The introduction of quality, affordable childcare is a key reason so many women are in paid employment in the Nordic countries. A distinctive feature of Nordic childcare is that it is available to all children – regardless of family structure, finances and parents’ employment. Childcare in the Nordic region is provided by welltrained staff and characterised by highly professional care and learning environments.
Most parents of young children find it challenging to combine family life with having a job. As a result, women often put their careers on hold to bring up their children and to do housework. The Nordic countries have made it a priority that parents of small children can participate in the labour market on equal terms. Tax-funded childcare is a central component of this.
The issue has been high on the agenda in the Nordic countries. At the time of writing, over 95 per cent of all 3–5-year olds in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Iceland are enrolled in some form of childcare services. In Finland, the figure is lower. The reason for this is that some of the Nordic countries grant parents a so-called childcare allowance, which enables them, if they so wish, to stay home and take care of their young Children themselves. Many Finnish parents choose to take advantage of this option.
Thus, most parents in the Nordic countries see childcare services as a natural part of life. And these countries also have higher rates of working women than anywhere else in the world. Research shows that this is not a coincidence; the Nordic childcare model has contributed to a dual-earner system where both parents are able to both work and take care of their children.
Organisation of childcare services
Nordic childcare typically involves a wide range of actors. Parents have access to both municipal and private childcare options. The latter type can be either for-profit or non-profit. The educational models on which the childcare services are based vary by country. Family day care, or childcare provided in the home of an often trained childcare professional, is common in Denmark and Finland. In Denmark, this type of childcare is most common for small children 1–3 years old. Family day care used to be common in Norway as well, but this has changed as the availability of childcare centres has been substantially expanded.
Regardless of how the childcare is organised, the services must be offered in line with the nationally established early childhood curriculum, by qualified staff and in accordance with particular regulations. One notable feature of the system is that there is a high degree of decentralisation to local authorities when it comes to implementation of national policy. Another is that parents are mainly offered full-time childcare instead of part-time childcare, which in turn facilitates full-time work for parents.
Childcare fees often income-based
The fees parents have to pay for childcare vary across the Nordic countries. In all countries, however, childcare services are highly subsidised and based on a rights approach – it is a legal requirement that all families be able to afford childcare. In several of the countries, the fees are income-based and parents are offered sibling discounts. For example, in 2015, Norway introduced a new rule capping a family’s childcare fee for the first child at six per cent of the family’s total income. The other Nordic countries have similar fee caps. In Denmark, the fees may differ slightly between municipalities, but parents never pay more than 25 per cent of the municipality’s cost per child in childcare. Norway has a system where children from low-income households are entitled to a certain number of hours of childcare free of charge. From August 2016, this applies for Children from 3–5 years of age.
An equal start in life
All Nordic countries share a central objective, namely that childcare services shall contribute to equal opportunities for all children. Denmark emphasises that childcare services shall contribute to integration and a greater sense of community in society, and Finland that children shall learn to be respectful of cultures and religions that differ from their own.
High quality and democratic values
All early childhood education services are based on the ideals of democracy, equality, cooperation and independence. The ambition is for the childcare centres to help the children become responsible citizens with an awareness and appreciation of democratic principles. The childcare services are organised based on a children’s rights perspective, whereby the ambition is to provide all Children with equal opportunities regardless of socio-economic background. Childcare services are even characterised by the interplay between care and learning, and by respect for each individual child. Each child is entitled to influence their own life and environment, and it is considered important to involve the children in the planning of activities.
This approach is in line with the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which stresses that all children have the same rights and equal value and may not be discriminated against for any reason. Nordic childcare centres are operated by well-educated pre-school teachers and childcare workers with a high level of professionalism.
The right to childcare after parental leave
Almost all 3–5 year-olds in the Nordic countries are enrolled in some type of childcare services. Even many children aged 0-2 spend time in childcare outside the family. Compared with other OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries, the Nordic countries have much higher shares of children 0–2 years of age enrolled in some type of childcare. In Denmark, the figure is 66 per cent, compared with an OECD average of 35 per cent. This pattern also becomes evident when looking at the Money countries spend on childcare services, as the Nordic countries spend more money on childcare for young children than the global average.
There are many reasons for children’s early entry into childcare in the Nordic countries. Ultimately, however, it is a result of the persistent political ambition to enable all parents to engage in paid work while raising children. To this end, the governments have ensured a smooth transition between parental leave and childcare. In all Nordic countries except Iceland, parents are entitled to childcare for their children after their parental leave. The timing of children’s introduction to childcare is therefore often linked to the duration of the parental leave.
Finnish children start childcare later than children in the other Nordic countries. This is because many families use the childcare allowance to bridge the time between parental leave and enrolment in a childcare centre, and a childcare allowance is paid to parents for taking care of their children at home. In Finland, parents are eligible for the allowance until the child is three years old. However, many parents who take care of a small child at home also let older children stay home. A similar benefit is available in Norway, although in Norway there is a trend of letting children enter childcare earlier than in the past. Norwegian childcare services have been dramatically expanded since the right to childcare from age 1 was introduced. Research also points to a change in attitudes among Norwegians, where everybody — regardless of socio-economic background – has become more inclined to the idea of putting their children in childcare.
Although the Nordic countries have come a long way when it comes to solutions for affordable and quality childcare, a sustainable and gender-equal system for early childhood education is still not a reality. The Nordic region therefore wants to invite others to a discussion on how the following challenges can be effectively dealt with.
• Staffing levels and quality. The quality of childcare is often measured in terms of staffing levels, or number of children per teacher in a childcare group. In some Nordic countries, it is a challenge to recruit enough childcare workers to meet the needs of the expanding sector.
• Sex-segregation in care. Over 90 per cent of the childcare workers in the Nordic countries are women. How can the gender balance be effectively and rapidly improved?
• Availability and access. Several Nordic countries are facing challenges in meeting the demand for childcare. In particular, there are difficulties making childcare available exactly when parents need it, such as at the end of their parental leave. New children need to be enrolled throughout the year, but most spots become available at the end of the terms.