The publication provides a general picture on the strengths, weaknesses, and the gaps that exist in early childhood systems on relevant aspects like legislations, types of services and their financing as well as the quality of the professional staff and the access of the children to these services.
Throughout its almost a hundred pages, the report addresses critical issues like the gap between the end of parental leave and the age when children can access early childhood services, which in most cases is at six months old. Whereas in countries like Albania children can enroll before the end of the maternal leave, there is a significant decline in financial support after the sixth month. In Croatia, the shortage of places in the crèches causes the gap when parents have to return to work before the baby is one year old. The lack of infrastructure, low national coverage especially in rural areas and the costs of the services make it very difficult for these countries to effectively implement what is stated by law.
This situation leads to very low access to services in all ISSA regions, with 11 countries estimating it at less than 10%. The most vulnerable groups of children between birth and three years of age are children from rural areas, followed by those with special needs and those coming from very poor families. These are, in most of the Central Eastern European countries, Romani children.
Moreover, although in general early childhood services are publicly funded, the administrative and financial decentralization of systems after the collapse of communism and socialism has led to local municipalities playing a greater role in funding and regulating early childhood services. This causes significant disparities between regions within countries and weakens their capacity to provide early childhood services according to the existing need.
As a conclusion, ISSA encourages all its members and other relevant stakeholders to address these issues through dialogue and joint actions among partners from different sectors and organizations, advocating for a change in the following critical areas:
Greater access to services for children from birth to three and their families:
Municipal funding, parent demand, and the policies around services appear to have the greatest impact on facilitating the existence of services. There is a need to advocate for flexible and coordinated solutions between sectors to provide quality, tailored services, especially for those that live in poor conditions, in rural areas and are subject to marginalization.
Greater investment in the professionals and paraprofessionals’ training to work with the youngest children and their families:
A better coordination between sectors should be provided. Online learning, although limited in coverage, represents a possible and innovative solution aimed to different categories of professionals and also parents.
Lower adult/child ratios in the education centres:
Internationally recognized adult-child ratios are significantly lower for this age group than is currently experienced in all of the countries, with the exception of Lithuania. Many of the countries reported three to five times the recommended ratio. There are no circumstances under which services provided with such ratios can be considered quality services.
More integrated education and care services:
Many countries offer some kind of integrated service, but as pilots or on a small scale. Better documentation of successful integrated services would be helpful as models that ISSA members could promote.
Implementation of quality frameworks to monitor the services:
Quality standards exist in only eleven countries and only for crèches. Advocacy for quality is crucial for this age group.
More coordination among the ministries involved in early childhood services:
Over half of the countries have early childhood services for children under three years old under the auspices of two or more ministries. Successful experiences should serve as models for other countries.
More funding for parental programs:
Given the low coverage of crèches and day-care centres at the national level, as well as low access to them, parenting support programs are a high priority for many of the countries in the ISSA regions. The largest barrier to these kinds of programs appears to be lack of awareness of how relevant these services are to this age group, as well as lack of government/political support, including infrastructure to house programs. Mothers and fathers are seen as a group most in need when referring to early childhood services for children under three years of age. This is an area for advocacy and stronger and intervention support.