Early childhood education and care (ECEC) as one part of child and youth welfare services has undergone major dynamics and changes throughout the last years. The expansion and development of early childhood education and care services is an important issue at the federal political as well as practical agenda. With regard to this the ECEC system faces major challenges: it has to meet families’ rising demand for ECEC provision. Therefore, service provision has to be extended as well as (equal) access to ECEC has to be improved. At the same time qualified staff, necessary to cope with such an expansion of the system, is lacking in many regions.

Ongoing effort of the governing levels of the federal government, the federal states (Länder) and municipalities, is needed to promote sustainable development of the ECEC system. Amongst others, the improvement of structural framework conditions is a crucial base for pedagogical work. Improvements are especially essential because centre-based ECEC or family daycare has become a more and more important factor in children’s lifes.

Expanding ECEC service

Since the Day Care Development Act (Tagesbetreuungsausbaugesetz, TAG) came into force in 2005 and the Childcare Funding Act (Kinderförderungsgesetztes, KiföG) in 2008, the range of early childhood services in Germany has changed dramatically – especially for children under three years of age. The Childcare Funding Act implements children’s legal right to attend centre-based early childhood services or family day care from the age of one onwards (starting August 2013). Since the Childcare Funding Act has been passed, new places for this age group have been continuously created in line with demand. Flexible attendance hours have also been introduced. Data from the Child and Youth Services Statistics(Kinder- und Jugendhilfestatistik) show that full-time attendance of publicly subsidised early childhood education and care for children aged three to six has increased, while the classic model of half-day attendance of early childhood services seems outdated.

There are discrepancies between families' reported needs for places in early childhood education and care and the actual participation rates of children attending early childhood services. Still the proportion of children under three years of age that attend publicly subsidised centre-based early childhood education and care or family day care is increasing continuously Fifth Report on Evaluation of the Kinderförderungsgesetz (fünfter Bericht zur Evaluation des Kinderförderungsgesetztes).

Regional disparities

Statistics show that participation in public early childhood education and care services by children of all age groups has risen continuously in recent years. Additionally, participation rates increase with children's ages up to school entry (Bildungsbericht 2018).

Despite the numerous changes and efforts to expand services throughout Germany, both the availability and the demand for early childhood services continue to vary depending on the age of the children, the region and the services. For example, there are quite large differences in the participation rates of children in eastern and western parts of Germany. In 2017, the participation rates for under-threes in federal states in the east of Germany were still higher than in the west of Germany - 51.3 per cent compared to 28.8 per cent (Autorengruppe Bildungsbericht 2018, Tab.C31A).

Current information on programmes of the Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth can be found at the portal www.fruehe-chancen.de.

ECEC service providers

In Germany, the majority of centre-based early education and care provision is run by service providers (Trägerschaften). Providers can be divided into public (öffentliche Träger) and private providers (freie Träger) of child and youth welfare services. Public providers are bodies of state administration (e.g. youth welfare offices at municipal/local or federal state level), while private providers are mostly non-profit organisations, associations, institutions or companies. Private for-profit organisations only account for a minority of private providers of early childhood education and care.

At municipal level, the Child and Youth Welfare Services Act (Kinder- und Jugendhilfe­gesetz) assigns the responsibility of public welfare provision to the youth welfare offices (Jugendämter).The youth welfare offices have supervisory responsibility for assigned early childhood education and care providers within their administrative area (see Section 69 SGB VIII).

Private for-profit and non-profit providers are generally church, welfare, and youth organisations. Particularly in Western Germany, parents' initiatives or associations also operate as private providers. Reasons to establish and manage parents’ initiatives can be a lack of early childhood education and care services, parents’ dissatisfaction with existing services or their strong wish to play an active role in designing such services.

The principle of subsidiarity (Subsidiaritätsprinzip) is one of the most important political principles underpinning the organisation, funding and regulation of early childhood services in Germany. It determines the relationship between public and private providers. Section 74 SGB VIII states that private providers are given priority over public providers when new services are established. Public providers are asked to intervene as soon as the existing demand cannot be covered by private providers (see Section 4 SGB VIII). The majority of early childhood education and care services are managed by private providers.

Private and public providers are required to cooperate as partners (see Section 4 subsection 1 SGB VIII). Public providers have the overall responsibility - including planning responsibility – for early childhood services and have to make sure that these services fulfill their tasks. They are also responsible for the provision of early childhood services in line with demand. Private providers are responsible for the provision respectively the implementation of their own early childhood services, as well as for their staffs' performance.

In addition to the principle of subsidiarity, the early childhood and care system in Germany is also governed by the principle of diversity of child and youth welfare services and providers. This principle is based on the parents' right to choose a provider as well as pedagogical concept according to their wishes (see Section 5 SGB VIII).

The universally binding mandate in the German early childhood education and care system

The German legislation states universally binding objectives for public early childhood education and care services. Under the Child and Youth Welfare Services Act, centre-based early childhood education and care and family day care services are to:

  1. "support children in becoming independent and socially integrated personalities,
  2. support and complement education and care in the family,
  3. assist parents in better combining childcare and employment responsibilities (see Section 22 subsection 2 SGB VIII)."

Early childhood services support children in all areas of their development. However, these services not only enable children to enhance their cognitive and non-cognitive skills, they also enable parents to improve their work-life balance (see Section 22 subsection 3 SGB VIII).

Early education in centre-based settings and family day care is characterised by a holistic approach and reflected in the deeply intertwined concepts education, care and upbringing. This holistic approach is shaped by the traditions of early childhood educational research and practice. 'Education' is not meant in the sense of school education; it means that children are actively involved in becoming familiar with all aspects of the world, culture, etc. Children’s development and learning are to be encouraged, accompanied and supported in meaningful situations. Early childhood services are asked to create fruitful learning environments involving topics that relate to children’s everyday world and interests. The concept of 'upbringing' means all pedagogical activities and behavioral patterns of adults in their responsible interaction with children. The concept of 'care' comprises looking after and ensuring children’s physical and mental health.

In international comparison, the concepts 'education, care and upbringing' mark a key feature and strength of the mandate implemented by early childhood services in Germany. The OECD (2004) highlights this holistically oriented educational and pedagogical approach as worthy of special note (OECD-Country Note 2004).

In Germany, early childhood education and care is part of the public welfare system, for the federal government, the 16 federal states (Länder) and municipalities/local authorities share responsibility.

The government of the Federal Republic of Germany sets a statutory framework that includes binding objectives and principles. These are expressed in the Book Eight of the Social Code (Sozialgesetzbuch, SGB VIII) – Child and Youth Welfare.

The federal states (Länder) are responsible for further elaborating on the child and youth welfare obligations according to the Social Code VIII (see Section 26 SGB VIII). Thus, all 16 federal states have specific laws and regulations, which legally regulate early childhood education and care services in the respective federal states (e.g. Berlin's Child Day Care Development Act – Kindertagesförderungsgesetz, KitaFöG in Berlin). These laws define the tasks and goals of early childhood education and care services, for example, how many places are required, whether new early childhood services need to be established, what material resources should be available and how the services should be organised. Regulations concerning staff-child ratios or room dimensions can differ widely between the federal states. An overview of early childhood education and care laws in the 16 federal states can be found at the Eduserver (Deutschen Bildungsserver).

The municipalities are responsible for planning and implementing early childhood education and care services at local level. They are also responsible for a large part of the funding of these services.

The above described division of responsibilities for early childhood education and care services is based on the idea of decentralised management, thereby strengthening the responsibility and independence of smaller state units or individuals and avoiding state paternalism.

In recent years the German government advanced the quantitative and qualitative expansion of early childhood education and care services by passing the 2005 Day Care Expansion Act (Tagesbetreuungsausbaugesetz TAG) and the 2008 Childcare Funding Act /typo3/(Kinderförderungsgesetz KiföG ). Both laws grant children from one year onwards the legal right to attend an early childhood education and care centre or a family day care service.

Even after the reforms to the constitutional law known as Föderalismusreformen I and II, the Federation retains responsibility for child and youth welfare services as a part of public welfare (see Section 74 subsection 1 No. 7 GG).

Against the background of the ongoing quantitative expansion of ECEC services in Germany questions regarding the assurance and development of structural as well as pedagogical quality of those services gained more and more importance.

Since the 1990s various stakeholders in research and politics deal with this issue. The national quality initiative in the system of day care facilities for children(Nationale Qualitätsinititative im System der Tageseinrichtungen für Kinder) starting in 1999 set impulses for the development of instruments to measure quality in the different ECEC settings. Within five subprojects quality criteria (national criteria catalogue) and evaluation procedures have been compiled and tested in practice. Those instruments and procedures, which have been constantly revised and modified, are used widely within Germany. The diversity of pedagogical concepts of ECEC settings and providers resulted in an incalculable variety of instruments and procedures of quality development and assurance. The term “quality management systems” is often used to describe the implemented instruments and procedures. All in all, the perspective on pedagogical work in ECEC settings as well as on (quality) governance in the whole ECEC sector has changed considerably during the last years.

In spite of the different efforts various studies, e.g. the national investigation on education, care and upbringing in early childhood (NUBBEK) indicate mediocre quality and stagnating quality development of ECEC services. In addition, substantial regional differences can be empirically observed, mainly regarding structural quality. Such differences in quality are e.g. shown in the Bertelsmann Ländermonitor with regard to the staff-child ratio.

As no consent regarding a binding national quality law with nationwide applicable standards could be found in the political debate, in 2014 a quality development process was initiated on the federal level. In the course of the process the working party “Developing and financially ensuring early education“ („Frühe Bildung weiterentwickeln und finanziell sichern“) – consisting of the Federal government, the federal states and municipal associations – was founded. Their task was to compile a collaboratively agreed report until November 2016, building the professional, content-related as well as the financial foundation for a nationwide quality development process.

The interim report "Developing and financially ensuring early education" has been presented at the 3rd conference of the federal government and the federal states on November 5, 2016. This report shall be the basis and framework for the efforts within the Länder and municipalities to ensure quality improvements in ECEC. After the conference, the working group “Early education” developed a proposal for the financial design and the practical implementation of the quality development process. The result of this work was a key issues paper for the elaboration of a federal law on quality development. The key issues paper was accepted as a resolution proposal at the ‘youth and family ministers’ conference in May 2017. Additionally, the update of the “common frame of the Länder for early education in day care centers” as well as a working group on recruiting ECEC staff was resolved.

After an intense parliamentary negotiation period in 2018, the new national law on quality development (‘Gute-Kita-Gesetz’) finally was passed and came into force at the beginning of 2019. The law is based on the interim report mentioned above. Hence, quality goals, like the improvement of access, child-staff-ratio, the qualification of staff or the strengthening of leadership in ECEC are central elements of this law (cf. BMFSFJ/JFMK 2016).

Although the law is as an important step towards improving structural quality within the ECEC system, there has been a lot of critique regarding the conception and the regulation, especially with regard to the distribution of the funding. The evaluation and monitoring of the process will be necessary to see if and how the law supports sustainable quality improvements. Since the duration of the law is limited until 2022, there will be the chance to readjust and change the current weak points. Part of this should be to create a sustainable and solid financial support for municipalities and providers who are in charge of implementing the quality goals. Moreover, these quality goals should be binding, now they have more the status of a recommendation linked with financial incentives if these are implemented. Since there are remarkable differences in the current situation of the Länder, they can choose - depending on this situation – which quality goal they want to select for the allocation of money. Also their scope of action is quite wide, which might not always be expedient.

For supporting a comparable and similar level of structural quality throughout Germany, further political effort is necessary. Hence, the law is a compromise after a long political struggle on how to regulate quality, and an important step, but just the first one in many more that need to follow.