Childhood is a unique period of human development, subject to many public policy interventions, and therefore is a critical period for preparing future generations to be social, productive, healthy and happy. At the launch of the report ‘Investing in children’s services, improving outcomes’ at the European Parliament, we heard about international evidence on the crucial role played by the early years in people’s development and the role of integrated child protection services in improving outcomes for children.

A key issue is the accessibility and quality of early childhood education and care (ECEC), as any positive effect depends greatly on their coverage, their intensity, staff-child ratios and workforce qualifications. Gosta Esping Andersen referred to evidence of various comparative studies he has been undertaking across Europe and between Europe and the United States. In countries with higher quality, coverage and intensity of ECEC (as in the Nordic countries), children’s competences in school are significantly higher than in those countries with medium or low quality, coverage and intensity (e.g. Spain, Austria and Ireland). Gains are also significantly higher for disadvantaged children in countries with low coverage but high quality as it is the case in Hungary.

Julius op de Beke, from the European Commission, highlighted that the European Commission’s Recommendation ‘Investing in children’ was inspired by the work done by Esping-Andersen and Heckman with a significant focus on the early years. Mr op de Beke insisted that there had been an important increase in participation in ECEC for children aged 0 to 3. However, our report ‘Investing in children’s services’ shows that participation in ECEC for these children is still very low and there is a significant social gradient. For instance, only 12% of municipalities in Hungary provide ECEC for children younger than three or 13% of children aged two attend a nursery school in France.

It is uncommon to hear public officials saying that there is a significant amount of public money available for policy implementation. Mr op de Beke, however, explained that €21.1 billion out of €86 billion of the European Social Fund had been earmarked for social inclusion, of which €8 billion was put aside for projects on childcare and early school leaving. The European Regional Development Fund has also set aside €21.4 billion for social inclusion, of which €1.25 billion could be used for childcare infrastructure. While this is positive, this money earmarked for children will only be used if ‘good’ projects are submitted for evaluation.

Ioannis Dimitrakopoulos from the European Agency for Fundamental Rights, agrees with ESN that decentralisation is a key theme in the provision of children’s services throughout Europe. Many countries have moved towards systems where services are provided by regional or local public social services or by private providers. Increasingly municipalities are also taking up the responsibilities (including financing) previously held by the state in the children and youth care and family support areas. This transition has not been without difficulties however, with regional disparities in service provision highlighted by a number of countries in our report.

The decentralisation process is linked with the process of de-institutionalisation and the development of community-based services for children. Across countries, but also within the countries themselves, there have been different approaches. Although in general there has been a move towards ensuring that children remain with their biological families for as long as possible, whenever that is not in their best interest legislation states that the preferred option is alternative family care with the extended family (kinship care) or with (professional) foster families. Despite pledges and progress in legislation, there is room for improving alternatives to residential care.

For example, in France, according to 2013 figures, 53% of children who are placed outside their family are in foster care but 38% are still in residential care. In Italy, 28,449 children had been removed from parental care in 2013 with almost an equal split between those in residential care and those in foster care. Portuguese legislation favours keeping the child within the family but still, when implementing placement as a last resort, there is a worrying trend of placing children in long-term residential facilities while kinship care and professional foster care are still under-developed. Countries with higher numbers of children in foster care have improved the ‘professionalisation’ of foster care; for instance, with financial compensation and training and support to improve foster parents’ capabilities.

Childhood, particularly in the early years, is a unique period of human development as we heard from international evidence. Various public policy interventions need to aim at early years services focusing on coverage, intensity and quality. Ensuring progress means that early years investment needs to be followed up with investment in schools to support children from disadvantaged backgrounds or in disadvantaged areas. There is a need for an integrated approach to early years and specialist child protection services, as early years services may act as a mechanism that can flag any potential risks. This is to be followed up by a multi-disciplinary assessment involving all statutory services –health, education the police- and the implementation of an integrated and personalised plan, including family and parenting support, financial benefits or family mediation.