With local authorities increasingly under financial pressure and the need to demonstrate ‘economic gains’ from policy implementation, discussions at the launch of the publication ‘Investing in children’s services, improving outcomes’ focused on the strengths and gaps identified in the study as the basis for moving forward.
The lack of access to ECEC services for children from disadvantaged backgrounds was highlighted across a number of countries. Magda de Meyer, Member of Parliament in Belgium and Jeanne Fagnani, National Centre for Scientific Research in France, agreed that poor families are underrepresented in early childcare services in Belgium and France. Ms Fagnani highlighted that even though childcare policies had so far been immune to budget cuts in France, there are more eligible children than ever, which means that it is not possible to satisfy demand from poorer families.
Children aged 0 to 6 do not have equal opportunities to access ECEC services across Italy, because of significant differences in the offer and quality of those services in the various regions. According to Ms Adriana Ciampa, from the Italian Ministry of Social Affairs, this results in low participation either due to costs or drop-out because of lack of quality. The National Observatory for Children and Adolescents has therefore developed an action plan to standardise the offer and improve service quality across the country.
Judit Lannert from Tarki-Tudok Centre for Knowledge Management in Hungary, spoke of the need to reinforce professional expertise, improve coordination and service evaluation as the key factors to ensure equal access to childcare for children from all backgrounds. Ms Lannert insisted on the need to shift the focus in the evaluation process –from an outputs-focused evaluation, which is usually demanded by governments and the EU alike (e.g. when it comes to EU Structural Funds expenditure) to an outcomes-focused one.
The development of an integrated approach in children’s services was also highlighted as a need to advance outcomes for children. Cristina Cuculas, from the Agency for Child Protection in Romania, spoke of a new integrated package of children's services, which is seen as key in the shift to prevention in Romania’s child protection system. The package will include financial benefits (e.g. minimum inclusion income, family support allowance, heating allowances) and basic community-based services. The services are to be coordinated by a social worker, who will also be responsible for early identification of risks and asses the services needed by each family.
Recently, there has been ant increased interest in frameworks and strategies increasingly focused on outcomes. There is, therefore, an opportunity for public children’s services to focus on long-term outcomes and to measure success not only on the basis of outputs, which could be misleading. The question should not be ‘what do we do?’ but ‘what difference does it make?’