Early childhood education and care (ECEC) is the first stage of the Spanish education system, and applies to children aged 0–5 years. Participation is voluntary. ECEC is divided into two 3-year cycles:
- the first cycle covers from 0 to 2 years of age and corresponds to an International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) level of 010;
- the second cycle covers from 3 to 5 years of age and corresponds to ISCED level 020.
The organisation and the minimum teaching standards for Early Childhood Education at national level are regulated by Royal Decree 95/2022 which for the first time regulates and establishes the educational nature of the first cycle from 0 to 3 years of age. Based on said minimum teaching, the educational administrations of the autonomous communities, through their Departments of Education, establish the curriculum for Early Childhood Education. In the autonomous community of Galicia, this is also under the responsibility of the Department of Social Policy. The autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla are directly dependent on the Ministry of Education and Vocational Training.
Spanish legislation (article 15.2 of Organic Law 2/2006 on Education [LOE], as amended by Organic Law 3/2020 [LOMLOE]) guarantees that every child over 3 years of age has the legal right to a place in an Early Childhood Education institution. Royal Decree 95/2022 (article 5), also establishes that the second cycle of Early Childhood Education is free of charge, as well as the extension of free education to the first cycle, prioritising the access of students at risk of poverty and social exclusion as well as low schooling rates. The two cycles can be provided either in separate settings or in unitary settings for both cycles (escuelas infantiles). In Spain, ECEC takes place mainly in schools; however, home-based ECEC provision is also an option. Home-based ECEC provision takes place at the home of the service provider (childminder). Home-based provision exists in two autonomous communities: the Community of Madrid and the Chartered Community of Navarre. It is directed to the first cycle (for children aged 0–2 years). Although it is not compulsory, the second cycle has become widespread throughout the country, so that, at present, practically 100% of children aged 3–5 years attend ECEC settings.