The childcare challenge

Parenting across Scotland is keen that Scotland creates the conditions in which families can thrive rather than picks up the pieces when things go wrong. The more we listened to what parents were telling us, the more we realised just how big an issue childcare was in parents not being able to take control of their own lives. Whether it’s about returning to work, getting out of poverty, educating themselves or their children, childcare is all too often one of the biggest hurdles parents face. Finding high quality, affordable childcare at a price that they can afford is well nigh impossible for too many parents in Scotland.

We’ve been advocating for a transformational change in childcare through consultation responses to Government, through evidence to Parliament and most recently through sitting on the Childcare Commission. During this time, I heard and read so much about the Nordic countries and their enviable system of early years provision that I was keen to see for myself the reality of early years in the Nordic countries.

The reality

If anything the living reality is better than I imagined from reading policy and academic papers. What is most impressive is how there’s a continuum of support from pre birth in an integrated policy framework that makes sense and supports families well and unobtrusively.

Of course, each country has its own distinctive policies, and these vary internally too as operating under national frameworks, the kommunes (local authorities) have responsibility for implementing educational policies locally. However, there is a broad commonality of approach, so with apologies for the broad brush approach, here’s how it operates.

The starting point is that the Nordic countries have a generous system of parental leave that allows families to stay at home with their children for the first year of life. This allows parents to adjust to family life in a more relaxed and less pressured way, and crucially allows them the time to bond well with their children. Paid leave dedicated to fathers encourages (or in Norway’s case compels) them to take leave and to participate more in their children’s upbringing. The societal difference really is visible on the streets and in the nurseries with fathers being much more involved with looking after their children.

During this time, Sweden and Norway offer open kindergartens where parents can come and bring their children. They are places where trained staff (pre school teachers and ‘preventive’ social workers) are at hand to provide support and offer guidance, and parents and children can play, and meet other families. Workers provide support in an informal way that enables parents to ask for help if they need it. It also gives parents the opportunity to meet other parents with children of the same age and to find peer support. In addition to general support, most open kindergartens also run parenting classes such as Incredible Years or ICDP (International Child Development Programme) for families who ask for extra help.

Then from the age of one, childcare is available to families at a heavily subsidised rate, and usually at a discounted rate for second and subsequent children. It’s not a compulsory offer, and Denmark even gives families the amount that would have been spent on childcare should parents decide to stay at home. Nurseries are of very good quality with a highly trained workforce. For the most part, childcare hours and working hours are in accordance, though there remain problems with flexibilty for jobs with irregular hours. Generally families tend to take up the childcare offer, and combine work with family life.

Workplaces seem to recognise the need to be family friendly and operate a variety of family friendly flexible policies. Leaving early to pick up children is widely accepted rather than frowned upon. Each of the countries have policies that enable parents to take days off when their children are ill.

The Nordic countries have some of the highest maternal employment rates in the world, as well as markedly higher fertility rates, a combination that leave them better placed than most other European countries to tackle the challenges an ageing population poses to welfare states.

That’s important in policy terms, but more importantly the lived experience of families and the outcomes for children are so much better in the Nordic countries than in Scotland.

What parents say

I’ve talked to a number of parents here – parents who have moved from Scotland; parents who are using the services; and older professionals whose children are now grown up.

I met parents who had moved from Scotland for a variety of reasons. Without exception they told me how much more affordable childcare was, how much easier it was for them to balance work and family life, and how much better set up they felt Sweden, Denmark and Norway were for families.

And I met parents who were using the services. Mostly they took it for granted that that is how the world is, though some were concerned that increasingly right wing governments are cutting back on funding and so on ratios and quality. The parents I talked to seemed to feel supported and valued.

When I told people here about the average cost of childcare for families in Scotland; their eyes widened in disbelief – it’s so far from what they pay and they can’t see how parents in Scotland can afford to work.

But perhaps more interestingly, while they can see why there is a focus on cost given just how high those costs are, several quite rightly expressed concern that the debate is focussed so much on cost, when the more important issue is the quality of the education our children are getting. Perhaps when costs are removed as a barrier, the discussions about quality, about ratios, about ethos can become – as they should be – centre stage.

The older professionals told me about how much more difficult and expensive it had been when they were younger to find childcare, and how they had had to juggle jobs, use informal care and all the other issues that remain part of parents’ experience in Scotland today. In their lifetime, they had seen the sea change in policy that has created a system that provides children with high quality early education and care, and parents with better work-life balance and the conditions within which families can thrive.

Another way

Sometimes change doesn’t seem possible – it seems like we might be stuck forever with what we’ve got. But actually seeing the reality of how the Nordic countries operate and what a different society this creates truly brings it home that things can change – another way is possible.

The Commission’s report

The Commission’s report comes after a year of taking evidence from a wide variety of sources including academics, parents, and others. It comes after much consideration and thrashing out of issues by the Commission members and its secretariat.

I’ve heard people say it can’t be rocket science to get childcare right – believe me, after the last year, I think it’s way more difficult than that! The report (hopefully) will get plaudits, and no doubt, it will provoke disagreement on some of the issues too. But what above all I really hope for it is that it serves as the platform for debate to move things on, because we’ve talked about childcare for long enough. Now, it’s time to do something and make a transformational change in childcare – Scotland’s children and families deserve no less.