Learning does not begin with compulsory schooling, it starts from birth. The EU strategic framework for Education and Training 2020 recognises Early Childhood Education and Care systems’ (ECEC) potential for addressing social inclusion and economic challenges, and has therefore set a benchmark to ensure that at least 95% of children aged between four and the starting age of compulsory education, participate in ECEC.
This target also aims at addressing another one of the Europe 2020 headline targets on education: the decrease of early school leaving (ESL). For children on the autism spectrum, ESL is even more of a problem, as according to Eurostat. In 2011, the proportion of people aged 18-24 in the EU who left the education system with a lower secondary education level at most was around 25% for people with disabilities, compared with 12,4% for those without difficulty.
According to the final report “ECEC for children from disadvantaged backgrounds”, released by the European Commission in 2012, participation in ECEC is considered “a crucial factor for socialising children into formal education”.
ECEC is especially beneficial for the most disadvantaged children, including those on the autism spectrum, whose gains in cognitive and socio-emotional development are higher than for neurotypical children. However, according to the report “Support for children with special educational needs” by the European Commission’s DG for Employment, Social Affairs & Inclusion, these children tend to be less represented in ECEC due to the lack of adapted settings.
The need for inclusive education is enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which in article 24.2 states that persons with disabilities should not be excluded from the general education system, setting the challenge of allowing education systems to be adapted to all students.
In the partner countries, only Slovenia, which acts as a “mentor partner” within the project, provides adapted education including additional assistance for inclusive education, with the majority of children with special needs attending mainstream kindergartens and schools. This translates an ESL rate of only 5%.
In Spain, the education system is decentralised and regions were asked to develop “Attention to Diversity plans”. However, in the Canary Islands, no specific funding has been allocated to early attention for children with autism. This policy results in an ESL rate for people with disabilities of 19% in the Canary Islands.
In the Czech Republic, autistic children are taken into account but they are usually segregated in separated classes. For this country, the ESL rate for people with disabilities is 28%, while it is only 5% for students without a disability.
Therefore, the ETTECEC project aims at improving the ECEC systems of the partner regions by making them inclusive and avoiding the segregation of children with autism. This will allow these children to be better prepared to enter the general education system.
As stated in the Erasmus+ Strategic Partnership priorities, it is crutial to develop projects like ETTECEC that support efforts to enhance the quality of ECEC systems in order to ensure a good star in education for all. Moreover, the ECEC quality framework mentions that ECEC should encourge participation, embrace diversity and include well-qualified staff training to enable them to fullfil their professional role.
Although different initiatives exist at the national level, the European dimension of ETTECEC allows the sharing of good practices between pre-schools and specialised organisations in autism from different EU regions, some more advanced than others, and the replicability and transferability of the project’s results to other EU schools.
Indeed, despite there being no statistical data in the countries involved in the project, autism affects about 1% of the population, meaning that around 700,000 children under 6 are concerned in the EU.