A contrast in policies


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Content type
Family Matters article

December 1991


This article looks at child care policy and practice in Sweden and the United Kingdom, two countries whose policies will most likely shape the provision of child care in Australia during the 1990s. Child care in Sweden is largely provided by the State and is one of the world's most progressive and comprehensive systems. In addition Sweden has a comprehensive range of parental leave provisions. In Britain, the picture is vastly different. Child care is largely a matter of private arrangement when relatives care for more than two-thirds of Britain's preschool children whose mothers work. The only parental leave available is maternity leave. The article concludes with an examination of the situation in Australia.

Child care has become a matter of high priority throughout the Western world as mothers increasingly enter the paid workforce. Where once it was the poor relation of services for pre-school children, child care is now a critical issue for families where both parents are working or studying outside the home.

In most Western countries, child care falls somewhere between the extremes exemplified by Sweden, where child care is provided largely by the state, and the United Kingdom, where it is mostly a matter of private arrangement. In Australia, there is much debate about the most appropriate system for this country, given its economic and social prospects for the next decade. This article looks at the situation in the two countries whose policies will most likely shape the provision of child care in Australia during the nineties.


Sweden is a small and prosperous country of approximately 8.5 million people. It has one of the world's most progressive and comprehensive child care systems, synonymous with quality and the envy of many other countries. Underpinning the Swedish system is the expectation that men and women will equally participate in the workforce, child rearing, and domestic life (Broberg 1988; Nasman and Falkenberg 1989; Galinsky 1989).

However, Sweden has not always been prosperous, and its child care system has emerged as the result of careful planning, a long period of relative political stability and a policy of full employment and high taxation (Ginsberg 1983).


The Swedish system has its roots in the Depression (Forsberg 1984; Popenoe 1988), which led not only to a greater tolerance of state intervention in social and economic affairs, but also laid the foundation for the welfare state. At that time Sweden was a poor country with widespread unemployment, and the birth rate, at 1.7 children per woman, had dropped below replacement level and was the lowest in the world (Popenoe 1988).

In 1934, the social scientists Gunnar and Alva Myrdal, addressing issues related to the low birth rate, wrote the best-selling book Crisis in the Population Question. They proposed a series of measures to be implemented by government that would encourage marriage and support families (Popenoe 1988) The Myrdals were concerned that women who worked outside the home should also have the right to marry and have children, rather than being forced to choose between a domestic role and paid employment (Popenoe 1988). At the time, many European countries had pronatalist policies although, in contrast to the Myrdals' proposals, they usually had conservative motives (Popenoe 1988).

In 1935, a Royal Commission on Population recommended extensive social reforms, most of which derived from the Myrdals' book and many of which were later incorporated in legislation. Although these policy changes had little effect on the birth rate, they combined welfare policies with family issues and population growth. (Popenoe 1988). The welfare measures, complemented by a policy of full employment, survived and matured thanks largely to a stable political climate afforded by the Social Democrat Party holding office almost continuously for 45 years.

Although women's workforce participation began to rise substantially in the 1950s, it was in the 1960s at a time of low birth rate and a labour shortage that women were encouraged into paid work (Leijon 1968; Broberg 1988).

In 1967, the Day Nursery Commission indicated an immense shortfall in places for children whose parents both worked. At the time, local authorities provided child care in either child care centres or family day care. Private family day care provided for six times the number of children in municipal family day care (Leijon 1968). Some children were cared for by home help and there were some nurseries in private firms and a number of hospitals. Demand was also growing for child care centres with more flexible hours.

Working parents also had difficulties caring for sick children, although some councils employed 'samaritans' who could look after sick children in the child's own home. Although the children of single parents were given priority, it was difficult for them to obtain places in state-subsidised centres.

The 1969 Report of the Working Group on Equality shaped legislative change in the following decade. Throughout the 1970s, there were a number of Government reports on child care and related issues, and the state provision of child care and parental leave progressed towards the generous system enjoyed today (Broberg and Hwang 1991; Popenoe 1988).

Swedish Child Care

Through the National Board of Health and Welfare, the state provides the guidelines for pre-school services and also supports research and development, while 274 local authorities administer the services, employ staff, and plan for their area. The foremost concern is that all public pre- school services should combine education as well as care and supervision, and that society makes it possible for the parents of small children to combine work with family and community responsibilities (Broberg 1988).

Day care centres, which provide full-time care for children whose parents both work or study, are usually within walking distance of the child's home (Swedish Ministry of Health and Social Affairs 1988; Broberg 1988; Nasman and Falkenberg 1989). Family day care, which is provided by mothers in their own homes, is available in most municipalities, as are mothers' clubs through which children can play together while their mothers or carers socialise and receive advice from a pre-school teacher.

All children are entitled to a place in kindergarten in the year they turn six, although most start at three or four. Kindergartens provide children with social contact and preparation for school (which begins when children turn seven). There are also leisure centres, where children up to 12 years old are cared for before and after school (Swedish Ministry of Health and Social Affairs 1988; Broberg 1988; Nasman and Falkenberg 1989).

Private child care is now a small part of child care services. The most common form is mothers who care for children in their own homes and are paid by the parents. There are also non-profit parent cooperatives and day care centres run by religious and secular organisations and a few private enterprise day care centres that do not receive state grants. A small number of children are cared for at home by nursemaids and some children are cared for by relatives (Broberg 1988; Nasman and Falkenberg 1989).

Costs and quality

The cost of public child care is shared by the state, local authorities and parents; the proportions vary depending on the type of care. The state pays just less than half the costs of child care centres, and a little less than a third of family day care costs; local authorities pay just less than half the costs of child care centres and just more than half the costs of family day care; parents pay 10 per cent of costs for centres and about 15 per cent of family day care costs. Fees are mostly set according to income, although some municipalities have standard charges (Broberg 1988).

Employers indirectly finance child care, among other services, by paying the Government 'general social insurance', which in 1988 was 2.2 per cent of their total salary budget. Local authorities receive grants from the National Board of Health and Welfare towards their costs and cover the rest from taxes levied locally (Broberg 1988). State grants are also given to parent cooperative centres and to centres run by associations without profit. Private child care receives no grants and is not regulated by the state (Broberg 1988).

Child care standards are regulated by the requirements of state grants, and by directives from the National Board of Health and Welfare. The requirements cover the design and furnishing of centres, staff training and staff-child ratios. (Broberg 1988).

Family day care has no clear national guidelines, although recently the state has produced a guide to municipal planning of the service. Municipalities have a family day care assistant who assesses the suitability of potential family day care mothers, places children, provides support and advice, and organises and coordinates activities for carers and their charges.

Parental leave

Under the Child Care Leave Act, passed in 1978 with small amendments in 1985 and 1989, all parents who have been working for a particular employer for at least six months before the birth of their child are entitled to a variety of parental leave provisions. Parental leave benefits are paid through the National Insurance scheme, which guarantees basic financial security to families, the elderly, the sick and the disabled (National Board of Health and Welfare 1988).

The Child Care Leave Act provides, among other things, two weeks paid leave for fathers at the birth of their children. Either parent can then be at home full-time with the infant, on 90 per cent of the parent's normal salary, until the child is nine months old, or part- time until the child is 18 months old. This time can be divided between the parents. Recent studies indicate that about 22 per cent of fathers have used this leave, on average for about six weeks (Nasman and Falkenberg 1989).

Up to 90 days a year are provided to care for sick children. A doctor's certificate is required after seven days (Ochiltree 1991). Most families only take about eight days a year (Kindlund 1989). Two days a year are also available for parents to spend time with their children at child care, or to visit their school. There is also paid leave for pregnant women for up to 50 or 60 days before the birth.

Parents can reduce their workday to six hours and retain the right to return to full-time employment with two months notice. Although both parents cannot be on paid leave at the same time, with the exception of the ten days paternity leave at the birth of a baby, they can both work part-time over the same period to manage child care (Broberg 1988; Kindlund 1989; Nasman and Falkenberg 1989).

As a result of these provisions, most Swedish infants are cared for by their parents until they are nine months old and few are in child care outside the home. The number of children in child care outside the home is significant only after the age of 12 months (Broberg 1988; Nasman and Falkenberg 1989). The Swedish Government has planned this year to extend full-time, paid parental leave until the child is 18 months old. It has also promised to provide child care places for all children over the age of 18 months, as there has been a shortfall (Broberg 1988; Nasman and Falkenberg 1989).

In 1973, when fathers first had the opportunity to take parental leave, only 3 per cent did so. By 1983, this had increased to 30 per cent taking leave in the first 18 months and by 1986, 83 per cent of fathers took leave at the birth of their child. On average, men took about six weeks of leave. It is interesting to note that the higher the mother's income, the more often the father takes parental leave.

Men are also using leave to care for sick children; of parents who took this leave in 1986, 41 per cent were men and they used 34 per cent of the total number of paid days. Parents used leave to take care of 48 per cent of children under 12 years of age with an average of seven days per child (Nasman and Falkenberg 1989). Fathers are encouraged to be involved in bringing up their children through campaigns urging them to share in child rearing and to take advantage of parental leave provisions (Kindlund 1989)

United Kingdom

The United Kingdom, while small in area, has a population estimated to be 56 million in 1990 (UN 1988), more than six times that of Sweden. It is no longer wealthy and has faced severe economic difficulties in recent years. Both the Labour and Conservative parties have had periods in power since World War II; the Conservative Government now in power has encouraged the private sector to take responsibility for many services that were previously provided by government.

Government has defined its role in the development of day care for employed parents as marginal, involving the continuance of some degree of regulation together with encouragement and guidance to make provision. In particular, it looks to employers and the private market to provide the neccessary services and to introduce other measures such as altering working patterns that will assist working mothers (and it is important to note that the whole discussion in the UK is concerned with mothers and getting them into the labor force; the implications for men's role in child care and other 'domestic' areas have received virtually no discussion) (Moss 1991, p.138).

In the last decade, when more women have been entering the workforce (Kiernan and Wicks 1990), the Government has regarded child care as the responsibility of the individual. In a recent interview, Angela Rumbold, chair of the Ministerial Group on Women's Issues, stated:

I am antipathetic to the notion that there should be universal access to child care: 'creches for all'. It simply exacerbates the trend that we have had of seeing that it is possible if you've got responsibilities to put them on to the state. Societies in other parts of the world have discovered this doesn't actually produce people in adult life who are able to emotionally understand and cope with their responsibilities towards other individuals ... If you have to work you do and if you have to find child care you find it. When I say 'have' I mean if you really want it (Family Policy Bulletin 1991).

Unlike Sweden, there is no expectation in the UK that men and women will participate equally in the workforce, child rearing and domestic life. Rather there is an ideology about parenthood that makes life difficult for working mothers, especially those with pre- schoolers (Jackson 1991). 'The main components of this ideology have been that children should be in the full-time care of their mothers until at least the age of three; that separation from mother before this age is likely to be harmful to the child; that mothers with children under this age should not be employed; and that the main role of fathers is to provide financially for their families' (Moss 1991, p.131).

John Bowlby's research in England in the early 1950s gave scientific legitimacy to these views and has influenced the position of working mothers not only in the United Kingdom, but also in Australia and other English-speaking countries. However, there is evidence in a recent survey that the attitudes of younger men and women in the United Kingdom are changing (Kellner 1990)

State provision of services for the under-fives in the United Kingdom rests with local authorities, and there is considerable variation in what is available.

The public provision of services for the under fives has largely been governed on the one hand by local authority assessment of extreme need largely provided within day nurseries (child care centres) and on the other by varying levels of commitment to the provision of nursery education. Current levels of local authority provision of nursery education range from 8 per cent to 86 per cent of three and four-year-olds. Provision of nursery education has been linked to the political objectives of local authorities. Labour- run authorities have tended to see this as a higher priority than other authorities the top 20 providers of nursery education are all Labour-controlled (Riley 1989).

Many women are restricted to lower-paid, part-time work without job security because of the difficulties of arranging child care (Jackson 1991).


The United Kingdom has fewer places in day nurseries (child care centres) now than it had during World War II. In 1945, 1300 nurseries provided more than twice as many places for children than are now available (Cohen 1988). The wartime nurseries, originally intended for workers in munitions factories, extended their services to include the children of other workers who were not directly involved in war work. Nevertheless, they were seen by the Government as an aid to the war effort, not as a social service to the community (Riley 1983).

Although the labour of women was needed because men were away at war, the setting up of these wartime nurseries was difficult. The Ministry of Health wanted a system where the children of war workers would be minded by female 'volunteers'. The Ministry of Labour, on the other hand, supported by the labour movement and women's organisations, wanted day nurseries. The Ministry of Labour ultimately got its way, although not without strong opposition (Riley 1983).

At the end of the war, many of the nurseries closed, supposedly from lack of customers, although many women continued to work. Their closure was the result of a Government decision to hand responsibility to local authorities and halve the Treasury grant, throwing 'the whole matter open to the idiosyncracies and histories of regions' (Riley 1983:122). Riley writes that some medical officers were opposed to nurseries on principle, and the cut in Government funds meant that nursery costs had to be met out of the rates and compete for money with other health and welfare services.

By the start of the 1950s, about a fifth of employed women had children of school age or younger. Unions and other organisations attempted during this period to persuade local authorities to provide nursery places for the children of all working women.

Meanwhile, employer-controlled nurseries were opening where required in the wool and cotton districts '... and union delegates were anxious about the registration and inspection of these to ensure that they came up to local authority standards' (Riley 1983:136). But by the mid-1950s these employer-controlled nurseries were being criticised and working women were being attacked in the media for 'dumping' their children. It was seen as irresponsible for women to work outside the home and it also became impossible to demand improvements in nurseries, the provision of more child care places, or shorter hours for working women (Riley 1983).

Early childhood services

Relatives care for more than two-thirds of Britain's pre- school children whose mothers work. For women working full-time, grandmothers are the principal source of care, and for those working part-time, husbands most commonly care for the children (Cohen 1988).

Nursery education (pre-schools/kindergartens) is the only public provision for under-fives that has expanded since World War II. Between 1975 and 1985, the number of children in nursery education increased by 47 per cent, with 23 per cent of three and four-year-olds in the system. Because nursery education is mostly (83 per cent) part- time, the children of employed parents often cannot attend or must also be placed in other forms of care (Cohen 1988).

The number of places in day nurseries (child care centres) began to increase again in 1969, but there are still fewer than half the number of places that were available in 1945 and, unlike then, the criteria for admission are restrictive. Day nurseries are now largely for socially disadvantaged families.

Until recently, there was not any great growth in private nurseries, although there were some community nurseries, usually set up by parent groups, to meet the special needs of minority groups. 'Although workplace nurseries are now being set up in some areas of employment, many more have been closed down, reflecting the decline in industries such as textiles with which these nurseries have been traditionally associated. The number of private and voluntary nurseries in the United Kingdom fell between 1975 and 1985 from 1065 to 999. Only in Northern Ireland was there an increase from four in 1975 to 12 in 1985' (Cohen 1988).

However, more recently, there have been initiatives to provide work-related nurseries. For example, a large bank plans to set up 300 workplace nurseries (Moss 1991).

Childminders (family day care) are used for 4 per cent of newborn to four-year-olds (Cohen 1988). In 1985, there were 144,908 places with registered childminders, an increase of more than 60 per cent from 1975 (Cohen 1988). Most of these minders have no special training apart from their own experience. Costs are met by parents with the exception of 'priority' children whose costs are covered by local authorities. However, there are a number of unregistered childminders, estimated to be less than 20 per cent.

More working parents use nannies for their children than use nurseries provided by local authorities. There are an estimated 30,000 nannies, at least, who may have professional qualifications, but are not required to be registered. Nannies are expensive to employ and there is very little information available about them (Cohen 1988). Some families use 'au pair' girls who are provided with accommodation and 'pocket money' over a limited time while learning English, or 'mother's helps' who do some housework as well as care for children (Cohen 1988).

Playgroups are common in the United Kingdom, and give children mostly aged three or four the opportunity to play with others their own age. They are rarely used by the children of working parents because of the short hours of opening, usually mornings or afternoons only, and because they are not necessarily open every day (Cohen 1988).

Schools provide care for a little more than 20 per cent of three and four-year-olds, although the proportion varies depending on the local policy on age of school entry. School regulations regarding children of this age differ from those relating to nursery schools and classes. 'Local education authorities have been urged to ensure that provision for under-fives in primary schools is appropriate to their age, but very few authorities have adjusted their staffing ratios and no extra provision is being made in almost half of all authorities admitting four-year-olds at the beginning of the year in which they were four' (Cohen 1988).

Many services are unavailable for the children of working mothers because the hours are unsuitable or special arrangements must be made. The limited number of free or low-cost places in community- sponsored day nurseries are for children who are 'at risk' or from disadvantaged families. Parents are responsible for the costs of child care and there are no tax deductions; mothers assisted by employers are taxed on this as additional income.

Parental leave

The only mandated parental leave available in the United Kingdom is maternity leave at 90 per cent of earnings for six weeks and a flat rate payment (Cohen 1988). However, only around 50 per cent of employees qualify under the rules, and unskilled workers are less likely to qualify than professional women (Phillips and Moss 1989).

Australian Situation

Child care in Sweden is viewed as a public responsibility and, despite the expense, it has widespread support. Nevertheless it is also important to note that it is questioned by the conservative minority (Lamb and Sternberg 1991; Kindlund 1989). Child care in the United Kingdom, where responsibility lies largely with the individual, puts great strain on families where both parents work, particularly those where both parents are working full-time for low wages. These parents, many of whom are from the ethnic minorities, have to make whatever child care arrangements are possible and this may be unregistered childminders (Jackson 1991).

Australia falls somewhere between these extremes. There is more formal child care, both public and private, available here than in the UK and most children have access to pre- schools and kindergarten. Unlike Britain, where most council day nurseries are for children from disadvantaged families, Australian children from all families can attend Government- funded child care centres and family day care. Priority is given to the children of working parents.

Fee relief is provided on a sliding scale with those on the lowest incomes having full entitlement. Only recently has fee relief become available for children in commercial centres. This leads to more places but raises concerns in many quarters about the quality of the new Children's Services Program.

In the recent budget, the Federal Government provided for the establishment of a National Accreditation Council with the view to setting up a system of voluntary accreditation, with a mandatory component which all services receiving fee relief would have to comply with. This council has yet to be set up. Effort is being directed towards the development of national standards with the co- operation of state ministers.

The most controversial recent change is a two-tiered fee relief system which favours those who are working and discriminates against families where mothers are not in the workforce.

However, the number of child care places in Australia falls far short of demand (Maas 1990). In 1987, 9.5 per cent of Australian children under school age had access to Commonwealth-funded child care services. Although the proportion has increased since then (O'Donnell and Hall 1988), working parents most commonly make informal arrangements, and in this we have more in common with the United Kingdom (ABS 1989).

Australia has little to compare with the comprehensive nature of Sweden's paid parental leave provisions, although it has maternity leave and unpaid parental leave. Maternity leave conditions are variable with some paid and some unpaid depending on the sector. Maternity leave in the United Kingdom is paid (Cohen 1988; Glezer 1988, 1991).

Although the Swedish system, which is achieved on the basis of very high taxation, may be held up as the ideal, it is unlikely that Australia will achieve anything comparable in the foreseeable future. Our situation is similar to that in Sweden during the 1960s when women were being encouraged into the paid workforce and there were insufficient child care places, but there the similarity ends. Sweden at the time was a wealthy country with continuity of policy direction while Australia now is in a recession and has not had the same degree of political continuity. The impact of the recession on women's workforce participation is not fully known as yet, but it is reported that the demand for child care varies and that in some areas it has lessened to the point where it is difficult to fill places.

Sweden also has a more homogeneous population than Australia, in which this country has more in common with the United Kingdom. However, the situation there shows the difficulties that can occur when central government takes little or no role in the provision of child care, and largely ignores the needs of children and the difficulties facing families where both parents work.

The federal Labor Government is committed to increasing child care in keeping with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 156, Workers with Family Responsibilities. This convention was ratified by Australia in 1990. Article 1 of the convention makes it clear that parents should not be prevented from working by their responsibility for the care of children (Edgar 1991).

The provision of child care in Australia is not simple. In a country this culturally diverse, there are personal and political divisions, with some people believing that non- parental care while mothers work is harmful to pre-school children. Others believe it does no harm and may be good for children's development.

There are also personal and political divisions over whether child care should be publicly or commercially provided, and there are difficulties ensuring quality at an affordable price. However, as increasing numbers of mothers enter the workforce, including grandmothers, the supply of informal care will decrease and there will be greater pressure to provide formal places.


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