Early childhood education and care (ECEC) is seen as a crucial element of the social investment state. Whilst the extent of social investment in ECEC depends on financial expenditure, its effectiveness depends on certain conditions being met: namely, affordable, high quality provision being available. We explore policy development and the role played by government in the funding, provision and regulation of ECEC in England, France and Germany and then compare availability, affordability and quality. We argue that for children aged three and over, social investment can be deemed to be broadly effective in France and Germany, but in England quality is compromised by low staff qualification levels in private childcare centres. For children under three, effective social investment is elusive in all countries, although as a result of different conditions not being met. Our findings lead us to question the limitations of the concept of social investment in ECEC, particularly in marketised contexts.