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EACEA National Policies Platform:Eurydice


4.Early childhood education and care


Last update: 11 April 2024

ECEC place guarantee

ECEC for children under 3 years old

There is no legal guarantee to a place in early childhood education and care (ECEC) for children under the age of three and demand still outstrips supply.

One in two children under the age of three are enrolled in ECEC settings. Provision has increased considerably in recent years, particularly in terms of crèches. In 2022, crèches network coverage for children up to three years old was 51.3 % (Gabinete de Estratégia e Planeamento (GEP)/Ministry of Labour, Solidarity and Social Security (MTSSS) - Carta Social 2022) in mainland Portugal, against 32.7 % in 2009. That said, coverage is uneven throughout the country, and provision in the Greater Lisbon and Porto areas does not meet the needs of the resident population. The mainland average rate of crèche and childminder use in 2022 was 88.3 % in total places available for children under the age of three. In 2022, 105,660 children attended early childhood education and care institutions.

Under the "Happy Creche" programme, which was promoted by the Ministry of Labour, Solidarity and Social Security (MTSSS), children born on or after 1 September, 2021 are guaranteed free attendance and childminding, including food, hygiene, learning, play and motor skills activities, registration, insurance and extended hours. This measure has been gradually rolled out and, in 2024, all children up to the age of 3 who enter the first year of nursery school or go on to the 2nd and 3rd year are entitled to free early childhood education and care attendance, regardless of the type of provider (Law No. 2/2022 3 September 2022). Law No. 2/2022, 3 January, Ministerial Order No. 198/2022, 27 July, Ordinance No. 304/2022, 22 December, Ordinance No. 305/2022, 22 December, Ordinance No. 426/2023, 11 December). 

ECEC for children aged 3 years and over

Pre-primary education is designed for children from the age of three. The Portuguese authorities guarantee a place in a pre-primary school for children from the age of three, for the last two years of ECEC (ISCED 020). That said,  in some urban areas, demand often outstrips supply, leaving few places available. The legal entitlement to ECEC was extended to the age of three by Legislative Order No 6/2018, 12 April, in updated wording and republished by Legislative Order No 10-B/2021, 14 April), which states that "attending pre-school education is optional and designed primarily for those children between three years old and the age pupils start the 1st cycle of basic education". 

According to Law No. 5/97, 10 February, it is the state's responsibility to contribute to making pre-school education widespread. In 2015, Law No. 65/2015, 3 July, enshrined the universality of pre-school education for all children, from the year they reach the age of 4. This universality implies that the state has a duty to provide a pre-school education network that allows all the children entitled to it can enrol and attend free of charge.

Since 2015, Portugal has managed to provide enough places for the last two years of ECEC in all areas of the country, guaranteeing universal pre-primary education in line with the law.

In 2021/2022, pre-primary attendance rates in Portugal were the following:

  • 81.9 % at three years old
  • 96.0 % at four years old
  • 99.8 % at five years old.

(Source: Educação em Números - Portugal 2023, Direção-Geral de Estatísticas da Educação e Ciência [DGEEC]).


ECEC for children under 3 years old

The private not-for-profit and for-profit sectors constitute the main education and care providers for children under three years old.

In 2022, there were 2 565 crèches in mainland Portugal, 76.9 % of those were owned by not-for-profit bodies, which were part of the solidarity network in terms of early childhood care. Only the districts of Setúbal (45.1 %), Lisbon (38.3 %) and Porto (32.8 %) registered private for-profit crèches shares above 30 %. As such, only 23.4 % of children attended private crèches in the for-profit sector in 2022 (Gabinete de Estratégia e Planeamento (GEP)/Ministry of Labour, Solidarity and Social Security [MTSSS], Carta Social 2022). 

The total amount of the fees is not regulated, but there is a fixed state contribution for each child.  In terms of free attendance (Happy Creche measure), the state’s contribution per child to providers was €460 in 2023, having been updated to €473 in 2024.
Law No. 2/2022, 3 January establishes the gradual extension of free places for all children attending crèches managed by private not-for-profit institutions (IPSS and other legally equivalent institutions) with a cooperation agreement with the MTSSS, as well as in childminders managed by the ISS, I. P.

From September 2022, creche and childminder services managed by private non-profit institutions (IPSS) or legally equivalent institutions with a cooperation agreement with the MTSSS, will be free for all children born after 1 September 2021. This includes food, hygiene, educational, recreational and motor skills activities, registration, insurance and after hours care. Similarly, all children in the 1st and 2nd income bracket benefit from free education, regardless of their age (Ordinance No. 198/2022, 27 July).

From 1 January 2023, free crèche services will be extended to children born on or after 1 September 2021, who attend crèches on the private for-profit network and IPSS without a cooperation agreement located in municipalities with no free places at IPSS with a cooperation agreement or the Santa Casa da Misericórdia de Lisboa (SCML) (Ordinance No. 305/2022, 22 December). From 2024, all children up to the age of 3 enrolled in creches have the right to free attendance, regardless of the type of provider (Ordinance No. 426/2023, 11 December). 

This allowance is valid for the years the child attends the crèche or is cared for by childminders. Children not covered by this measure, i.e., born before 1 September 2021, and who are not in the first and second family contribution income brackets, will pay an amount according to their income, in addition to the fixed contribution paid by the State.

ECEC for children aged 3 years and over

The public and private not-for-profit pre-primary schools that children attend from age three are free of charge for 25 hours a week. Parents’ and guardians’ contributions to the cost of family support services (which includes lunch and extra hours after the teaching component) in pre-primary settings is regulated by Joint Order No. 300/97, 4 September. Subsidies are established annually via specific legislation and families’ contributions are calculated according to income.

To ensure that the daily five-hour teaching component (i.e., 25 hours a week) ministered by pre-primary teachers is free, there has been a strategy of consolidating partnerships via cooperation protocols between the Ministry of Education (ME), the Ministry of Labour, Solidarity and Social Security (MTSSS), the Private Institution of Social Solidarity Union (UIPSS),  Portuguese Charities Union (UMP) and the Portuguese Mutual Societies Union. As such, children who attend both the public network and publicly funded ECEC (IPSS) are entitled to education and access to out of hours provision and family support, providing meals and an extended timetable beyond the five daily teaching hours (Article 16, Pre-Primary Education Framework Law, Law No. 5/97, 10 February).

Once financial support is established, agreements can be signed between the state and institutions, in the case of the private not-for-profit network, and between these and the local authorities, in the case of the public network. In most cases, the transport of children (family home) is paid for by the local authorities. The costs families incur with ECEC fees for children of all ages are tax deductible.

On the private for-profit network (private and cooperative institutions) families pay a monthly fee, although they may receive financial help, depending on family support contracts and their income. In some for-profit private institutions, families pay a monthly fee without any financial help from the State (i.e. these are fully independent institutions).

In the 2020/2021 school year, from a total of 238,618 children enrolled in pre-primary education, 128,029 (53.7 %) were attending the public network; 68,071 (28.5 %) children were enrolled in government-dependent private pre-primary schools (mainly IPSS - private social solidarity institutions) and 42,518 (17.8 %) in government independent private pre-primary schools. These percentages are identical to those registered in previous school years.

This means that although most children in pre-primary education are enrolled in public network, the private network, particularly government-dependent private network formed by the IPSS, assume a relevant weight in the provision for this level of education. See Student Profile: Mainland 2021/22 (DGEEC).

See additional information in Subchapter 3.1 - Funding pre-school and school education.