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The first three years of a child’s life is a unique opportunity to support their development, learning and well-being. This period of life is critical to children’s development: children learn at a faster rate than at any other time in their lives. It sets the foundations for children’s personal, social and professional lives in the future.

The youngest children spend most of their time with their parents and in early childhood education and care (ECEC) settings. These are the two main contexts to support children’s first steps in life. Over the last decades, the number of children enrolled in ECEC has expanded in most OECD countries with the view to promote child development, mitigate differences in educational outcomes observed among children from different socio-economic or demographic backgrounds, and support parents’ participation in the labour market.

However, in 2017, on average in OECD countries, only one in three children under age 3 was enrolled in ECEC settings, with large differences across countries. In 2016, OECD countries spent on average 0.3% of their gross domestic product on ECEC for children under age 3 compared to 0.6% for pre-primary education. Only 70% of expenditure on ECEC for children under age 3 comes from public sources, making this sector of education, together with tertiary education, the most dependent on private sources of funding.

The Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated the necessity and fragility of ECEC for children under age 3. The closure of ECEC settings in many countries for weeks or months has led to parents all over the world juggling telework when this was an option and taking care of their children at home, which has generated stress and frustration. In many countries, maintaining ECEC services for children under age 3 for essential workers proved to be more difficult than for pre-primary or primary education, as the sector is much more fragmented with multiple providers. In countries with a large private sector, ECEC staff for the youngest children have appeared to be highly vulnerable to wage loss and risk of losing their jobs. Private ECEC settings are exposed to risk of bankruptcy as revenues have dropped while they were closed and parents hesitate to send their children back when they reopen. In these countries, the full effect of the crisis on the capacity and financial situation of the sector remains to be fully known.

The OECD Starting Strong Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS Starting Strong) is the first international survey that focuses on the workforce in ECEC. As part of its first cycle, four countries participated in the option of ECEC for children under age 3: Denmark, Germany, Israel and Norway. These four countries have made ECEC for children under age 3 a policy priority and their enrolment rates of children under age 3 are much higher than the OECD average. However, these countries differ largely in the starting age of enrolment, the amount of expenditure in the sector and the organisation of the sector. This limited number of countries therefore offers an interesting panel of experiences.

Who are the staff who take care and educate our youngest children? How do they interact with children? Are ECEC settings supportive to the development and well-being of our youngest children? Are there large differences in the quality of ECEC within countries? These are the important questions for parents, actors in the ECEC field and policy makers that the survey attempts to answer.

Among the most important findings is the diversity of profiles of staff working in the sector in terms of roles and responsibilities, education and training background, experience and working conditions. Working with very young children requires skills and knowledge: in addition to practices used with groups of children, routine care offers opportunities for staff to interact with children, build relationships, and support their development and well-being. Policies need to be granular and help all staff continue to learn throughout their careers and work as professionals. Attracting talents to the profession is a real challenge due to low salaries and gender stereotypes, but raising the status of the profession would help achieve this goal.

Building strong relationship with parents is crucial at this age. The survey shows that the partnerships between staff and parents to support children’s development can be strengthened. Even in the four participating countries with strong experience with ECEC for children under age 3, staff are not always well prepared to make the most of the interactions with parents, and some staff rank engaging with families as being among their top professional development needs.

The home-based settings sector requires careful attention. Staff in the sector express training needs in core areas of working with children’s development and in some countries have a low level of education. These staff work long hours, creating barriers to their participation in training, and may also have limited opportunities to learn from peers.

We are increasingly aware and convinced of the importance of the first years of life for life in the future, but on several fronts, ECEC for children under age 3 is still precarious, lacking funding, talent and consistency across geographical areas. TALIS Starting Strong shows that large percentages of ECEC settings maintain waiting lists of children who want to enrol, with settings in urban areas more likely to do so than those in more rural areas. More can be done to make sure that ECEC fully supports all children in their development, learning and well-being.


Andreas Schleicher

Director for the Directorate for Education and Skills

Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary General

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