Jonas Himmelstrand: Universal daycare leaves Sweden’s children less educated

In March Rosemary Bennett, Social Affairs Correspondent, reported in the Times on a talk from Jonas Himmelstrand at the House of Commons hosted by the campaign group Mothers at Home Matter, in which he urged caution in following the Swedish family policy.  He says that 92% of Swedish children are in daycare from 18 months to 5 years and that, whilst it is difficult to prove, he feels increasingly negative outcomes in terms of psychosomatic disorders, emotional, behavioural disorders and under-achievement in school may be attributed to this.  This is an interesting addition to this complex debate.  We have explored the Swedish model of ECEC in chapter 11 and it has been held up as good practice for many years but, if Himmelstrand is right, it proves once again that there are no easy answers. 

My own view on this would be that Sweden does provide an excellent model for ECEC with the one proviso that this should still not be promoted above children spending as much time as is possible in the care of their parents.  It is unrealistic to suggest that every mother will stay at home until their child goes to school.  For many mothers and children this would not be the best situation as there is no 'one size fits all' - so, it is vital that we provide high quality ECEC whilst also preserving the option for a parent to stay home with their child where desired and possible.   There seems to me a clear and present danger that, as so often in the past. the different concerns and circumstances of different women debating these issues in the media and with government, will effectively cancel each other out.  The one 'banner' that I would like to see writ large above all the debates around ECEC is 'the best interests of the child' (not 'children'). This recognizes the individual needs of children and families and puts children at the centre rather than they become side-lined by practical, economic, feminist or party political agenda.  The following from Jonas Himmelstrand is from

While preparing for a trip to Canada, I have learned that many Canadians consider my country, Sweden, to be a model for good family policy. After all, Sweden has a universally accessible, government-funded daycare system, and a 2006 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranked Sweden at the top and Canada at the bottom in childcare provision. Indeed, Swedish family policies are internationally admired, offering comprehensive and affordable daycare, gender equality and a high percentage of women in paid work. This, however, is only one half of the story.
True, parental leave in Sweden is a generous 16 months. There are no babies in daycare. But when parental leave ends, practically the reverse is true: A full 92% of all children aged 18 months to five years are in daycare. Parents pay only a symbolic amount for this; tax subsidies for daycare are $20,000 per child, annually. Swedish taxes are among the highest in the world, and the tax system was designed to make both parents seek employment in the work force.
Studies show that most Swedes also want the option of a home-care allowance for the first three to four years of their child’s life. The winning centre-right coalition in the 2006 Swedish national election made this promise. After the election, however, political compromises resulted in an allowance which was small, difficult to use and was not mandatory — local governments could decide whether or not to offer it. Only a third of Swedish municipalities chose to do so.
Then there are the questions about the social toll Sweden’s childcare system is taking. Sweden has offered a comprehensive daycare system since 1975; since the early ‘90s, negative outcomes for children and adolescents are on the rise in areas of health and behaviour. While direct causation has been difficult to prove, many Swedish health-care professionals point to the lack of parent involvement beyond the first 16 months as a primary contributing factor. Psychosomatic disorders and mild psychological problems are escalating among Swedish youth at a faster rate than in any of 11 comparable European countries. Such disorders have tripled among girls over the last 25 years. Education outcomes in Swedish schools have fallen from the top position 30 years ago, to merely average amongst OECD nations today. Behaviour problems in Swedish classrooms are among the worst in
This isn’t surprising. After a generation of inexperience, Swedish parenting abilities are deteriorating. A study sponsored by the European Union showed many middle-class parents lack the ability to set limits and sense their children’s needs.
Recently, Swedish public service radio investigated the state of Swedish daycares. Parents, psychologists and daycare staff expressed deep concern. In spite of high funding levels, group size and the child-to-adult ratio continue to increase. An experienced pre-school teacher recalls that in 1980 the group size for small children was 10 kids with four adults. For older children, that ratio was five kids per adult. But after the Swedish financial crisis 20 years ago, this changed. Today younger children face ratios of up to 17 kids to three adults and older children face ratios of up to 10 to one. Staff on sick leave are not replaced. “We can’t give quality care today,” one teacher reported. Only one person interviewed contended that Swedish daycare is still top quality — the Swedish Deputy Minister of Education, Nyamko Sabuni.
These problems are not caused by poverty or social distress. Sweden is materially rich, wealth is evenly distributed, child poverty is low, health care is practically free for all, social security is strong, life expectancy is high, infant mortality is the lowest in the world and Sweden has enjoyed peace since 1809. Instead these troubles run parallel with family policies that don’t allow parents sufficient time, energy and opportunity to build close and healthy relationships with their
Making childrearing a state responsibility has not proven to be a success. Put simply, parents are willing to sacrifice more for their children than any government where childcare is just one budgetary item among many. Canadians should carefully consider all of the available facts before looking to Sweden as a model for childcare.
National Post
  • Jonas Himmelstrand is an author and founder of The Mireja Institute ( He is speaking in Ottawa on May 5.

James Heckman: In early childhood education, ‘Quality really matters.’

James J. Heckman is the Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago. He shared the 2000 Nobel for his work on correcting for selection biases when doing econometric studies, developing techniques which he applied to measuring everything from the economic effects of civil rights laws on African-Americans to the economic benefits (or lack thereof) of GEDs. Recently, he has done considerable work on early childhood education, including detailed studies of the Perry preschool experiment.

James Heckman famously stated and produced a graph to show that it was most cost effective for governments to spend money on education and care of children in the early years and in this interview at   in 2010 he re-confirms this saying:

Quality really matters. That’s been pretty well documented. I would argue Perry, which has been most thoroughly evaluated, is extensive. In terms of the return on investment, per dollar return, the annual return for what you’d get on a bond or some kind of fixed income, you would have a rate that was 6-10 percent per year, which is extremely high. So even though it costs something, it’s about the return is to society and to the individuals.
They are very good investments. They’re very comparable with stocks at the end of the second World War. Return was about 6.9 percent. Pretty comparable. It’s a range, because there are certain subjective elements. But that’s a very high rate of return and it’s far superior to a range of activities, compared to, say, Job Corps, where the return is negative. I’m an economist. I would talk about both the benefits and the costs. And if the benefits really outweigh the costs, I think that’s something very rare. So it’s a good investment.

This issue is again explored in the final section of the book and the HighScope Perry Pre-school research is explored in chapter 14.

I do not see much evidence from government at any level that his message regarding the economic importance of the education and care of very young children, is being recieved, understood or acted upon.  Do you?

Debate about ratios and qualifications in childcare settings

A few weeks ago there was a proposal to increase the ratio of children to carer in daycare settings.  Another 'wheeze' from the government purporting to be an improvement.  I sent the following to Michael Gove and similar to Stephen Twigg and Liz Truss:

Dear Sir,

I was interested to hear comments from Stephen Twigg, shadow for education, and discussion today on the proposed changes to childcare ratios.  I was glad to hear him challenging the proposals but rather disappointed that the argument seems, as usual, to be based solely on issues of cost and safety.  I feel he could and should be predicating his argument on what is best for children’s development and learning.  I would be interested to hear your own views on this matter as your voice was significantly absent from the debate on the news programmes earlier today.  There is a wealth of evidence now to support the fact that the human brain develops and children learn most quickly and significantly in the first 3 years of life.  This lays the foundations for life and again there is a wealth of research that tells us these early years are our best and most cost effective opportunity to intervene and try to ensure a positive outcome for any child.  For me, this is the strongest argument against increasing ratios. 

There is no evidence to suggest that allowing  a childminder to care for more children under five or for a nursery setting to take in more one and two year olds per member of staff will a) reduce costs for parents, b) reduce costs to the taxpayer, c) raise the quality of the care given.  It seems to be suggested that these greater numbers of children would be cared for by ‘better qualified’ staff.  It was suggested in the Tickell Review report that qualifications needed to be raised in the childcare sector but this ended up in the final report being watered down to a recommendation about basic standards of literacy.  We know, from our work in the field here in Scotland, how difficult it is to raise the level of qualification in a sector that is almost entirely staffed by women, many of whom lack basic qualifications as a starting point and many of whom are getting the minimum wage (or indeed less as they are 16 – 18 years old).   There was no suggestion in the news reports today that there was a concurrent proposal to fund further education and training for those working in the sector.   It is hard to see how this proposal will make childcare cost less for parents or increase pay for staff and it is very hard to see how it will increase the opportunities for the kind of quality interactions and play opportunities  that we know support very young children’s learning and development.

It would be good to hear politicians talking about what is in the best interests of children, as per the UN Convention and the Children’s Act, for a change, rather than simply costs and getting mothers back to work.  The suggestion that this would move in the direction of daycare provision in Sweden is utterly spurious.  In Sweden the state supports parents in a number of ways and children experience daycare in a family grouping providing consistency of care from more highly qualified, specifically trained and better paid staff.   I would direct you to the chapter in the book below written by my colleague and co-author Catriona McDonald who lived and worked in Sweden for 20 years, for a better understanding of the differences.  As I think I heard Stephen Twigg say today on the radio it is not possible to take one element of provision from another society and transport it to the UK where there is so much less support for parents.

Again, it would be good to see politicians drawing on the expertise of those working and studying in this sector, those with knowledge of other approaches and indeed on the research – much of which is carried out and published here in the UK.  You might usefully draw on evidence and initiatives here in Scotland (which might also support the ‘Better Together’ campaign), and I would direct you to Sir Harry Burns, Chief Medical Officer for Scotland, who again spoke powerfully just last week here in Aberdeen justifying a drive for better provision for our youngest children.   I hope discussions continue on this issue and trust that we will hear more about education and the best interests of the child in future.

These letters only elicited a standardised response from Michael Gove's office two weeks later and nothing from any other quarter but I was very pleased to see an article from Polly Toynbee at the time that  gave rise to some heated debate in the Guardian and then comments from Cathy Nutbrown last week, reported in the Guardian at: saying the following:

Vulnerable young children will suffer as a result of ministers' plans for reform of early years education, a government adviser has warned.
Prof Cathy Nutbrown denounced the government's plans to increase the number of toddlers nursery staff can look after as "nonsense".
Reducing the staff-to-child ratio will dilute the quality of experience the youngest children receive in nurseries, even if staff have better qualifications, she said.
She described plans for a new early years teacher (EYT) qualification as "insulting and misleading" because those obtaining the title will not be granted qualified teacher status putting them on a par with colleagues in primary schools.
Nutbrown, from Sheffield University's school of education, called for enhanced training and status for early years professionals in a government-commissioned report on childcare qualifications, published last year.
But she said it was clear that most of her recommendations had been rejected or watered down in the government's More Great Childcare proposals, unveiled in January by the education minister Liz Truss.
The Department for Education said that under its reforms only high-quality providers would be able to have additional flexibility and the reforms would bring the UK's preschool sector into line with France and Denmark.
The proposals envisage better training for nursery staff – including the EYT qualification – but also set out plans to increase the number of two-year-olds each adult can care for from four to six, and for under-twos from three to four.
A survey undertaken by the National Children's Bureau and published in full on Friday found that 95% of nursery, local authority and managerial staff working in childcare were concerned about the increasing ratios.
In an open letter, Nutbrown said: "Trading staff-child ratios for higher qualified staff is nonsense. Watering down ratios will threaten quality. Childcare may be cheaper but children will be footing the bill."
Setting out the results she expects from cutting staff numbers, she said: "The difference will be too few adults with too many little children; too few moments in the day for a toddler to have uninterrupted time with their key person, and too few early years practitioners to talk and work with parents.
"Who will suffer most? The youngest, most vulnerable children. Their parents, who will know that their little children will get less attention, less conversation, less holding, than they need.
"And with them, their early years practitioners who – though they may be well-qualified – are unable to provide the best that they can because they have had their greatest resource (their time for children) reduced."

She said policy mistakes would have knock-on effects for years to come, warning ministers: "Young children must not bear the costs of government getting this wrong."
Nutbrown said many nursery staff wrongly believed the EYT qualification would give them parity of status with school teachers.
"Yet again, those who work with younger children are offered a lesser status (and we should realistically anticipate, poorer pay and conditions that those who work with older children) but a title that makes them appear to have the same role and status," she said.
Commenting on Nutbrown's letter, Sharon Hodgson, the shadow children's minister, said: "The government's own expert adviser has echoed the concerns of parents and nursery staff that the quality of care for babies and toddlers is being undermined by this government."
She said David Cameron and the education secretary, Michael Gove, needed to "listen to Professor Nutbrown" and the government plans were "a serious threat to childcare quality and child safety".
"Experts say they won't do anything to drive down costs. Since these plans were announced, Labour has been calling on ministers to think again – it's time they listened," Hodgson said.
A Department for Education spokesman said: "Professor Nutbrown's review provided a valuable contribution to the development of our proposals for early education and childcare. We have taken forward several of her important recommendations but we recognise that reforms and improvement need to go much further if we are to give parents a proper choice of high quality childcare and early education.
"All the evidence shows that quality and safety are linked to high-quality staff. Our reforms mean that only high-quality providers will be able to have this additional flexibility.
"Our preliminary work suggests providers will be able to attract quality staff: using the new ratios could enable nurseries to pay staff up to £3,000 more per year.

May 9th - further comment on news media as Nick Clegg waded into debate with the view that this is unworkable and could be damaging.  Response from Liz Truss that 'it is about reducing costs which are too high'.  My response - yes we thought it was all about cost but it is unlikely to help in that respect either - certainly not cost to parents.  It may help government budgets by enabling more mothers to work and provide work for others in the care sector but the most likely outcome is reduced quality of care and more children in poor quality care for longer.  The long term outcomes of this for everyone are negative in every way - including financial.

Nick Clegg 'mauled' by stay at home Mum Laura Perrin

Nick Clegg has been accused of unfairly targeting "stay-at-home mums" by a caller to his weekly radio phone-in.
Laura, from south London, said the government was "discriminating" against traditional families with its new childcare scheme.
"You probably think what I do is a worthless job," the caller, who did not give her surname, told Mr Clegg.
Mr Clegg said the government's aim was to help parents who wanted to work but felt childcare costs were too hefty.
Only single parents and those families where both parents are in work will benefit from the new childcare voucher scheme announced by the government on Tuesday.
Parents will be able to claim back up to 20% of childcare costs every year - up to £1,200 for each child - when the scheme starts in autumn 2015.
The caller to Mr Clegg's LBC radio show, who has two children, claimed there was "absolutely no provision in the tax system for families like myself".
She told Mr Clegg child benefit had been "a fair way of recognising everybody's legitimate choice" either to go out to work or to "work inside the home".
"You've essentially abolished that for families like me and replaced it in some way with this which applies only to mums who go out to work," she added.
Mr Clegg replied: "Like everybody, I massively admire your choice.
"You should be entirely free and proud of the choices you make in your own life to look after your own children in the way that you want. I hope no politician would ever seek to judge you for that.
"This is all about what we can do in government to give people the greatest choice that they want and need in their own lives."
Mr Clegg also defended Wednesday's Budget, saying those who wanted to work and provide for their families were being helped most by the coalition.
He pointed out that petrol would be cheaper, basic rate taxpayers were benefiting from the £10,000 starting rate from next year and that employers would get a National Insurance break.
Mr Clegg claimed that the top 10% of earners were paying more as a result of the chancellor's decisions.

There are a number of links to this and it has given rise to much debate!  Have a look at:

The Mail reported after a follow up radio programme:
Presenter Nick Ferrari said Mrs Perrins, 32, had left him a message to say: ‘I would just ask him to look at the OECD report again and think about the impact that these policies are having on families up and down Britain.’
The Lib Dem leader, whose wife Miriam is a high-powered lawyer, floundered as he refused to discuss the figures and said it was not his job to judge parents’ decisions to stay at home.
He said: ‘I don’t want to get into all the number crunching on this. I don’t actually accept that a lot of the measures that we’ve taken are somehow penalising mums – or indeed dads – who take the totally admirable decision [to stay at home].
'I’m also a parent, I know these are incredibly important decisions about how you juggle work and family … these very kind of noble decisions that many, many parents have taken, to say no, for a few years or maybe permanently, they’re going to dedicate themselves to their children.’
The OECD study found the average UK family with one working parent and two children lost 27.9 per cent of their wages in tax in 2012, compared with 26.2 per cent in 2009, before the Coalition was elected.
The international average is 26.1 per cent.

This link below includes a number of comments:

What do you think?  How important is it for mothers (or fathers) to be at home in the early years?  Does legislation militate against parents not working?  Can we afford, in terms of the impact of poor early experiences on later outcomes, for more and more parents to work rather than care for their children?

A few weeks ago there was another related issue about increasing the ratio of children to carer in daycare settings which gave rise to a similar debate with many commenting that parents should have to pay the full cost of care for any children they 'choose' to have; pensioners were more in need; people looking after young children do not need high qualifications they just have to be 'kind', etc, etc.  Though there was also comments  supporting both the necessity for higher qualifications and cheaper childcare.

This debate is very much part of what we are exploring in the last section of the book.

Book published

Our book Early Childhood Education and Care is now published and available at the SAGE website 

We hope to see feedback and comments soon as well as on ongoing blogs.

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