Nordic Nirvana for working parents

There’s more to Scandinavian childcare than much-envied affordability


With the cost of full-time childcare almost like a second mortgage in many an Irish household, it is no surprise that the subsidised nature of the Scandinavian system provokes envy.

How many times have you heard couples here say that “the figures just don’t add up”, as one of them, most likely the mother, decides to give up paid employment because the second salary is swallowed up in paying someone else to mind their children.

The bottom line is starker for lone parents.

Returning to full-time work costs recipients of the One Parent Family Payment an astoundingly prohibitive ¤276 a week – due to childcare costs and lost allowances – according to research last year by the Vincentian Partnership.

Compare this with Denmark, where parents spend 6-8 per cent of their disposable income on childcare. All children are entitled to full-time daycare, for which parents cannot be charged more than 25 per cent of the cost.

So the maximum amount they pay for a child is, on average, ¤420 a month for full-time nursery care up to the age of three and ¤277 for kindergarten (aged three to five) – with a decreasing scale for those on lower incomes.

And if you have two children, you pay the more expensive daycare place in full but get a 50 per cent discount on the second.

But the Scandinavian system which we covet is about much more than just affordability. It has the wellbeing and development of the child at its centre, with layers of parental leave and other measures that have far-reaching effects on gender equality and work-life balance.

“We have a belief and culture that it is best for women to return to the labour market and also that it is best for children to attend daycare,” says Prof Tine Rostgaard of the Department of Political Science at Copenhagen’s Aalborg University, who was in Dublin last week to give the keynote address at the conference, Scandinavian childcare – Making it Happen .

DaRen’s debate
It was organised by Barnardos, the National Women’s Council of Ireland, Start Strong and Open, which represents lone parent groups, who are combining forces to lobby for much greater investment here in early childcare and education.

There is no angst-ridden debate among Danish women, it seems, about whether they would be better off at home making cupcakes with little Johnny rather than dropping him off at daycare.

The take-up figures speak for themselves: 90 per cent of children aged one to two attend nurseries and 98 per cent of children aged three to five are in kindergarten.

“The other side of the coin is the best interests of the child,” Rostgaard tells The Irish Times . “Research shows it improves educational attainment, and helps with language, integration into society and socialisation.”

Maintaining high quality in services offered by all the 98 municipalities is the issue that exercises Danish parents most. There is concern that some are reducing the kindergarten age to two and a half, to save money through lower child-staff ratios, and only half are now offering a hot meal at daycare services.

Building gender equality into childcare and parental leave policies in Nordic countries works in two ways.

“It not only gives women the chance to return to the labour market but also gives men opportunities to take care of the child,” she points out. And they recognise that some men may need a bit of a nudge to stay home changing nappies.

Father’s quota
Norway pioneered the “father’s quota” – a period of paid parental leave allocated specifically to men. Finland has brought it to new levels, currently offering three months but planning to increase that to five months in 2016.

“When you have this father’s quota it is based on the ‘use it or lose it’ principle, so it puts a lot of pressure on the men – in the positive sense, I would say – to go to the employer and say ‘if I don’t take up parental leave, the family will lose out’.”

Without earmarked schemes, it is very difficult for fathers to negotiate in the workplace, especially in male-dominated settings, she suggests.

Father’s quotas have proved most effective in increasing men’s use of parental leave, which must have a significant knock-on effect in changing attitudes to gender roles both at home and in work.

Rostgaard finds it “very embarrassing” that Denmark is the only Nordic country not to earmark any of the 50 weeks on offer for men.

There was a father’s quota between 1998 and 2003, she explains, but it was introduced without any debate and was positioned badly in the leave scheme, necessitating women to either take holidays or to go back into the workplace for a short time when it was their partner’s turn to stay at home.

As a result there was a low uptake – “but there was an uptake”, she stresses. However, the gender equality incentive was abolished when parental leave was extended.

“It was argued that it was an improvement for parents, therefore nobody complained about it – except for feminist researchers like myself,” she smiles.

Cash for care
Although the Nordic countries are seen as taking a common approach to childcare matters, there are differences, such as this and the question of “cash for care” being paid to parents who choose to stay at home.

Finland stands out as an exception because many more parents avail of cash benefits instead of enrolling their children in subsidised daycare.

Just 41 per cent of Finnish children aged one to two attend daycare and 73 per cent at ages three to five, while the participation rate by their other Nordic peers is in the mid to high 90s at that stage.

Doesn’t this suggest that, despite the Scandinavian tradition of centre-based care, there is an appetite for being supported to stay at home with children?

Acknowledging this can be described as parental choice, Rostgaard attributes it more to formal daycare being less available in Finland.

And it is low-income, migrant families who are more likely to care for children at home, partly due to cultural reasons.

“It creates inequalities,” she argues, “because people, including me, would say that those children who most need to be in kindergarten from the age of three are low-income, migrant children, because they can learn the language.”

While the Scandinavians’ idea of “institutionalised childhood” may not appeal to everybody, they believe high-quality childcare benefits all and pays off economically.

After-school care
Following on from the nursery and kindergarten years, after-school care kicks in. In Denmark parents pay between ¤134 and ¤214 a month for this care, which is available up to the age of 14 and then after-school clubs take up the slack.

It’s a far cry from the piecemeal measures so many Irish parents have to put in place. And there is much less pressure to pretend that parenthood is a self-contained part of life which has absolutely nothing to do with the workplace.

The next time you are up at night willing a child’s high temperature to have magically disappeared by the morning, think how much less stressful it would be to live in Denmark where workers have the right to stay at home on full pay for the first day or two whenever a child under 14 is sick. There is no question of having to pretend you are the one who is ill . . .

Our statutory force majeure leave in the event of a family crisis, of three days in any 12-month period or five days in a 36-month period, seems paltry in comparison.

“Relatively we are very fortunate in Nordic countries, particularly in Denmark, in terms of availability of daycare,” acknowledges Rostgaard, a mother of two children aged 10 and 11, who opted to reduce her work to part-time for a year after a year of paid leave following the births.

Benefits of investing
This sort of flexibility is facilitated by employers. But whether it damages people’s career prospects is, in her view, “really tricky” to say.

“I think it probably does in some way. I think most employers would think this is somebody whose priorities are somewhere else during this time.”

The benefits of investing in a high-quality childcare system include a low rate of child poverty because women are able to take up paid employment, and better educational attainment by children who have attended daycare, giving them higher earning potential.

Investment in this area is also linked to higher fertility – although Ireland manages to top the European league for this despite, rather than because of, our childcare system.

There is the assumption that if you provide childcare, it is much easier for a woman to choose to become pregnant, or pregnant again, Rostgaard says.

And last year Danish nurseries went the extra kilometre by offering parents free childcare in the evenings, so they could go home and do their bit for boosting national fertility.