The times they are a-changing. A call for integrated and multi-sectoral early childhood systems

Article by Mathias Urban, Dublin City University, who participated in the last FYFP campaign partners meeting

The waters around you have grown

The times they are a-changing, sang Bob Dylan in 1964, at the cusp of profound change in modern society. Times have been changing ever since, and today humanity finds itself facing a perfect storm of self-inflicted existential crises: climate catastrophe, loss of biodiversity, pandemics, violence, war and forced migration at an unprecedented scale are connected and mutually reinforce each other. As in any crisis scenario, young children and their families tend to be the ‘hidden victims’ (UNICEF, 2020). Moreover, the crises unfold in a global reality that throws in the air all certainties and once taken-for-granted distinctions, e.g.between global south and north. War over resources, including water, food, and habitable land in regions of the ‘south’, caused by disastrous and exploitative environmental practices in the ‘north’, results in mass displacement and forced migration into Europe. Rising sea levels that have long caused disastrous flooding and suffering in coastal areas in the ‘south’ (e.g. Bangladesh) are threatening vulnerable populations in the ‘north’: according to recently published figures up to 80% of licensed childcare facilities in New York City will be at ‘substantial risk of flood damage’ over the coming decades. The report bluntly states that climate change and childcare are no longer ‘separate issues’; we better ‘admit that the waters around you have grown’ (Dylan).

However, the New York report also points to possible (and urgently needed) crisis responses:

[…] improving neighborhoods from the ground up with support for developing new, green anchor institutions that every family deserves access to – abundant affordable housing, quality early care and education programs, safe streets and engaging play spaces, accessible healthcare, diverse and sprawling cultural institutions, and the many other places and amenities that make a community feel like home.

A global ‘matter of concern’

The COVID19 pandemic has put a spotlight on the crucial role of early childhood services as a vital part of the critical infrastructure of any society. While nothing new to early childhood professionals and advocates, policymakers in many countries had to learn the lesson fast, and the ‘hard way’, when services began to collapse due to the pandemic (Blofield, Braunstein, Filguiera, Grimalda, & Urban, 2020). Despite significant differences of early childhood systems between countries, similar issues emerged in the global south and north:

[…] deep inadequacies in the current system of childcare provision, including uneven access, poor quality, the need for public finance, poor terms of employment for the workforce, and the overall vulnerability of the sector’.
(Devercelli & Beaton-Day, 2020)

To be clear, inadequate early childhood services are embedded in much wider ‘dysfunctions and injustices that have emerged in economic, social and political systems’ (OECD, 2021). The resulting globally rising ‘discontent’, the OECD goes on to state,

‘is also a response to the damage humankind is inflicting on the world’s natural systems and thus, inevitably, upon itself. The COVID-19 pandemic […] has exposed these defects to devastating effect’.

New paradigms needed

The world we are in, at the end of the first quarter of the 21st century, requires radical new thinking. But as a field, mainstream debate in early childhood education and care, to me, appears stuck in some kind of time loop, unable to escape the paradigms and certainties of 20th century (post)modernity. Our policies and practices seem unable to overcome their fixation on narrow, western-centric understandings of child development (with the universal, individual child at the centre of attention), on the superiority of scientific, decontextualised knowledge, and on simplistic measurement and comparison. Most worryingly, reflected in our political and administrative systems of governance (think Directorates General at EU level), we continue to rely on distinct policies and practices as tools for solving distinct social problems by distinct professions and academic disciplines (I have written about this challenge in more detail elsewhere. See, for instance, (Moss & Urban, 2021; Urban, 2019a, 2019b, 2022; Urban & Swadener, 2016). Policy developments in Europe are only slowly beginning to reflect the need for more integrated, trans-disciplinary thinking and multi-sectoral collaboration.

Learning with the global context

EU policy has begun to adopt a more holistic understanding of early childhood education and care services. The conceptual shift has been slow, but it is now recognized that the policy focus has to be on whole (‘competent’) systems (Urban, Vandenbroeck, Van Laere, Lazzari, & Peeters, 2012), and integrated policy measures. The 2019 Council Recommendation explicitly refers to early childhood education and care systems as it states: Early childhood education and care provision needs to be part of an integrated child-rights based package of policy measures to improve outcomes for children and break intergenerational cycles of disadvantage. (Council of the European Union, 2019)

More recently, the EU Child Guarantee is a promising development, although it lags behindmore substantial and ambitious integrated early childhood policy frameworks that have been developed (and are being implemented) in regions of the global south. One example that deserves particular attention comes from Colombia. The Estrategia de Atención Integral a la Primer Infancia – De Cero a Siempre should be carefully examined by European actors for is strategic approach in development and implementation since 2013. What are its key characteristics and success factors?

  • Children’s rights have been recognized in Colombia’s constitution in 1991.
  • Strategic leadership at the highest level: establishment of an interdepartmental working group, located at the Office of the President, chaired by the President of the Republic.
  • The working group (Comisión Intersectorial para la Atención Integral de la Primera Infancia – CIPI) comprises representation from all relevant government departments and ministries; it has overall responsibility for development and implementation of the policy.
  • Broad buy-in from government departments and non-state actors was sought from the beginning.
  • Policy framework and infrastructure at national level were replicated and mirrored at territorial (i.e. state) and local (i.e. municipal) level.
  • The policy framework has been enshrined in national legislation, which makes it binding.

The importance of embedding integrated early childhood frameworks in an overarching policy strategy that includes children’s rights, a transformation of governance, and binding legislation, can’t be overstated. Arguably, one of the most forward-looking approaches to integrate early childhood services in Europe–the UK Sure Start Children’s Centres–ultimately could not withstand political pressure (cuts!) by changed government priorities precisely because of the lack of systemic embeddedness.

What else should inform EU integrated early childhood policy developments?

The global early childhood policy context has changed (and continues to change) substantially in recent years, increasingly reflecting the complex, systemic challenges that require equally systemic policy approaches. This ‘systemic turn’ is not without tensions and contradictions, as I argue elsewhere (Urban, 2022). However, as a general overview three lines of thought (and action) have begun to converge (so far largely unnoticed by the EU-centric debate):

  • The 2030 Sustainable Development Goals framework (SDG) increasingly serves as an orientation–a pole star–for national and trans-national policy development. Despite huge global disparities in the realisation of the goals, there seems to broad consensus that the 17 goals are mutually dependent; they can only be realised as a whole. This has opened the space to understanding that early childhood is not only affected by SDG 4.2. Rather, early childhood services are an enabler to achieving the entire framework.
  • Privatisation and profiteering have emerged as central destructive issues across all levels of education globally, and particularly in early childhood development, education, and care. This has been reflected in critical analyses of the European Care Strategy (Thissen et al., 2023). At global level the Abidjan Principles (2019) address this critical issue by urging states to prioritise private over public education, beginning in early childhood.
  • The importance of education as a child’s right from birth has been recognised in the Tashkent Declaration (2022). The concluding document of the 2022 UNESCO World Conference on Early Childhood Care and Education also emphasises the need for whole-of-government, multi-sectoral, and integrated policy development, provision, and coordination.

As we continue to argue for necessary fundamental systems change for more just and equitable outcomes for All children, it will be important to translate these global developments into the European policy context!


Blofield, M., Braunstein, J., Filguiera, F., Grimalda, G., & Urban, M. (2020). Promoting Social Cohesion during Pandemics. Retrieved from

Council of the European Union. (2019). Council Recommendation of 22 May 2019 on High-Quality Early Childhood Education and Care Systems. (2019/C 189/02). Brussels: Council of the European Union Retrieved from uri=uriserv:OJ.C_.2019.189.01.0004.01.ENG&toc=OJ:C:2019:189:TOC

Devercelli, A. E., & Beaton-Day, F. (2020). Better Jobs and Brighter Futures: Investing in Childcare to Build Human Capital. Washington, DC: World Bank.

Moss, P., & Urban, M. (2021). El Estudio Internacional sobre Aprendizaje Temprano y Bienestar Infantil de la Organización para la Cooperación y el Desarrollo Económico: ¡Ya están los resultados! Retrieved from

OECD. (2021). Perspectives on Global Development 2021.

The Abidjan Principles. (2019). The Abidjan Principles on the human rights obligations of States to provide public education and to regulate private involvement in education.

Thissen, L., Mach, A., Navarra, C., Fernandes, M., Saraceno, C., Gromada, A., . . . Sanden, F. (2023). The European Care Strategy. A chance to ensure inclusive care for all?(9782931233054). Retrieved from Brussels, Belgium:

UNESCO World Conference on Early Childhood Care and Education. (2022). Tashkent Declaration and Commitments to Action for Transforming Early Childhood Care and Education. Paris, France: UNESCO.

UNICEF. (2020). Don’t let children be the hidden victims of COVID-19 pandemic. Retrieved from

Urban, M. (2019a). (E)Utopia: the local, the global, and the imaginary in early childhood education. In S. Faas, D. Kasüschke, E. Nitecki, M. Urban, & H. Wasmuth (Eds.), Globalization, Transformation, and Cultures in Early Childhood Education and Care. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Urban, M. (2019b). The Shape of Things to Come and what to do about Tom and Mia: Interrogating the OECD’s International Early Learning and Child Well-Being Study from an anti-colonialist perspective. Policy Futures in Education, 17(1), 87-101. doi:10.1177/1478210318819177

Urban, M. (2022). Scholarship in times of crises: towards a trans-discipline of early childhood. Comparative Education, 58(3), 383-401. doi:10.1080/03050068.2022.2046376

Urban, M., & Swadener, B. B. (2016). Democratic accountability and contextualised systemic evaluation. A comment on the OECD initiative to launch an International Early Learning Study (IELS). International Critical Childhood Policy Studies, 5(1), 6-18. Retrieved from

Urban, M., Vandenbroeck, M., Van Laere, K., Lazzari, A., & Peeters, J. (2012). Towards Competent Systems in Early Childhood Education and Care. Implications for Policy and Practice. European Journal of Education, 47(4), 508-526. doi:10.1111/ejed.12010