This is what prompted the Ardian Foundation to invest in the area of early childhood, notably by helping to set up a research chair on educational policies and social mobility at the Paris School of Economics (PSE). In May 2022, the PSE organized a round table discussion featuring early childhood researchers and practitioners. Here are some of the key takeaways.
The event’s theme was “Education and early childhood: between universalism and social targeting, how to ensure access to quality education for all children.” Six speakers were invited to share their views on this important question: Mayalen Iron, Project Lead for the Les 1000 premiers jours de l’enfant (First 1,000 days) initiative at the General Secretariat for the Ministries in charge of Social Affairs, Fabienne Rosenwald, Head of the Assessment, Forward-Looking Analysis and Performance Directorate of the French Education Ministry, Carlo Barone, Professor at Sciences Po, Guillaume Roussier, Head of the Early Childhood Division of the Childhood, Youth and Parenthood Department of the National Office for Family Allocations (CNAF), Marc Gurgand, CNRS Research Director and PSE Chaired Professor, and Dominique Senequier, President of Ardian.
The impact of formal care on understanding
The starting point for discussion was the fact, highlighted by international research, that putting children aged six months to three years into organized care facilities has short- and medium-term benefits for their development, particularly in the case of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. But a significant share of parents, particularly those in challenging circumstances, do not take the steps needed to get such care.
“Early childhood has a critical bearing on schooling,” says Fabienne Rosenwald.
We see that the competencies in which inequality is most pronounced at school are those linked to understanding – that is, understanding of words, of texts, of sentences and so on. These inequalities are deeply embedded.
“Although no causal link has been established, there appears to be a correlation between a child’s involvement in a formal care system, whether that be provided by a day care center or a childminder, and the competencies acquired when they enter school.” The gap is found across all types of social environment but seems to be larger for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is worth pointing out that there is a spread of findings in the international research on this topic. Furthermore, the progress made by children is also correlated to the quality of the care facility.
France has a relatively large but unevenly distributed range of care options
spots at day cares
spots with childminders
With 470,000 spots at day cares and 740,000 with childminders, France has an extensive range of early childhood care options. The coverage ratio is steadily increasing and now stands at 60%, despite the 2019 decision lowering the official age at which children are required to attend school to three.
However, there are a number of significant imbalances. For one thing, regional distribution is uneven: in 35 of France’s départements, places with childminders make up over 70% of the available spots. Coverage ratios vary between the departments with the best and least coverage by between 1% and 8%. There are also financial disparities. For a family earning the equivalent of minimum wage, the cost-to-income ratio associated with using a childminder is three times greater than the ratio for a day care. From about three times’ minimum wage the costs become roughly equivalent. Another major imbalance concerns awareness about different care choices. Information about these options is provided by multiple sources, including the CNAF, municipal services, and local early childhood support centers. In the end, families that do not take proactive steps to get this information are very differently impacted.
Experimental explorations and support from Ardian
So how do we boost the percentage of young children enrolled in care facilities? Significant measures are under consideration. In 2021, the Premiers Pas (First Steps) seminar co-organized by the CNAF, HCFEA (High Council for Family, Children and Age) and France Stratégie, made a bold suggestion: France should set up four half-days of universal, organized childcare per week for children aged six months to three years. While this suggestion raises big questions, notably in terms of securing staffing and financing and persuading parents who are not interested in sending their children to sign on, most experts agree on the potential benefits of such a measure.
Given the scale of the challenge, some private sector participants are getting involved. Established in 2010, the Ardian Foundation initially focused on supporting teenagers from disadvantaged families.
While we are keeping up this valuable effort to mentor young people, the foundation has decided to refocus on early childhood, with the ultimate goal of devoting 70% of its budget to this area.
“But as our discussions have shown, working on this topic is a complex task that necessarily entails an experimental approach,” adds Ardian President Dominique Senequier.
Initiatives include co-funding a Maison des 1000 premiers jours (First Thousand Days Center) in Arras in northern France. Set up based on the recommendations of the Cyrulnik Commission in 2020, these facilities provide future parents with a set of services that are intended to address the lack of clarity and coordination in care, support and family services. “The Arras center currently looks after some 30 families, but it is going to gradually expand to cater to several thousand children all over France. "It is an incredible field of discovery offering massive potential,” says Dominique Senequier.
We see that with these facilities, as with day cares, one of the big challenges is to get families to accept them. Encouragement is critical.
The idea is to organize meetings twice a month during the first year of the child’s life. The facilities enable families with modest means to gain confidence, build support networks and integrate more effectively into society. This leads to significant developments. Over the course of the meetings, ties are forged with the parents, encouraging them to entrust their children to a formal care system.
This critical relationship of trust supports a chain of virtuous effects, significantly improving the chances of success for these children.
Learn how the Ardian Foundation's mission has evolved to focus on early childhood projects