Again, nearly 10,000 children in Sofia are left without access to nurseries and kindergartens. In the capital, 21% or every fifth child aged 1 to 4 in Bulgaria resides. There are 98 places available for every 100 children in childcare facilities. Consequently, around 10,000 children have been expected to remain outside the enrollment system in recent years. The extreme shortage of places in nurseries and kindergartens completely shifts the conversation away from the quality of care provided in these institutions.
The problem is not limited to the capital alone. According to data from the National Statistical Institute (NSI), the proportion of children aged 3 and below enrolled in Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) services in Bulgaria was 17.9% in 2022. This percentage is much lower than the EU’s target of 45% and has remained relatively stable for the past five years nationwide, even reaching a mere 23.1% in municipalities with the highest coverage, such as Gabrovo, while it is only 8.5-9% in Sliven and Pazardzhik. According to Eurostat data from 2021, 71.7% of children in Bulgaria are cared for by their parents at home until the age of 3.
The coverage for children aged 3 to 7 is also significantly lower than the European Union average, with approximately 80% of children in this age group attending preschool (compared to 92.8% in the EU). These figures for Bulgaria are far from the strategic target of reaching 96% coverage by 2030.
In addition to the lack of places in childcare facilities, there is also the issue of quality care. 22% of parents report that their children have been subjected to physical punishment in kindergartens and schools, while 41% have experienced verbal violence (NMD, 2018). The preparation and support of teachers, nurses, and educators, which falls under the mandate of national institutions, have a direct impact on these trends.
Many of these problems need to be addressed through national policies, but the efforts of local authorities are also crucial, including from the perspective that urban administrations can exert pressure for legislative changes that would allow them to solve the problems according to local conditions.
The significant shortage of places and the lottery-like distribution create a strong sense of unfairness and lack of policies aimed at supporting parents. A substantial part of the solution to the access problem lies in diversifying the types of services, which would guarantee parents the ability to choose. This could be achieved by recognizing and supporting alternative forms of care that provide quality care but are not currently part of the “official” educational system.
As the National Network for Children, we insist on at least three measures that can overcome the problem of unequal access to early childhood development and care services.
Support for alternative forms of education and care in early childhood (cooperatives, childcare centers) for children aged 1 to 4 through appropriate municipal or national funding programs. This means breaking the monopoly of the state and municipalities. By providing funds for alternative care, they will also have the opportunity to impose requirements and control over the quality of the services provided.
As of 2022, there are about 90 private childcare centers in Sofia that meet health requirements, as well as 30 parent cooperatives across the country that are not registered in the Ministry of Education and Science register of organizations in the field of preschool and school education, providing care services for around 1500 children. However, all of them remain unrecognized by the educational system.
With the support of the municipality and national institutions, this solution can provide relatively quick results and relieve the pressure on state nurseries and kindergartens. Furthermore, it will give parents the opportunity to choose where to enroll their child instead of relying on a lottery system for a place in a state-owned kindergarten.
Support for public-private partnerships – childcare facilities managed by companies or civil organizations. Parents will be able to enroll their children in a location close to or within the building where they work. Funding can be obtained through the “Human Resources Development” Operational Program, as well as other programs of the European Social Fund Plus (ESF+) – the main investment instrument of the European Union in people. This measure will support the balance between work and personal time for parents and encourage additional services for working parents at the end of the workday and during vacations.
Due to a number of problems with proper planning and construction of new neighborhoods, as well as finding sites for childcare facilities in state and municipal ownership, constructing new buildings is a solution that may yield results after years. In the meantime, a solution with faster results would involve changing the required minimum qualification levels for staff. Only one-third of European education systems require basic practitioners working with a group of younger children (usually under 3 years old) to have a bachelor’s degree or higher qualification. Bulgaria is among them. In our country, each group of children under the age of 3 must be supervised by two main specialists with at least a bachelor’s degree. This prevents students with relevant specialties from accessing auxiliary activities in childcare institutions, while the existing staff, mostly older and approaching retirement age, are often burdened with caring for 10-20 children. Qualification opportunities through courses also concern legitimizing personnel for alternative forms of education.
Beyond short-term and medium-term solutions, early childhood education and care services face several essential questions that require reforms. One of them is the question of governance and responsibility for nurseries or the care of the youngest children. Even more crucial is the question of how nurseries and kindergartens are financed. One possible solution is the introduction of a voucher system that allows parents to choose which nursery, kindergarten, or other alternative early childhood development service they want their child to attend. However, of course, the question of available places needs to be at least partially resolved.
One thing is clear – actions are needed today. If no steps are taken, the problem will worsen further, as starting from the 2023/2024 academic year, preschool education becomes mandatory for 4-year-old children for whom places are not provided. The decision was made back in 2018 and gave municipalities with a significant shortage like Sofia a buffer period of 5 years. The buffer period has expired. As a result, municipalities that leave children outside the Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) system will be in direct violation of the law and at risk of facing hundreds of lawsuits from parents.
We would like to remind you that the National Network for Children (NNC) has initiated a collective lawsuit against Bulgaria before the European Committee of Social Rights to address violations of the revised European Social Charter. The main issues raised in the complaint by the Legal Aid Network of the NNC and Eurochild relate to: 1) the lack of available spaces in childcare facilities in certain cities; 2) inadequate access to early childhood education and care throughout the country, as well as the absence of policies and measures through which the state actively supports parents and children in Bulgaria in providing education and care for children from birth until the mandatory age for starting primary education. The Council of Europe has publicly announced the case (Eurochild v. Bulgaria – No. 221/2023) and published the text of the complaint.
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