Endorsed by the very first principle of the European Pillar of Social Rights, access to high-quality education and training is key to a more inclusive, resilient and equal society. However, research indicates that accessibility challenges persist within the field. As shown by the Eurofound (2015) report, early childhood education and care (ECEC) services are lacking in most of the Member States. Evidence suggests that the issues of availability, accessibility and affordability also apply to other levels of education. Examples of this include inequality of access to high-quality education in schools, and the underrepresentation of people from disadvantaged backgrounds in higher education (HE).
Access to high-quality education at all levels throughout a person’s lifetime is crucial for numerous reasons. It can help to promote social inclusion by providing a fair chance and equal opportunities to succeed, as well as encouraging civic engagement, boosting critical awareness and facilitating successful transitions into the labour market. A visible link also exists between access to quality education and breaking the cycle of poverty and disadvantage. This connects with findings regarding the positive relationship between parental education and the home environment, including the allocation of parental time to their children’s educational activities and cognitive stimulation, which results in higher educational attainment and thus higher income. However, research indicates that efforts to ensure access and move towards a more inclusive learning environment should focus not on the disadvantage of specific groups in terms of migrant background, socio-economic status or other characteristics, but on the intersectionality of these identities.
The issue of access to high-quality education for all can be addressed in a variety of fields and at various levels of education. Building on some of the examples mentioned above, research suggests that addressing the lack of available ECEC services requires additional investment from Member States to provide sufficient infrastructure free of charge and irrespective of a person’s origin or residence status. However, investing in ECEC will only be worthwhile if quality is assured, as low-quality services have been shown to exert a negative impact on both children and on society as a whole. In addition, researchers suggest that schools should be provided with additional per capita funding for each learner with a socially disadvantaged background, thereby providing schools with the necessary tools to offer additional language support or provide advanced teacher training.
In this context, when reflecting on the various stages of education, it is also essential to acknowledge the relationship between HE and adult education. An example of the link between the two concerns the need for more flexible study options and more widespread recognition of prior learning. This would encourage the early identification of support needs, and contribute to making higher education more accessible, particularly for adults. Within this framework, access to high-quality education at all levels emerges as a critical element in contributing to a more just and inclusive society.