Research and policy intervention on Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC from now on) has flourished in recent years. Strong socio-economic and demographic trends underpin discourse and policy innovation in this field, putting the question of who looks after the children at the centre of public debate and scholars’ attention.

ECEC has especially come to the forefront of policy discourse and action as part of a wider attempt to reformulate welfare state intervention through a Social Investment (SI) strategy, an approach to social policy that emphasises equalising life opportunities rather than life outcomes with the underlying goal of ‘preparing rather than reparing’. However, this simultaneous change in the paradigm governing childcare and common trajectory in the transformation of ECEC in Europe and around the globe is taking place departing from very different starting points in the different countries. The common set of ideas, benchmarks and policy prescriptions regarding ECEC at EU and OECD levels does not seem to lead to a shared trajectory of policy change.

Developments have not been uniform as for what regards both the pace of transformation and the specific path taken. Hence, we seem to be facing a shift in paradigm at the level of problem definition but we cannot conclude that a third order change has or is taking place. There are bound to be tensions and tradeoffs between interpretation at the level of discourse, the precise problem definition, the mechanisms put in place to tackle such problem and the outcomes they produce. Our starting premise is that the degree to which an increase in childcare spending can truly be interpreted as moving in a Social Investment direction will depend on a number of pre-conditions. These can be grouped in two main linked concepts that are central to the Social Investment logic: Equality in representation and access and Quality of provision.

On the one hand, we need to understand if all social groups benefit equally from ECEC interventions or if, as the ‘Matthew Effect’ suggests, these are biased towards the middle classes, benefiting those who are least disadvantaged but that hold greater political visibility. On the other hand, we need to know if the urge to expand services (given greater demand) comes at the price of quality, in which case the argument that ECEC expansion is part of a wider Social Investment strategy can hardly be made.

To study how equality and quality interact with ECEC expansion we propose an analytical focus organized around three main streams (1) Politics, (2) Policies, and (3) Outcomes. These three integrated parts will look at the political conditions under which the development of the investing in children paradigm takes places unveiling tensions and contradictions among different actors and mobilization capacity of different social groups and public opinion support; investigate the realization of the investing in children paradigm by looking at policy designs and implementation mechanisms at national, subnational and municipal levels into the early years; and study the outcomes of these policies by looking at conditions of accessibility for groups of different socio-economic background.

The research will focus on Spain with several sub-national cases and we will undertake specific comparative analyses at given points in time of the research project.