An ecosystem for social mobility in early childhood (0-3)


At the end of September, the President of the Government of Catalonia announced in Parliament that there would be free public childcare places for pre-school 2-years-olds (P2). Among the expected impacts of this measure, and in line with recommendations from organisations such as the OECD or the European Commission, it is hoped that the measure will contribute to the social mobility of children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

But, what are the limitations of the announced measure? Will it be enough to remove the main access barriers and allow eligibility for all children?

A commitment to early childhood

First of all, and in general terms, it should be emphasised that any intervention in early childhood aimed at childhood advancement is more than relevant. Firstly, this is because neuroscience describes the process of stimulus-response (experience) as the main architect of the neural connection between different areas of the brain and its development and specifically identifies the first years of life as a stage that is highly sensitive to environmental enrichment and particularly receptive to environmental influences.

Moreover, it is because research such as that by James Heckman highlights how early internalisation of cognitive and non-cognitive abilities (including self-confidence, motivation or perseverance, among others) enables abilities to not only develop over a lifetime, but also to act as multipliers or prerequisites for others, contributing notably to individual, social and economic development.

This is confirmed by assessments carried out by programmes such as the Abecedarian Project, the Perry Preschool Project, or the Early Head Start experiences, which – albeit to differing extents – demonstrate improvements in language and pre-reading skills (letter identification and word pronunciation) or pre-mathematics. In addition to this learning, health improvements can be added, as well as a reduction in behavioural problems, a more sustained presence in the education system, and the attainment of university degrees or higher salaries, among others.

With this in mind, to what extent will the free P2 childcare introduced by the Government of Catalonia contribute to the internalisation of abilities and encourage social advancement of the most needy children?

Limits to the policy


The first factor to analyse relates to the number of children who are potential beneficiaries of the measure. According to the provision of places offered in public nursery schools, and despite the number of places increasing in recent years, only 18.3% of young children attended a municipal nursery school in 2019 (Barcelona Provincial Council, 2020). Apart from showing the inadequate development of services aimed at young children, this figure highlights the very sparse coverage of the service, a circumstance that will result in the policy having very limited scope, even more so if we take into account that the free service will be limited to P2 childcare only.

Beneficiaries of the measure

Secondly, we are interested in identifying the social background of families attending the nursery schools, since we should recall that it is the most vulnerable sections of society that we are interested in providing preferential support to through this service.

While six out of ten children from high income households attend nursery school, the percentage reduces by half for children from lower income strata.

The composition of families who currently use nursery schools is highly influenced by available family income and opportunity cost. Consequently, while six out of ten children from high income households attend these services, the percentage reduces by half for children from lower income strata (Navarro-Varas and Porcel, 2021), a factor that characterises the social composition of this service as having a greater prevalence of children whose mothers have a higher level of education and income, characteristics which are more palpable when there are fewer children (Sarasa Urdiola, 2011).

Although the introduction of free P2 childcare may encourage the enrolment of children from more disadvantaged strata, it is more than likely that the continued presence of children who are already attending nursery will de facto severely limit the offer of P2 places and, therefore, access options in this year will be severely restricted.

As a consequence, we can anticipate that Government investment in the form of free P2 childcare will not lead to a widespread benefit for children who live in more precarious situations.

Complementary strategies

In view of this situation, the priority is now to promote the incorporation of children from more impoverished strata into nursery schools. To do so, it is necessary to remove the main barriers to access. These are economic in nature, but can also be linked to cultural and social issues.

Increasing the score in the access system

On the one hand, the current system for access to nursery schools does not prioritise families who are in vulnerable situations – with the exception of parents in receipt of the guaranteed income for citizenship and, indirectly, single parent or large families (among whom there is a higher prevalence of poverty risk).

It is therefore necessary to refresh the catalogue of economic and social emergency benefits (the minimum vital income, among others) and award more points for circumstances consistent with low incomes. This action, which would give greater preference to low-income families, would enable them to plan ahead for their childcare, thereby allowing them to plan their education or entry into the job market.

However, this strategy should be complemented by reserving places to deal with situations requiring a higher level of encouragement, for example, or involving unforeseen circumstances. In other words, those instances where access barriers to the service are not strictly of an economic nature and access to the service would be directly ensured through referral from health or social services.

It is nonetheless important to be aware that both measures (increasing the score and reserving spaces) would have a very limited effect unless they were accompanied by policies to reduce costs for families, as proposed by the policy analysed.

Reducing the financial burden on families

As we have indicated, service cost is a disincentive to service access, and the final year being free is severely limited by the available number of places. In light of this situation, it is necessary to commit to a measure that encompasses all nursery school years and alleviates the financial burden on families.

To do so, there are two possible options. The first is to focus public spending on households that are suffering from more severe poverty and promote free nursery schooling for these families. This option is being promoted by the Portuguese government, which is implementing the free service for families with incomes below €190 and is currently considering raising the threshold to €370.

A second option is to promote a progressive approach, such as the one championed by several municipalities: social pricing. In this approach, families meet a cost that is adjusted to their income level and the difference is met by the city council (in this case it would be met by the Government of Catalonia). The objective of this progressive pricing is to promote access for families in the lower social strata (who can appreciate how the service cost is being reduced) while more affluent households move over to the private sector (because by being required to pay the higher rates they can see how the distinction between the public and private service is smaller).

The assessment of nursery school pricing carried out by Barcelona City Council concludes that the number of children from families with income below the poverty threshold of the income sufficiency index has increased by 19% (Navarro-Varas and Porcel, 2021) and, consequently, the measure has contributed to allowing access to childcare for those in lower income strata.

One of the main advantages of the policy change is that, from the time of enrolment, families can anticipate what cost they will have to meet (and not be dependent on a report from social services – which may be unfavourable). Also, at the same time families who are suffering from financial problems but do not require intervention from social services – or would not access these services to avoid stigma or embarrassment of requesting a vulnerability report – would also seek access to the service (demand emerges).

However, if the Government of Catalonia were to opt to move towards the extension of social pricing, there are a couple of caveats. The first is the existence of a minimum fixed cost to use the service (€50 in the case of Barcelona) which could continue to be a disincentive for the most disadvantaged families. In this case, as a minimum, the service should be free of charge to prevent this from being a barrier.

The second caveat is that the income assessment is carried out in the previous financial year to the current academic year. This factor means that in contexts of economic recession (such as the current one) and contexts of households with greater job insecurity and rotation, there are families that experience a drop in their income and cannot afford the cost of the place they are occupying.

And beyond this…

However, it might be unrealistic to think that introducing a free (or reduced cost) service aimed at early childhood will in itself eliminate the risk factors in which children grow up. In the final part of this paper we propose various strategies that can contribute to strengthening mobility, bearing in mind that an ecosystem is required for childhood development.

A quality educational environment

The cases analysed identify the quality of the educational experience of nursery school as one of the main factors of social promotion. In 2015, an assessment of the effects of early education on children aged 4 in Tennessee revealed some discouraging results: “We have not found any sustained effect on either social or emotional development” (Andrew Flowers, 2016). Heckman’s team responded by emphasising the quality of their programmes as a distinguishing factor: namely, small groups and service intensity, factors that were not present in the Tennessee public network.

If we examine the adult-child ratio as a reference – a factor closely linked to the reasoning behind reduced groups and intensity – the proportion of children per professional in Catalonia is more than twice (13.7) than that of other countries with more developed services such as Denmark (3), the United Kingdom (3.7) or Finland (4) (Sarasa Urdiola, 2011).

In nursery services professional intervention concentrates exclusively on the child. An interesting resource that could be explored in more detail – in line with what is done in family spaces or socio-educational intervention services – is increasing the adult-child ratio by incorporating parents into the educational experience, which is an aspect that we will develop later on.

Phenomena such as summer learning loss highlight the need to design strategies that sustain early childhood learning and skills acquisition.

Likewise, phenomena such as summer learning loss (in which stopping school for the summer holidays leads to losses in reading competencies, vocabulary or linguistic skills) highlight the need to design strategies that sustain early childhood learning and skills acquisition.

With this objective in mind, one of the recommendations of Kauerz (2006) is to opt for a childhood cycle whereby the experiences of children are the result of an educational intent that is planned and reviewed; which brings into play everything experienced at nursery school (vertical alignment [1]), consolidating and developing competencies. As one can imagine, this nursery-child alignment has a clear territorial/proximity factor that involves smoothing transitions between pre-school and school environments and providing continuity and integrating school education projects and the training of professionals, but also the fight against school segregation. In this regard, opening the school up to its environment, and vice versa, is an indispensible educational experience.

Strengthening the family environment

As we have said, the involvement of the family environment has a significant bearing on the achievements of children, and even more so at early ages. Therefore, if we want there to be any effect on the internalisation of skills in early childhood (and after) it is necessary to involve families in the educational experience of their children. Heckman himself notes that “The family plays a powerful role in shaping these abilities, contributing both genetic endowments and pre- and post-natal environments, which interact to determine the abilities, behaviour and talents of children” (Cunha et al., 2006).

The majority of the “successful” programmes referred seek to engage parents emotionally with play and get them to show more warmth. They promote bonding and encourage parenting that is responsive to the needs and inner states of the child, offering support to parents to enable them to respond to those needs. Indeed, this is a line of work that can range from improving the social, emotional and behavioural skills of parents, raising expectations in relation to their children or helping them to create environments with routines and educational experiences, among others. The school itself can promote classroom activities, guided tutorials or informal meetings; or even benefit from the involvement of other agents such as social or health services.

Growing up in a situation of “toxic stress” has medium- and long-term consequences and hinders learning processes, among other factors.

However, at the same time it is necessary to reduce stress factors in families. Growing up in a situation of “toxic stress” has medium- and long-term consequences and hinders learning processes, among other factors. Care, stimulation, and sensitive and respectful relations with adults are key to ensuring the wellbeing of children. If basic needs are not met, a large part of the cognitive resources of adults is directed towards thinking about how to be sure to make ends meet, and the care and support provided to their children diminish.

There are many studies that highlight and quantify the correlation between extra income and increased academic performance (Mayordomo Martínez, 2020) and, therefore, in line with what the European Commission itself promotes with the European Child Guarantee, a financial benefit is necessary to support the parenting process.

In summary

We can therefore conclude that, a priori, the introduction of free P2 childcare will have a very limited impact on children from low income families. This is because these families do not currently benefit from this service. Indeed, free P2 childcare – which could be an incentive for accessing the service – will be offset by a significantly reduced number of places.

A policy is needed that combines a cost reduction to support the most impoverished families with action to make them a priority in the nursery access system.

To tackle this situation, a policy is needed that combines a cost reduction to support the most impoverished families with action to make them a priority in the nursery access system. Accordingly, taking into account the fact that price is the main barrier to accessing the service, policies are needed to alleviate the financial burden on low income families, either by focusing free childcare on the most serious situations, or through incorporation of progressive pricing. This means a policy which, in order to both promote access and ensure the compensatory effect of the service, should be extended to all nursery years.

Moreover, the criteria of the access system should be reviewed and updated to allocate a higher score to children who exhibit more difficulties, even reserving places so that professionals can make a referral if the situation calls for it.

Furthermore, it is necessary to continue endeavouring to assure the quality of education, working towards an alignment between regulated education (beyond the services aimed at early childhood) and the development and incorporation of informal educational resources (leisure activities and organisations). This is a commitment that should place the child and family at the forefront, acknowledging and strengthening their skills and abilities.

If a tribe is necessary to educate a child, now is the time to provide the conditions to enable it.

[1] Added to this vertical alignment (in which everything students have previously experienced prepares them for the next level of education) is a horizontal alignment, whereby the experience of what happens in each cycle is coordinated. Moreover, the time-related alignment ensures that over the year children receive a high quality experience, reflecting the vertical and horizontal alignment.

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