETHER in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries, the countries of the EU (European Union), the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) and Central and Eastern European countries, the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries, or others, interest in and attention to early care and education (ECE) is clearly growing. For the first time in about three decades, the OECD carried out a thematic review of ECE policies and programs in 20 of its 30 member countries, and UNESCO joined with the OECD in a subsequent review of ECE in four developing (or less-developed) countries, Brazil, Indonesia, Kenya, and Kazakhstan.
ECE is a policy priority throughout the EU countries in particular, even if curricula and rates of coverage vary. My focus here will be on three trends in ECE policy that have emerged in the EU and in selected OECD countries that are collectively referred to as "advanced industrialized countries."
Two factors have been especially important in bringing ECE to the forefront in these countries. First, increasing numbers of women have entered the labor force. Thus ECE services have become necessary to ensure that men and women have equal work opportunities and to facilitate the reconciliation of work and family life. Second, there has been a growing recognition that a positive group experience enhances the cognitive, social, and emotional development of children and can help compensate for early disadvantages that many children experience.
THREE POLICY TRENDS
Among the advanced industrialized countries, there have been three important recent developments in the area of ECE policy:
* specifying targets for achieving an expansion of ECE services, often by the year 2010;
* extending the duration of paid parental leaves, both to support the nurturing and caring role of parents and to reduce the need for out-of-home infant and toddler care; and
* changing the governance structure of ECE so that all policies and programs fall under the auspices of education, rather than being divided between education and health or social welfare.
EXPANDING ECE SERVICES
Increasing the employment rate in the EU, especially the percentage of women in the labor force, is an explicit goal of the European employment strategy. (1) At its Lisbon summit in March 2000, the EU set a goal to increase the rate of female employment from 51% at that time to 57% by 2005 and 60% by 2010. Two years later, at the Barcelona summit, the EU took an important step toward achieving this goal by setting specific targets for the expansion of ECE services: at least 90% of children between age 3 and the age of compulsory school entry (age 5, 6, or 7) and at least 33% of children under age 3 are to be enrolled in ECE programs by 2010.
Although not binding, the Barcelona targets emphasize the importance of ECE for working parents, just as earlier the OECD had emphasized the importance of ECE for children's socialization and future school success. (2) The Barcelona targets for young children have not yet been achieved; however, access to ECE programs is clearly increasing. Nine of the 25 EU countries plus Norway and Iceland have already achieved the 90% goal for this age group, and half of the 16 remaining countries have 80% of this group enrolled. Among the OECD countries, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and the UK enroll around 90% of their children by the age of 4 in free (or very low-cost) early education services. Not all of the programs cover the full workday, but the school day in these countries is often significantly longer than the U.S school day.
EXTENDING PARENTAL LEAVE
Now we turn to the goal for the under-3s. While not all countries have a sufficient supply of services to cover one-third of the under-3s, some countries have established an alternative approach: paid and job-protected leaves from work to allow parents to care for a very young child at home. …