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Along with announcements of the European Pillar of Social Rights and a Work – life balance proposal, the Commission has also released a Staff Working Document (SWD) ‘Taking stock of the 2013 Recommendation on Investing in children: breaking the cycle of disadvantage’. The 2013 Recommendation adopted by the Commission is part of the wider ‘Social Investment Package’ (SIP) and sets out an approach for supporting children and families built on three pillars:

  1. Parents’ access to resources, preferably in the form of paid work but also through adequate child and family benefits.
  2. Parents’ access to quality services, such as ECEC, education, healthcare, housing and alternative care.
  3. Children’s rights to participate in play, recreation, sport and cultural activities and to be heard in all decisions that affect their lives.

The European Social Network (ESN) is the only stakeholder to have made an assessment of the implementation of the Recommendation, ‘Investing in Children’s Services, Improving Outcomes’. It is based on the analysis of 14 countries, with policy recommendations made on ways to improve adherence with the Recommendation.

Mixed progress

The Commission’s first assessment of the Recommendation demonstrates progress has been mixed. Policy development for supporting families and children varies greatly between the Member States, despite the recognition of the importance of early support to break the inter-generational transmission of disadvantage and improve the long-term prospects of children.

This is evident in the provision of early childhood education and care (ECEC), for example. Some Member States have well developed ECEC systems that have remained resilient through the economic crisis. However, those with less well-developed systems have improved slowly while others have major issues related to the affordability of ECEC services.

The SWD acknowledges that more progress has been achieved for the first pillar and the ECEC component of the Recommendation in bringing about tangible policy changes, partly through the European Semester cycle of policy coordination.

However, the SWD itself makes little reference to progress made towards the inclusion of vulnerable children who may require specialist services, such as migrant children, children with disabilities, children in care, and children in households at risk of poverty.

Moreover, there has been a lack of action on the third pillar on children’s rights to legal and social participation. There is little evidence of opportunities for children’s participation in policies, services and legal proceedings.

Despite attention and support at national and EU level, awareness of the Recommendation has not filtered down to the local level within the Member States. Effective coordination between the relevant stakeholders is needed, to ensure that policy mechanisms which reflect the 2013 Recommendations are developed at the local level.

Children and the European Pillar of Social Rights

The European Pillar of Social Rights announced by the European Commission could play a role in supporting implementation of the Recommendation. Indeed, the Commission reports in the SWD that children’s life chances are “at the core” of the Pillar’s proposals. The pillar includes the following provisions for children’s rights:

  • Children have the right to affordable early childhood education and care of good quality.
  • Children have the right to protection from poverty. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds have the right to specific measures to enhance equal opportunities.

However, the extent to which these principles will be implemented in practice remains unclear. The Commission has stopped short, for example, of an EU wide childcare guarantee which could uphold the rights of all children.

Overall, more needs to be done to improve the implementation of the Recommendation. Whilst progress has been made in addressing childcare capacity, income support to families and making education more inclusive, the key message of the Recommendation to make the child’s best interest a priority, and to recognise children as independent rights-holders, has not been sufficiently met. Furthermore, there is a need for a more comprehensive approach, given that the situation for vulnerable children and the importance of other services like healthcare, housing and social services has been overlooked.