Policy issue 4: Governance and financing hamper equal access to quality ECEC

Can a decentralised system guarantee reasonably equal treatment of all children across a country? This is a key question posed in the oECD Starting Strong II publication, and one that many countries which have devolved responsibilities for ECEC are struggling with. it is also a significant challenge faced by many of Latvia’s municipalities, in particular the smaller ones. Concerns have been raised in recent years about their (financial) capacity to effectively manage their local education systems, as well as other social services (OECD, 2014b, 2015a). In addition, the evidence suggests family and child benefits are not sufficiently targeted towards low-income families (OECD, 2015a).

The need to review governance and funding of ECEC services

Latvia’s local government reform in 2009 aimed to establish administrative territories (regions) capable of promoting economic development in association with local governments and to ensure high-quality provision of services.

This has resulted in a consolidation of municipal governments and created an intermediate level of government. Yet the disparity in local government sizes still poses challenges in terms of capacity and resources (OECD, 2015a) which in turn risks affecting the quality of ECEC services provided.

In principle, variations in municipal funding capacity should be evened out, at least to some extent. For example the government has rules on the minimum spending per child per year on ECEC overall (Kasa, Liepina and Tuna, 2012), and the local government equalisation fund and/or the transfer of social benefits to parents and guardians should also even out funding.

The evidence however shows that inequality remains, partly due to the inadequacy of the country’s equalisation fund, and because social benefits are not properly targeted (OECD, 2015a). Less than 20% of all social benefits go to the poorest quintile, while the richest quintile receives almost 27%. In addition, municipalities vary considerably in the generosity of their social security, with Riga being the most generous.

Latvia is planned to review the local government equalisation fund which indeed would seem essential to help to diminishing disparities in funding capacity between municipalities. A more targeted approach to the provision of child and family benefits may also be needed to diminish family and child poverty (OECD, 2015a), and enhance access to ECEC for children from the poorest families.

At present equal access to high-quality ECEC services partly depends on local financial capacity as well as on the political will to invest. This is particularly an issue for ECEC provision for children under five, where central government does not fund the salaries of ECEC staff. Staff working in poorer municipalities may also have less opportunity to participate in good quality professional development programmes than their peers in the more prosperous parts of the country, jeopardising children’s rights to equal quality eCeC.

Young children with special education needs and their families are another example. While central government funding is provided for special ECEC institutions for all ages from 1 to 7 years old, no such funding is provided for children with special needs below the age of five who are enrolled in regular institutions. These institutions instead depend solely on the municipal budget, which varies considerably among municipalities (MoES, 2015; OECD, 2015a), affecting their capacity to provide additional support to those children that need it most. Such a situation is critical as early intervention is crucial for mitigating and overcoming developmental disorders (EADSNE, 2010). In response to this situation MoES intends to review funding arrangements to facilitate the integration of children with special education needs into regular schools. The review team agrees this is an important measure to ensure equal access to ECEC throughout Latvia.

In addition, there would seem to be scope for further collaboration between municipalities, or a reduction in their number through mergers. The review team learned that some municipalities have established collaborations with others to enhance their capacity which is a positive development that should be encouraged. Others however are unlikely to do so unless motivated by the central government for example through financial incentives.

Latvia may also look towards the examples of some OECD countries that have clustered certain numbers of ECEC institutions and schools - sometimes deliberately crossing municipal boundaries - as a means to overcome professional isolation and pool resources and expertise, and to establish best practice in curriculum and planning implementation (Ares Abalde, 2014). For example in Portugal the government has been reorganising its public school network around school clusters since 2006. A typical school cluster consists of five to ten pre-schools and primary schools with one secondary school. This reorganisation aims to facilitate transitions across education levels, as well as to overcome geographical isolation and social exclusion. In 2012, a quarter of all pre-schools, primary and secondary schools were in clusters. Central to the implementation process has been widespread consultation with key partners including central, regional and local government, school clusters, and executive boards and unions. Financial incentives for municipalities have also played their part (Santiago, 2012; Matthews et al., 2008).

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