The following article was originally published in the platform, part of the project European Social Citizenship.

The economic recession caused by Covid-19 has revealed the fragility of our socioeconomic systems and the importance of resilient welfare states. Children’s education, care and wellbeing have been at the centre of public debate. But the consequences of school closures and stay-at-home mandates have been twofold – affecting both children’s education and women’s employment.

During physical lockdown, home resources and parental involvement in schoolwork are of great importance for children’s learning success. However, these benefits are not available equally to all children. Pupils from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are significantly impacted by Covid-19, because they are less likely to have access to the internet or to receive parental educational support, and they are more likely to lack reading opportunities and a quiet room in which to study. As shown by a recent Joint Research Centre (JRC) study (2020) using data from Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), children with no reading opportunities (fewer than 26 books and no reading devices at home) have an educational achievement score that is on average 17 to 23 points lower than others’. The score for those with no internet access and those who do not have their own room are on average 17 points and 5 to 9 points lower respectively.

School closures also have a heavy impact on parents, who struggle to balance their childcare and paid employment responsibilities. This has a disproportionate impact on women, whose time spent on childcare is increased considerably more than men’s, and consequently has implications for their ability to undertake paid employment during the pandemic. This has led to the decision to reduce or even leave employment for the duration of lockdown (European Parliament 2020). According to a recent survey on the living conditions of working parents in five countries (the US, the UK, France, Germany, and Italy) during the pandemic (Boston Consulting Group 2020), both mothers and fathers are stepping up in terms of weekly hours of unpaid care, adding an average of 27 hours each week on household chores, childcare and education. However, women continue to bear a disproportionate share of the burden, with an average of 15 hours more on domestic labour each week than men.

The consequences for educational targets, family wellbeing, female employment and inclusiveness has reignited the public debate on the importance of adequate and inclusive educational systems and especially of high-quality early childhood education and care (ECEC) systems. Such debate is certainly not new. Over the past two decades, there has been an increasing interest in the role that ECEC can play in breaking the cycle of disadvantage among children and boosting female employment. A growing body of evidence shows that participation in quality ECEC programmes leads to positive gains, particularly for the most disadvantaged children, in the acquisition of abilities and skills whose benefits can be seen beyond childhood into later educational and life achievements. At the same time, widespread and accessible provision of these services, especially for children under the age of three, also helps support gender equality in the workforce. In particular, the availability, intensity, reliability and affordability of ECEC plays an important role in engaging women full time in the labour market (OECD 2018).

The EU has been at the forefront of this debate, with a first Council recommendation in 2013 on ‘Investing in Children’ and a second one in 2019 on ‘High-Quality Early Childhood Education and Care Systems’. The latter has been adopted in the framework of the European Pillar of Social Rights, which affirms that children have the right to affordable early childhood education and care of good quality, protection from poverty, and specific measures to enhance equal opportunities (Principle 11).

This notwithstanding, the picture of ECEC in Europe, even before the outbreak of Covid-19, was rather gloomy, especially for children below the age of three. In 2020, only half of EU members have reached the EU objective of 33% of pupils attending early childcare. In nine countries, participation in childcare is 20% or less. Lack of ECEC services tends to penalise children from disadvantaged families, lower income households and those living in rural and remote areas. In some countries, less than 20% of these children participate in ECEC, compared to more than 70% among the top income households. Unequal enrolment in services for children is very often aggravated by access to lower-quality settings. As stressed by Morabito and Vandenbroek (2020), childcare settings that guarantee less hours per week and higher enrolment fees tend to penalise children from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds.

Against this background, the new Recovery and Resilience Facility – agreed in July in the framework of the Next Generation EU – could represent an opportunity for member states, especially those lagging behind, to invest in ECEC policies. Some examples have already been offered in the draft recovery and resilience plans presented in October, for instance by Portugal, Spain and Italy, that announced ad hoc investments for early childhood education systems. On its side, the Commission maintained that the national resilience and recovery plans should be in line with the European Semester country-specific recommendations, where investment in children features as a prominent objective. In addition, to assess the adequacy of national recovery plans and monitor the implementation of the policies over the next four years, the Commission will rely on the set of indicators of the Social Scoreboard.

The decision to link the social objectives of the recovery plans to the Social Scoreboard is certainly understandable, as it is the current reference framework to report on progress towards implementing the European Pillar of Social Rights. However, the capacity of this set of indicators to measure inclusive ECEC policies may be questionable. As recently stressed by Antonucci and Corti (2020), the Social Scoreboard includes only one indicator that measures the performance of member states in the area of ECEC (‘children aged less than 3 years old in formal childcare’). Such an indicator cannot grasp the increasing inequality in access to childcare services and the consequent imbalances in education, mothers’ employment and income. These different aspects should become part of the picture.

If the Social Scoreboard is the reference framework by which to assess the adequacy and monitoring of the implementation of the national recovery plans, we argue that additional indicators should be taken into account in order to monitor the inclusiveness and fairness of the policies adopted. In the case of childhood education and care, it would be essential to disaggregate enrolment in terms of the socioeconomic background of families, so as to understand whether, for instance, services disproportionately serve children from middle to high-income households, or parents already employed, as well as particular geographical areas (notably centres/urban) or regions. It would also be important to have indicators about participation of children in private and public childcare services, the quality of services and measurements of outcomes in terms of child development and wellbeing, along with the share of monthly income of households devoted to childcare fees.

According to the only ECEC parameter in the Social Scoreboard, Italy, for example, has around 25% of children aged three years or under participating in formal childcare services, and so is considered to be performing roughly at the EU average. Therefore, it is not considered at risk of social imbalances according to the statistical methodology agreed with the employment and social protection committees. However, a closer look reveals that around 12% of the children (almost half of the total) are enrolled in private services with little or no public subsidies because of the lack of public infrastructure (ISTAT 2020) – a situation that obviously penalises those from low-income families. In addition, as acknowledged by the Commission itself in the Country Report of Italy, there are substantial geographical inequalities in access to childcare facilities. For instance, in the Southern regions, only 15% of children between 0 and 3 years old participate in childcare, and among these, less than 6% are enrolled in public services (ISTAT 2018).

The Next Generation EU represents a unique opportunity to fill the current gap in education and childhood care systems between and within member states. For this to happen, however, adequate monitoring, and thus an adequate set of indicators, is necessary as a benchmark to guarantee that equal opportunities are guaranteed to all citizens. The crisis has harshly hit the most vulnerable groups, most notably children from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and women. Adequate targeting and tailor-made interventions are thus necessary to guarantee an inclusive recovery and build a stronger basis for a resilient, truly fairer and inclusive economy. It would also be in line with the high ambitions set by the Commission in August 2020, with the launch of a new consultation on the Roadmap for European Child Guarantee, which is meant to ensure that all children in Europe who are at risk of poverty, social exclusion, or are otherwise disadvantaged, have access to essential services of good quality.