While the benefits have been widely evidenced of high-quality early childhood education and care (ECEC) for young children, especially those from vulnerable groups, it is clear that efforts to improve the holistic development and well-being of children and families must involve a wide range of policies, services and actions. No single intervention, service or sector on its own can hope to achieve sustainable improvements. There is a growing recognition among researchers, policy makers and practitioners that policies and services need to become better integrated if they are to effectively address complex issues such as poverty and promote social inclusion. Only multi-dimensional, aligned and integrated responses and interventions in early years can address the complex and multi-faceted needs of all children and their families, especially those in vulnerable situations, such as families living in poverty, Roma families, or families in the contexts of migration or asylum.
As a concept, integrated working covers a multitude of cooperative systems and models. It is context-specific: different models exist, starting from the specific needs of children and families, with different partners and/or sectors involved in distinct policy settings. Integrated working approaches are often seen as a continuum ranging from cooperation, through collaboration and coordination, to full integration, in which different services are united into a single organisation in order to enhance service delivery. A wide range of sectors and services can be involved in integrated working, depending upon the needs of children and their families. These include: early childhood education and care services; preventive health centres; preventive family support services; schools; out-of-school care; as well as services from the cultural sector (such as libraries, community centres). Integrated working can refer to specific types of integration (vertical integration, e.g. linking childcare to early education, with both being part of an integrated ECEC system); or it can go broader, linking ECEC provision to services in other sectors such as health or social services (horizontal integration). In this report, we consider integrated working to be a form of professional cooperation within a network or partnership, which provides a range of support services for families and children, accessible to all, in which families and children can participate and where parents are respected as first educators (Gordon et al., 2016).
The main purpose of this report is to examine the added value provided by, and the prerequisites for, integrated working – as well as the crucial role played by ECEC services – in order to better serve all families, but especially vulnerable and disadvantaged children and families. Separate attention is devoted to Roma children and their families as one of the most vulnerable groups in Europe, often trapped in a vicious circle of poverty, exclusion and discrimination.
The report is written for policy makers and professionals working in the field of early childhood education and care. It is guided by the following questions:
What services or functions should be involved in integrated working, paying specific attention to the role that ECEC can play?
What inspiring examples of integrated working already exist in Europe?
What is the added value of integrated working (for children and families, for professionals, for policy makers) in general, and specifically for Roma?
What are the prerequisites for integrated working in general, and specifically for integrated working aimed at addressing the needs of Roma?
The report focuses on different groups of vulnerable children and families – and, in particular, on Roma. It is based on a literature review and six case studies illustrating different ways of integrated working in a variety of contexts. Specifically, the case studies look at the Early Years Children and Family Centre in Newry (the UK); bridging professionals in Ghent pre-schools (Belgium); the Sprungbrettangebote in Berlin, which links centres to childcare (Germany); Sure Start Children’s House in Porcsalma (Hungary); the municipal kindergarten network in Tundzha municipality (Bulgaria); and the ‘Ready Set Go!’ project (Romania). The evidence from the case studies (Part II) frames and supplements the more theoretical part of the report (Part I). It serves as a basis from which to discuss the added value of, and prerequisites for, integrated working (covered respectively in Parts III and IV), and feeds into the report’s policy recommendations.