Early child development

Implement universal, quality early childhood programmes that are responsive to need to promote better and more equal outcomes

See: Early child development policy brief & DRIVERS recommendations

Children's rights

Children's rights

Introduction & opportunities

To date, the promotion and protection of the rights of the child has been one of the objectives of the EU. However, an important milestone regarding the rights of the child was the entering into force of the Treaty of Lisbon. The Lisbon Treaty explicitly requires the EU to protect the rights of the child. The Treaty also incorporated the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU, giving it a legally binding value on the EU institutions and on national member states governments as the Treaty itself. However, the Charter does not extend the competence of the EU to matters which are not included as its competence by the Treaties.

The Charter has a dedicated article on children (Article 24), recognising the right of protection and care necessary for children’s well-being and the right of children to freedom of expression. It also outlines that actions taken by public and private institutions which concern children should take into account the child’s best interest as a primary concern. The Charter also makes reference to the prohibition of child labour and the right to adequate living conditions, education and health. To ensure the implementation of these fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in the Charter, the Commission has also published an Annual Report on the Application of the Charter.

Early childhood development (ECD) is also an important issue for several UN organisations and a key issue for consideration in the next sustainable development goals. However, at an EU level, it remains difficult to ground early years’ actions on the rights of the child using ECD as an argument for later outcomes in life.

Whilst the adoption of the EU Agenda for the Rights of the Child was an important step forward towards mainstreaming children’s rights in all EU policy spheres, it does not offer an overarching vision of how the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) can be effectively and consistently implemented across EU policies and member states. According to the UNCRC, it is important to underpin policies in relation to early childhood education and care recognizing children as rights holders. The UNCRC guarantees all children the right to the conditions necessary for their health, well-being, and education so they can develop to their full potential. More specifically, UNCRC Committee General Comment No 7 provides useful guidance on the implementation of child rights in early childhood.

Potential avenues of influence

Even though the protection of children’s rights is a stated objective of the EU, explicitly mentioned in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, the EU institutions lack competence in this area. However, there are many civil society organisations working on children’s rights and an increasing interest in promoting early years and mainstreaming this issue across policy areas from a child rights perspective can be noted.

In fact, several current initiatives which are closely related to children’s rights are now seen incorporated notably in the fields of justice and home affairs, social inclusion, early years education and care, education, youth, reconciliation of private, work and family life, health, enlargement, development and humanitarian aid and importantly, child poverty and well-being.

In light of this, the 2013 European Commission’s Recommendation ‘Investing in Children’ urges the strengthening synergies with relevant EU policies, in particular in the fields of education, health, gender equality and children’s rights. In the future, improved opportunities will largely rely on how the European Commission follows up on incorporating children’s rights across its policy agendas and work.

 Health & well-being

Health & well-being

Introduction & opportunities

The European Commission emphasises in several policy documents that investing in health from an early age can contribute to the creation of a healthy, productive population and support healthy ageing.

A significant number of Commission Communications and policy initiatives also deal with tackling obesity, diet and physical activity, as well as reducing harm from alcohol and tobacco. Furthermore, mental health appears to be a growing area of concern and visibility.

The challenge of health inequalities is mainly addressed in one specific communication Solidarity in Health, which has laid out a framework for subsequent EU-level actions focused specially on the issue. In 2013, the Commission issued a report on health inequalities to analyse the scale of the problem and what measures have been taken to reduce inequalities as a response to the Communication.

Health inequalities, though not specifically dealt with as an objective in the Third EU Health Programme (2014-2020), is described as an overarching and central concern. It is also worth noting is that fostering supportive environments for health, taking into account the ‘health in all policies’ principle is one of the four overarching objectives of the Programme.

The Commission’s Social Investment Package for Growth and Cohesion (SIP) and its accompanying staff working documents highlight the need to invest in people’s health. For example, Investing in Health recognises that health strongly influences labour market participation. Investing in Children highlights that children need to have universal access to affordable, accessible and quality primary healthcare services in order to be able to attain the best possible level of physical and mental health, and that investments in early childhood are likely to bring substantial benefits over the life course. Bearing in mind children’s vulnerabilities, especially at early ages, it is also important to invest in education and early intervention services that support and empower them and their families to make lifestyle choices that will improve their health outcomes.

Potential avenues of influence

There are various different stakeholders (including scientists, medical experts and health professionals) interested in public health issues. This opens doors for the creation of alliances for advocacy, and taking into account the harmful effects of poor diet, lack of physical exercise, tobacco, alcohol and other important factors impacting on the health of children in early years. A number of EU agencies in the field of health support EU policies, and the Commission works with external experts to further improve its understanding of how EU action impacts on health and health systems. There are several platforms for stakeholder engagement. The Social Protection Committee (SPC), which is an EU advisory policy committee where the Commission and member states co-operate and discuss key social issues such as social protection systems, long-term care and pensions, also deals with healthcare.

KEY POLICY DOCUMENTS

Education

Education

Introduction & opportunities

Education is an important social determinant of health, as it helps determine potential future work and income, is linked to parental income and education (and therefore early living conditions), and the level of education a person attains is often a good indicator of level of health they will enjoy in the future.

Research suggests that investment in early childhood education can bring greater returns than investing in any other stage of education, especially for the most disadvantaged[i]. Health and social benefits of education are not limited to children and young people, but lifelong learning can impact positively on individuals and levels of social engagement. Education and training also play a crucial role in the Europe 2020 Strategy and its targets.

The Commission recognises that high-quality pre-primary, primary, secondary, higher and vocational education and training are essential to Europe’s success, and refers explicitly to addressing educational disadvantages through pre-primary education in its Communication ‘An updated strategic framework for European cooperation in education and training (ET 2020)’. Following this Communication, member states agreed to develop EU level co-operation to promote quality and equity in the sector and EU level activities have been developed to address priority areas in each of the different levels of education and training.

The overall educational framework focuses mainly on school achievement, reducing early school leaving and educational disadvantage, but it also mentions promoting equal opportunities and the role of early childhood education and life-long learning in contributing to tackling poverty and social exclusion. Therefore, ET 2020 is supporting the improvement of the education and training systems of member states by developing EU-level tools, mutual learning and exchange of good practices via the Open Method of Co-ordination (OMC) on Education and Training.

The Commission Recommendation ‘Investing in Children’ underlines the need to put in place comprehensive policies that combine nutrition, health, education and social measures and to provide children with a safe, adequate housing and living environment. It calls for more accessible early childhood education as part of an integrated strategy to improve children’s opportunities, in order to reach the Barcelona targets. An important aspect is the importance of providing good-quality education and care services and the ongoing co-operation between member states and the European Commission to develop a European quality framework for early years education and care.

Potential avenues of influence

The interest of many stakeholders active in this field is primarily on primary and secondary education and on youth. Insufficient alliances exist to bridge with the early years sector to build up stronger advocacy. Despite recent attempts to work on early years education and care at EU level by bringing together experts from member states, there are still missing links between EU and national/regional level developments. There is however some interest at international level linked with the design of the Sustainable Development Goals with regard to education, including early childhood education.

Moreover, under the umbrella of Europe 2020 and with the support of DG Education and Culture (DG EAC), policy dialogue and exchange about how to modernise and improve education systems and best invest in education and training by combining efficiency and effectiveness with growth-friendly impact, is being pursued within ET 2020.

KEY POLICY DOCUMENTS

 Social inclusion

Social inclusion

Introduction & opportunities

The Europe 2020 Strategy provides a policy framework from which several relevant European Commission (EC) Communications impacting on the social inclusion agenda are derived.

There are three key targets within the Strategy that have the potential to reduce social (and therefore health) inequalities:

  • to lift at least 20 million people out of the risk of poverty or exclusion;
  • to reduce EU average rate of early school leaving below ten per cent;
  • to raise employment rate of the population aged 20-64 to at least 75 per cent.

In 2006, on the basis of the EC Communication ‘Working together, working better; a new framework for the open co-ordination of social protection and inclusion policies in the European Union’; the European Council adopted a new framework for the Open Method of Co-ordination on social protection, health care and long-term care, pensions and social inclusion (Social OMC).

The overarching objectives are to promote:

  • social cohesion, equality between men and women and equal opportunities for all through adequate, accessible, financially sustainable, adaptable and efficient social protection systems and social inclusion policies;
  • effective and mutual interaction between greater economic growth, more and better jobs and greater social cohesion;
  • good governance, transparency and the involvement of stakeholders in the design, implementation and monitoring of policy.

Indicators are used to monitor the overarching objectives, and are continuously being improved as statistics, data collection and policy needs evolve. In 2008, the Social Protection Committee (SPC) adopted a new list of indicators for the monitoring of the health care and long-term care objectives of the Social OMC, as well as two new health related indicators to be included in the overarching portfolio. In 2009, the Indicators' Sub-Group (ISG) of the Committee adopted indicators on material deprivation, including the EU indicator of severe material deprivation, as well as indicators and context information on housing quality. The Commission recognised that there is not enough data on the social gradient and identifies this problem as a priority in future work.

The Commission’s Communication on Reinforcing the OMC on Social Protection and Social Inclusion is also part of another Communication ‘Renewed social agenda: Opportunities, access and solidarity in 21st century Europe’ which earmarked children and youth, more and better jobs, the fight against poverty and social exclusion especially inclusion of the elderly as some of the priority areas for action. It also stresses that poor health can put a strain on the sustainability of health and care systems, and highlights that new Commission initiatives should address the need to protect children’s rights and reduce poverty rates in the EU, especially child poverty.

Potential avenues of influence

Several platforms, instruments and tools exist to facilitate the involvement of a broad range of stakeholders in social inclusion policies. For example, the European Platform against Poverty and Social Exclusion focuses on the policy objectives set out in the Social Investment Package. The Social OMC and its key elements as well as the peer reviews, also enable close co-operation among the different stakeholders, including social partners and civil society. There are also regular discussions between a wider set of stakeholders in specific priority areas, such as active inclusion, child poverty, Roma inclusion, and homelessness. However, opportunities to engage in national-level processes feeding in to EU policy frameworks are fairly limited.

KEY POLICY DOCUMENTS

Gender equality

Gender equality

Introduction & opportunities

Employment and gender policies cut across all three DRIVERS areas and are in many ways linked. Gender equality is a fundamental principle of the European Union and mainstreaming equality between men and women in all its activities is a specific mission.

The provision of childcare is frequently linked to employment and gender equality policies often act as a mean of supporting women to return to the labour market following the birth of a child, and therefore trying to diminish the gender pay gap and reconcile private, family and working life. At the same time, supporting women to enter and return to the labour market is a key strand of employment policy. In relation to female participation in the economy, arguments are mostly made in economic terms.

The Strategy for equality between women and men 2010-2015 sets out the European Commission’s work programme on gender equality, and its contribution to Europe 2020. It highlights efforts to promote reconciliation between work and family life, in particular entitlements to family-related leave, but also access to childcare. Several initiatives have been taken up including agreement of quantitative targets for childcare placements, and recommendations from the European Commission Childcare Network to establish criteria for assessing progress and targets for attainment by publicly funded services.

Ensuring suitable childcare provision enhances equal opportunities in employment between women and men. At the 2002 Barcelona European Council meeting, member states agreed to provide childcare to at least 90 per cent of children aged between three and compulsory school age, and to at least 33 per cent of children under three by 2010. These are often referred to as the ‘Barcelona targets’. In 2009, education ministers reinforced this approach by setting a new European benchmark for at least 95 per cent of children between age four and the start of compulsory education to participate in ECEC by 2020. The Commission report on the Barcelona objectives published in June 2013 showed that only eight member states were able to meet the targets for both age categories in 2010, and it concluded that significant improvements still needed to be made to achieve a satisfactory level of availability, especially for children under the age of three. High costs incurred by parents and the opening hours of facilities, which are incompatible with full-time work remain challenging. The report demonstrates that investment in high-quality services must be continued.

The revised framework agreement on parental leave concluded between the European social partners (BUSINESSEUROPE, UEAPME, CEEP, ETUC, and the liaison committee Eurocadres/CEC) applies to all workers regardless of their type of contract. It increases parental leave from three to four months for each parent. One of the four months shall be non-transferrable between the parents. It also gives parents the right to request flexible working conditions when returning from parental leave.

The EU Pregnant Workers Directive (Directive 92/85/EEC) on the introduction of measures to improve health and safety at work of pregnant workers and mothers, who have recently given birth, set minimum provisions for maternity leave of 14 weeks at the level of sick pay. The European Commission proposed to extend maternity leave to 18 weeks, while the European Parliament report proposed a leave of 20 weeks. However, in the end the revised Directive was blocked in the Council of the European Union and has been returned to the European Commission for further consideration. While it currently looks likely to be dropped due to continued opposition from member states, the new European Commissioner in charge of the dossier has indicated an interest in keeping the revised Directive on the political agenda and re-opening discussions on the issue.

Potential avenues of influence

A broad range of actors are involved in developing and delivering employment, gender equity as well as reconciliation policies. There might be opportunities to tie in with different advocacy perspectives if the expected result is increased participation and productivity in the labour market, better provision of quality childcare services and improved health outcomes.

 Working conditions & employment

Working conditions & employment

Introduction & opportunities

In addition to affecting individual well-being, employment is a major contributor to national and European productivity and competitiveness, with implications for the sustainability of social welfare systems. Workplaces directly influence the physical, mental, economic and social well-being of workers and consecutively the health of their families, communities and society. The Platform against Poverty and Social Exclusion includes objectives to improve access to employment and seeks to connect this to strategies to develop jobs and workers’ skills.

The Working Time Directive and related health and safety at work policies form the cornerstone for EU policy on working conditions. Its power as a Directive ensures that it not only has legal force but also stirs controversy. Hence, it is, depending on perspective, either the most important and successful social policy produced by the EU or the worst.

As recently noted by the European Agency for Health and Safety at Work, previous health and safety strategies at the EU level have focused predominantly on physical, chemical and other risks, with too little focus on psychosocial stressors. Due to opposition from national governments, and arguments about the ‘red tape’ (bureaucratic burdens) imposed on businesses and employers, the EU Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Strategic Framework 2014-2020 was delayed and made less binding than had been hoped by stakeholders such as trade unions. Nevertheless, it places greater emphasis on psychosocial and mental health risks in the workplace than the previous strategic framework.

Many other policy areas reference the role of employment, access to employment and the working environment as a significant factor in determining health. Discrimination, which hinders access to labour markets, is another opportunity. Gender-based discrimination, for example, results in under-utilisation of talent and imposes a heavy toll on the economy.

The Agenda for new skills and jobs initiative as part of the Europe 2020 Strategy, is the Commission’s contribution to achieving the EU employment rate target for women and men of 75 per cent for the 20-64 years age group by 2020. The Strategy also highlights the EU’s targets to reduce the early school leaving rate to under ten per cent and increase the number of young people in higher education or equivalent vocational education to at least 40 per cent. This agenda is complemented by other EU initiatives including the Europe 2020’s flagship initiatives Youth on the Move and the Strategy for equality between women and men 2010-2015.

Potential avenues of influence

A broad range of actors are involved in developing and delivering employment policies and gender equity as well as reconciliation policies and health and safety at work. Trade unions have an important role to play in this respect. One would expect the greatest opportunity to be to influence access to work and working conditions. However, the focus of many stakeholders (particularly national governments, certain political groups and employers) is on the creation of jobs and growth, rather than equitable access to the employment market and healthy working conditions. The stalemate on negotiating the Working Time Directive demonstrates the challenges of making progress.

KEY POLICY DOCUMENTS

 Income & social protection

Income & social protection

Introduction & opportunities

Social protection provides protection against social risks associated with unemployment, social exclusion, housing, sickness, parental and care responsibilities, and old age. The provision of social services is crucial for the achievement of European social, economic and territorial cohesion and plays an important role in fighting poverty and social exclusion.

As provided in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, the EU recognises entitlements to social security benefits in certain instances (e.g. maternity, illness, industrial accidents, dependency or old age, and loss of employment). In fact, since 2007, the Commission has emphasised the need to promote the quality of social services of general interest, notably through the development of voluntary quality standards.

In 2010, the Social Protection Committee adopted a voluntary European Quality Framework for Social Services with the aim of developing a common understanding of the quality of social services within the EU. It identifies principles and criteria that a social service should comply with to address the needs and expectations of the service user. It also defines social services - including childcare, employment and training support services and long-term care as “key instruments for the safeguard of fundamental human rights and human dignity and contribute to ensuring the creation of equal opportunities for all, therefore enhancing the capacity of individuals to fully participate in the society”.

Currently, the main policy framework in the field of social protection is the Europe 2020 Strategy and the Open Method of Co-ordination (OMC) for social protection and social inclusion, which aims to promote social cohesion and equality for all through adequate, accessible and financially sustainable social protection systems and social inclusion policies. Through the Social OMC - and in collaboration with the Social Protection Committee (SPC) - the EU supports the national strategy development for social protection and social investment, as well as the co-ordination of policies between member states on issues relating to poverty and social exclusion, health care, long-term care and pensions.

The Annual Growth Surveys (AGS) assessing the economic and social situation in Europe and setting out broad policy priorities for the EU as part of the European Semester process are also important documents. The Annual Growth Survey 2014 stresses that better performing social protection is essential to support social change and reduce poverty and the growing inequalities. It calls for active inclusion strategies to be developed, encompassing efficient and adequate income support, activation measures as well as measures to tackle poverty and broad access to affordable and high-quality services.

Within the Commission’s Social Investment Package (SIP) which includes guiding member states on the use of social budgets to ensure adequate and sustainable social protection, the Commission calls upon member states to set more efficient and effective social protection systems and secure adequate livelihoods through developing adequate income support designed on the basis of people’s needs. Member states are also called to fully implement the 2008 Recommendation on ‘Active inclusion of people excluded from the labour market’.

It is important to recognise that minimum income is a potent potential social protection instrument, with ongoing work at the EU level. Well-designed adequate income support schemes are recognised as important tools to reduce poverty and social exclusion, decrease inequalities and increase labour market participation, and therefore contribute to achieving the Europe 2020 poverty target.

Potential avenues of influence

Concerns about social protection and income are frequently present in the current debates at European level. Several stakeholders emphasise the importance of social policies and social protection systems that address and reduce inequality and social exclusion. There are various actors stressing that adequate income for a dignified life is a fundamental right, which provides the mean to participate in work and society, confidence to plan to future, and is a key tool to eradicate poverty. They also call for application of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) recommendation on national social protection floors, including access to essential goods and services, such as health, education, food and social services, and income support, as reference for these social standards.

There has been growing support from key EU institutions such as the European Parliament, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of Regions to guarantee an adequate minimum income in the European Union under an EU framework directive. This would complement the Social OMC in achieving the EU poverty and social exclusion target. An emerging opportunity for advocates is the argument that an EU or euro-wide social protection scheme could act as an ‘automatic stabiliser’ in times of high unemployment or financial crisis, as laid out in the Commission’s Communication Strengthening the Social Dimension of the Economic and Monetary Union.

KEY POLICY DOCUMENTS