The Accessibility of Childcare: A Public Concern
The EU is currently following a quality framework in regards to childcare, which was adopted in 2019. This framework aims to support member states in their efforts to improve access to and quality of their early childhood education and care systems.
Nevertheless, many European countries have been able to treat childcare as a market commodity due to the failure to implement fee caps on care services for children.
However, when the institution of care is seen as a public responsibility (state owned or subsidised to some extent, or paid through taxes) as opposed to a private matter (care provision is down to the individual and structures are privatised), European nation states are more economically stable and children are granted high levels of education or care.
This report aims to examine and highlight current issues surrounding the commodification of childcare across European Nation states. The article will argue that childcare should exist in the public sphere as a matter that affects each person and state, as opposed to a private problem that does not spill over into the public realm. Many European countries have been able to treat childcare as a market commodity due to the failure to implement fee caps on care services for children. Furthermore, the essay will analyse current European Union (EU) policies and frameworks surrounding childcare regulations, and how the lack of fee caps and removing care services from market competition has left families in much worse financial positions, and children receiving unequal qualities of care. Finally, the article will review the Swedish system of childcare as a model highlighting why care is a public responsibility, and when treated as such, entire nation states have more labour participation and are in stronger economic positions.
Childcare as a public issue
“Weak investments in leave and childcare appear to indicate that childcare is seen more as a private rather than a public responsibility”
(Gromada & Richardson, 2021 p. 8).
The term ‘Public Sphere’, applied in a sociological manner, refers to the space in which communities, families, individuals or nations are able to share “the free exchange of ideas, and is open to everyone, whereas the private sphere is a smaller, typically enclosed realm (like a home) that is only open permission to enter it” (Crossman, 2019). However, phrases such as ‘the personal is political’ have been coined in feminist spaces, referring to a “common belief among feminists that the personal experiences of women are rooted in their political situation and gender equality… these experiences could not be solved by personal solutions, but only by social change” (Kelly, 2021). This can also be applied when discussing childcare issues as the recognition by the public sphere of the financial burdens that are placed upon families who do not have equal access to childcare services could shift the topic of accessible childcare towards being viewed as a necessity. Furthermore, child services should be seen as a public issue as little government funding and the failure to create equal access for all families regarding childcare has lead to “wide differences across countries, regions and areas when it comes to children above the age of four attending early childcare education and care” (European Commission, 2021).
Penn (2019, p. 4) notes that “Many governments, especially where there is a substantial private or non governmental sector involved in childcare, regulate the maximum price nurseries may charge parents. This ceiling is directly related to household income. But in other countries, fees are not regulated in this way and there is no limit to what nurseries can charge parents. Where costs are high, childcare inevitably becomes stratified. Private nurseries in wealthier areas tend to charge higher fees and provide a better service; those in poorer charge less and offer a lower quality service”. Therefore, privatised childcare that exists in a competitive space in the market creates an unequal gap for the acquiring of high quality care. If public opinion shifted towards seeing childcare as a public and shared responsibility, then each child independent of household income would share equal access to such services. This would lead to better and equal childcare for all European children, leave families better off fiscally, and encourage more parents to return to the formal labour market therefore improving economic flow in each nation state.
The EU Approach
The EU is currently following a quality framework in regards to childcare, which was adopted in 2019. This framework “aims to support member states in their efforts to improve access to and quality of their early childhood education and care systems” (European Commission, 2021). The framework lists five components to focus on when working to improve nation states current childcare systems. These components include; “Access to early childcare education and care, training and working conditions of staff in charge of early childhood education and care, definition of appropriate curricula, governance and funding and monitoring and evaluation of systems” (European Commission, 2021). The recommendations that the EU has set regarding childcare have been intended to be adopted by each European Nation and simultaneously provided to all European citizens, however each government within the EU has been able to dictate the nuances of these recommendations themselves as opposed to being encouraged to adopt a shared EU approach. “All EU countries provide support to reduce the cost of childcare for children below school age, but they do so to varying degrees and with different policy mixes.” (Rastrigina et al., 2020, p. 5).
Gromanda and Richardson (2021, p. 8) note that “Luxembourg, Iceland and Sweden occupy the top places in the League Table. The best performers manage to combine affordability with quality of organised childcare. They also offer generous leave to both mothers and fathers, giving parents choice how to take care of their children”. Nevertheless, “Average monthly childcare fees are the highest in Ireland, the Netherlands, the UK and Switzerland. In Ireland, average monthly fees reach €771, These countries rely on market-driven mechanisms to supply early childhood education and care to children under three, although some subsidies for the most disadvantaged may be available” (Kelleher, 2019). It has been noted that on average, women in Ireland earn €2808 per month (Demolder, 2020), meaning that almost a third of all monthly wages for working single mothers would go towards childcare costs.
As there is no mandatory shared policy spread across Europe regarding the price of childcare, “in Ireland, the Netherlands and the UK, there are no regulations on fees, and providers have autonomy in setting the price” (Kelleher, 2019).This again creates the image that childcare is a private issue as it is expected to be privately funded and exists in a competitive market where providers are able to charge whatever they feel is necessary.
This statistic published by the OECD in 2020, highlights the link between being from a higher income household, and having access to early education, therefore solidifying the fact that if childcare costs were mutually accessible financially across all income brackets, many more children across Europe would be in childcare programmes. The OECD statistic also reveals that the countries mentioned previously who have the most affordable childcare and policies in place to aid new families, have the most participation rates in early education. Governmental bodies that treat childcare as a public issue therefore, have driven the rates of accessibility up and the price of childcare down. It can still be seen however, that countries such as Switzerland who have “both short leave and low enrolment in childcare” (Gromada & Richardson, 2021, p 20), have large gaps between each income bracket and the number of children in care and education.
The Swedish Model
The Swedish model of childcare focuses on keeping costs low and quality high, allowing both parents to share parental leave more equally. Furthermore, the policies implemented by Swedish officials have also seen a rise in the number of women participation in the labour market. “Child-care subsidies have in many cases been found to be a good way to promote female labor supply, both in terms of labour force participation and hours worked” (Brink et al., 2007, p. 457). In countries such as Ireland and the UK where childcare costs are significantly more expensive, many women may be just as well off not working and staying home to provide childcare, rather than returning to work and having to face extortionate childcare fees. “In 2002, the Swedish child-care fee system was reformed by the introduction of the so-called maximum fee. For most parents of pre-school children the reform implied substantially reduced child-care fees. This decreased the cost of market work and made many families economically better off” (Brink et al., 2007, p. 457). This maximum fee therefore created a cap on the amount that different childcare systems could charge parents and families.
Ferguson (2014), when interviewing a Swedish family stated that “Most people realise that society gains as a whole [when childcare costs are low]– it means that both parents carry on working, so you don’t lose talent in the workplace. And it increases the birth rate; a nation needs to have children”.
The childcare policies that have come out of Sweden have had extremely positive effects on family life, and this has been through childcare being treated as a ‘public responsibility’ as opposed to an issue existing solely in the private sphere. The removal of childcare institutions from the competitive market, and a cap on fees, has pushed childcare costs down further. Furthermore Ferguson has noted that “very few taxpayers in Sweden resent subsidising childcare costs for working parents.. I worked hard for my qualifications and I like having a job. It wasn’t something I even had to consider: I simply assumed I would have my child and then I’d go back to work” (Ferguson 2014). Therefore with a public attitude being that accessible childcare is a necessity to all, and access to the labour market should not be hindered after having children, it appears that in Sweden, the issue of childcare exists in the public realm.
In conclusion, when the institution of care is seen as a public responsibility (state owned or subsidised to some extent, or paid through taxes) as opposed to a private matter (care provision is down to the individual and structures are privatised), European nation states are more economically stable and children are granted high levels of education or care. This has been highlighted through the correlation between EU countries with state subsidised childcare, and the high education and care participation levels in these states. Furthermore, a lack of a European-wide cap on childcare fees has left many European citizens having to pay large amounts monthly in childcare, and they are faced with lower quality care for those on lower incomes. This has therefore created systems where childcare has been subject to marketisation, and prices continue to rise to remain competitive. In the nation states that have introduced their own fee caps, childcare is seen to exist in the public sphere as an issue that concerns each individual, which has moreover created higher levels of care systems in these states.
Brink, A., Nordblom, K., Wahlberg, R. (2007) Maximum fee versus child benefit: a welfare analysis of Swedish child-care fee reform, International Tax and Public Finance, 14(4), pp. 457-480.
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Gromanda, A., Richardson, D. (2021) Where Do Rich Countries Stand on Childcare?, UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti, pp. 1-30.
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Rastrigina, O., Pacifico, D,. Damwerth, R. (2020) Net childcare costs in EU countries, OECD. Available at: https://www.oecd.org/els/soc/benefits-and-wages/Net%20childcare%20costs%20in%20EU%20countries_2019.pdf [Accessed 12/12/2021].
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