Date Published: 11 December 2008

UNICEF report warns of childcare disadvantage

A new UNICEF report has warned that the potential benefits of out-of-home child care could be lost and social inequalities widened if governments in the world’s richest nations do not guarantee high quality early years care and education for all, especially the most disadvantaged.

The international comparative study, released today by the UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre in Florence, warns that poor quality child care may harm a child’s development. It highlights that the poorest often cannot afford high quality child care meaning that children born into these families face the double disadvantage of being born into poverty and receiving poor quality childcare.

The report proposes 10 ‘benchmarks’ as a first step towards establishing a set of minimum standards by which progress in early childhood education and care might be monitored and compared across the countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). England meets five of the 10 benchmarks and ranks joint 11th out of 25.

David Bull, Executive Director of UNICEF UK said:

"The report is clear that expenditure in England on pre-school education has quadrupled in the last ten years. We particularly welcome the commitment to establish a children’s centre in every community, increased funding for professional development of early years practitioners and the recruitment of graduates to day-care settings."

However, despite the Government’s undoubted commitment, the UK still has three million children living in poverty and higher rates of infant death and low birth weight than many comparable countries. High quality childcare is not yet available to all, and parental leave provisions remain inadequate. This Government has taken great strides in advancing child wellbeing since our 2007 report, but much more still needs to be done. For example, in the recent pre budget report the Government did not commit to investing £3bn to keep it on course to half child poverty by 2010 and end it by 2020. The UK should spend what is needed both to eliminate child poverty and meet the benchmarks in full. These changes will require investment, but there is none better than investing in the prospects of our youngest children.

The report is also clear that rich nations have often been guilty of making policies based on economic considerations not the best interests of the child. If the Government was really serious about making all policies about children in the best interest of the child it would bring the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into our national law.”

The report talks of a dual revolution in how the word’s richest countries bring up their children and how neuroscientists understand the early development of a child’s brain. Almost 80% of the three to six-year-olds in rich countries are in some form of early childhood education and care. For the under threes, the proportion is 25%, rising to more than 50% in individual OECD countries. At the same time scientific understanding confirms that loving, stable, secure, stimulating and rewarding relationships with family and caregivers in the early months and years of life are critical in almost all aspects of a child’s development.

There has also been a sharp increase in the numbers of the children under the age of one year being cared for outside the home. In part, this reflects new opportunities for women’s employment outside the home. However, it also reflects new pressures, particularly on the poorest, who often face the greatest pressure to return to work as soon as possible after a birth - often to low-paid jobs.
How England is ranked

England meets the following minimum requirements:

1. A national plan with priority for the disadvantaged
2. Subsidised and regulated child care services for 25% of children under three
3. Subsidised and accredited early education services for 80% of four-year-olds
4. 80% of all child care staff trained
5. 50% of staff in accredited early education services tertiary educated with relevant qualification

England does not meet the following minimum requirements:

1. Parental leave of one year at 50% of salary
2. Minimum staff-to-children ratio for four to five-year-olds
3. One per cent of GDP spent on early childhood services
4. Child poverty rate less than 10%
5. Near-universal outreach of essential child health services

At present, only Sweden meets all ten of the suggested benchmarks, followed closely by Iceland which meets nine, and by Denmark, Finland, France, and Norway which meet eight. These are the same six countries that top the table of government expenditures on early childhood services.

Many other OECD countries will need to at least double current levels of expenditure on early childhood services if minimum acceptable standards are to be met.

High quality early childhood education and care has a huge potential to enhance children’s cognitive, linguistic, emotional and social development,” says Marta Santos Pais, Director of UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre (IRC). “It can help boost educational achievement, limit the early establishment of disadvantage, promote inclusion, be an investment in good citizenship, and advance progress for women.”


Source: UNICEF Main Website.
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