The Equal Access Study:
Access inequalities in ECEC systems

One of the foci of the research activities in the International Centre Early Childhood Education and Care (ICEC) is on inequalities in access to early childhood education. The ICEC is interested in the institutional conditions that guarantee equal access to services for all children.  

Early childhood education and care (ECEC) is regarded as key for ensuring equal educational opportunities for children from diverse social and cultural backgrounds.  However, especially children from less privileged families are observed to experience access barriers: Parental fees or limited opening hours can hinder the usage of ECEC. Furthermore, equal access is no guarantee for equitable educational opportunities: early childhood services can particularly contribute to children’s development and learning when their diverse backgrounds and needs are sufficiently considered.

Albeit there is international agreement to decrease social inequalities in access to ECEC, de facto access conditions and inclusiveness of services regarding diverse groups vary tremendously between countries. By addressing this issue, the ICEC promotes international exchange on relevant political conditions and approaches that impede or foster access and inclusion of different groups.  

The ICEC organises international conferences on a regular basis to create a platform for international exchange between stakeholders from research, policy and practice, to discuss access conditions, effects of selectivity and inclusive strategies in ECEC. 

The Equal Access Study

The Equal Access Study is an empirical research project (2017-2020) at the ICEC aimed at examining access to (high quality) ECEC services. Its objective is to compare access conditions in Germany, Canada and Sweden, as well as approaches to improve these. Thereby, the project draws particular attention to the role of structural factors on access to high quality ECEC and in how far these conditions impede or improve access of certain groups.

The starting point of the study is the current social investment discourse, according to which early childhood education is regarded as key to reduce social inequalities and allow social mobility. However, research shows that children from disadvantaged family backgrounds get enrolled less often in ECEC and access less often services of high quality. This involves the risk of exacerbating inequalities between disadvantaged and more privileged groups. 

Considering increasing social heterogeneity and diversity in many countries, the Equal Access Study investigates access conditions in ECEC in Canada, Sweden and Germany. To this purpose, the role of ECEC as part of the national social and family policies is taken into account, reflecting the wider national welfare tradition.  

The Equal Access Study is a cross-country comparative research project that examines the role of institutional framework conditions and governance processes in creating (un)equal access to ECEC. This research perspective on structural factors complements existing research emphasising parental preferences towards childcare.

The study aims at identifying access barriers as well as approaches to decrease unequal access conditions. Therefore, national and regional governance frameworks are analysed at a macro level. Then, implementation of these regulations at a local level is investigated, focussing organisation of access in selected municipalities. Thus, a better understanding of the role of institutional contexts in creating, reducing or reinforcing inequalities is fostered.

The study identifies access barriers and efforts to reduce these by comparing different cases. The following research questions are addressed:

  • Which selective enrolment patterns of (high quality) ECEC services can be observed in Canada, Germany and Sweden?  
  • What are the specific regulations and framework conditions of these ECEC systems determining access to (high quality) ECEC? 
  • Which access barriers can be identified that are related to structural framework conditions, and what kind of measures are taken at the local level to reduce inequalities? Which stakeholders are involved?
  • Do the different welfare systems show distinct phenomena of selectivity or distinct access barriers?

Methodological approach 

The Equal Access Study is based on a case-oriented, comparative research design and is carried out in two research steps.

1)      As a first step, expert reports were commissioned to gain information on the three different ECEC systems, specific governance structures and social policies.

2)      As a second research step, two qualitative local case studies were conducted in each country. Data collection is based on semi-structured, qualitative interviews with a range of representatives of local authorities and providers in ECEC. To analyse the cases qualitative content analysis is applied.

By using a heuristic on different dimensions of access (cf. Vandenbroek 2012, 2014), potential access barriers and approaches are identified. It is revealed how multi-level systems (national, regional, local) try (not) to address access barriers and create equal opportunities. The cross-country comparison shows similarities and differences in how far the local level is able to cope with access inequalities in Canada, Germany and Sweden.  

Research Concept and Study Design (Englisch)Konzeptioneller Rahmen und Forschungsdesign (Deutsch)

Inequalities in Access to Early Childhood Education and Care in Germany (PDF)
Inequalities in Access to Early Childhood Education and Care in Sweden (PDF)Inequalities in Access to Early Childhood Education and Care in Canada (PDF)


Scholz, Antonia/Harring, Dana (2019): (Ungleiche) Zugänge zu Kindertagesbetreuung in Deutschland, Schweden und Kanada: Eine institutionenbezogene Perspektive, Diskurs Kindheits- und Jugendforschung, 14/2019, S.234-239.

Scholz, Antonia/Menzel, Britta (2019): Priority setting in ECEC – equal access in the spotlight? A comparison of local childcare provision in Germany and Sweden, unveröffentlichtes Papier, vorgestellt auf der Transforming Care Conference, 24.-26. Juni 2019, Kopenhagen

International Conference 2019
"Access barriers in ECEC: International perspectives on local governance"
22nd-23rd October 2019, Berlin

Dokumentation of the conference

Further information on ICEC Conferences here



Britta Menzel
Research Associate
Telephone: +49 89-62306-128

Dr. Antonia Scholz
Research Associate
Telephone: +49 89-62306-370