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EACEA National Policies Platform:Eurydice
Early childhood education and care


4.Early childhood education and care

Last update: 11 April 2024

Early childhood education and care (ECEC) in Portugal is divided into two phases, with different provision for younger (under three years old) and older children (three to starting compulsory education). Provision for children under three has a focus on childcare while pre-primary education (designed for older children) is legally considered the first stage of basic education in the lifelong education process (ISCED 020).

Despite of this focus on childcare, ECEC programmes for children under three meet the criteria and objectives of the ISCED 010, emphasised in the ISCED 2011 classification (although data on ECEC for children under three years of age are not yet included in the National Statistical System and INE/Eurostat do not include this information).

ECEC for children up to three years old is not part of the education system and is the responsibility of the Ministry of Labour, Solidarity and Social Security (MTSSS). Up to the age of three, childcare is mostly provided by private non-profit bodies like private social solidarity institutions (instituições particulares de solidariedade social - IPSS) or legally equivalent institutions, with cooperation agreements with the MTSSS, and by private for-profit bodies with operating licenses approved by this ministry. Socio-educational provision geared towards children under three years old is made up of:

  • Crèches – socio-educational provision (Ordinance No 262/2011, 31st August and Ordinance No 411/2012, 14th December) that cares for children up to the age of three, while parents or the person who has custody is unable to look after them.
  • Childminders - a social service (Decree-Law No 115/2015, 22nd June) provided by a person duly licensed by the Institute for Social Security, I.P. (Instituto da Segurança Social, I. P. – ISS, I.P.), who is paid to take care of children up to three years of age at their place of residence, during the period of time when family or legal guardians cannot take care of them.
  • Family crèche - social provision (Ordinance No 232/2015, 6th August) that consists of a group of no fewer than four childminders, who work within an institution like Santa Casa da Misericórdia de Lisboa or in private social solidarity institutions (IPSS) or legally equivalent institutions. These places are designed to care for children aged up to three years old, during the period of time when family or legal guardians cannot take care of them.

In Portugal, pre-primary education covers children from three years old to the age of compulsory schooling (six years old) and is the first stage of basic education in the lifelong education process (Law No 5/97, 10 February) and is complementary to families’ educational role.
Pre-primary education is divided into a national network made up of a public and a private network, where the former includes school clusters (organisational units made up of schools that provide basic and upper secondary education) and the latter includes for-profit schools (private and cooperative education establishments) and not-for-profit (private institutions of social solidarity, charities and mutual societies). 
The Ministry of Education is responsible for ensuring teaching quality within the ECEC network for pre-primary education. Technical supervision is the joint responsibility of the Ministers of Education (ME) and Labour, Solidarity and Social Security (MTSSS), which consists of monitoring the organisation and operation of pre-primary education institutions.

Pre-primary education is optional, with a free of charge teaching component of 25 hours a week for all children from the age of four (Law No 65/2015, 3 July). For the State, this universal provision implies ensuring a pre-school education network that allows the enrolment of all eligible children and that attending the teaching component is free of charge.

In relation to the availability of pedagogical guidelines, the Curriculum Guidelines for Pre-School Education (OCEPE) is the legal document that offers orientation regarding the design and management of pre-primary curriculum. This is the responsibility of each pre-primary teacher, undertaken in conjunction with the institution/school cluster’s teaching team. Although the Education Act and the Pre-Primary Education Framework Law only include pre-primary education for children at age three and over and do not cover crèche, the National Education Council recommends that this stage be a child’s right. It also recommends that there be pedagogical consistency for childhood, that professional work with pre-school children has common foundations and is guided by the same principles.

The OCEPE takes this perspective, defining the foundations and principles of pedagogy in childhood education and care, common in education up to the age of 6, which are also explained in the proposal for Pedagogical Guidelines for Creches, a guiding document for the development of pedagogical activity for children in creches.