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Nursery school children take a nap at Hinagiku nursery in Moriyama, western Japan, on May 27, 2008. (YURIKO NAKAO/REUTERS)
Nursery school children take a nap at Hinagiku nursery in Moriyama, western Japan, on May 27, 2008. (YURIKO NAKAO/REUTERS)

What the world can teach Canada about building better daycare Add to ...

This is the fifth in a Globe six-part series about building a better daycare system in Canada that examines just who is watching the kids, across the country and around the world. Join the conversation on Twitter: follow @globelife and use the hashtag #globedaycare

If Canada really wants to help its families juggle work and kids – and rescue them from a child-care system defined by wait lists, poor quality and fees as high as mortgage payments – the country can borrow from the best, Sweden, where daycare is part of a full childhood, not just somewhere to park the kids when heading to work.

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The Swedes have a great system: universal, affordable, educational – one they have been perfecting for almost 40 years. Their head start was largely motivated by economic factors: Facing a labour shortage in the 1960s, Sweden needed mothers to work. But early support for gender equity and child development also played a role.

Building a new system was slow going: In 1970, less than 10 per cent of preschoolers were in publicly financed care – even though half of mothers with kids that age were working. So, like many Canadians today, parents used unregulated family daycares. In the early 1990s, the Swedish system struggled with long wait lists, parents took to the streets to demand lower fees, and there were concerns that the children who needed preschool most weren’t getting spots.

Finally, by the late 1990s, supply in the public system caught up with demand, says Anita Nyberg, a professor of gender studies at Stockholm University. Fees were capped soon after when the national government decided to reward municipalities with extra funding if they set maximums on how much parents would pay.

So four decades later, almost every Swedish toddler heads off to preschool with trained educators, even if there is a parent still at home. (Of course, because parental leave is so generous, almost every child is cared for by their mom and dad until at least their first birthday.) Fees are charged on a sliding scale based on income, but the average maximum charged is modest by Canadian standards – about $300 a month – and preschool is free for four- and five-year-olds.

There are still some wait lists, but municipalities are required by law to find a space within three months. Most daycare centres are public, but a small number are private; Prof. Nyberg says the government believes competition will keep standards high.

Either way, says Peter Moss, a researcher at the University of London’s Institute of Education, “people think that nurseries are good places to be. If admission into early childhood education at 12 or 18 months of age was bad for children, you would expect the Nordic countries to be prime examples of crime and delinquency and dysfunction. If you want to look at that, you need to look at America.”

The benefits go beyond child development. Policies that support maternal labour often also influence gender roles, so Swedish parents are more likely to share child-care responsibilities – and the housework.

It took Sweden, says Prof. Moss, “many years to get it right.” Other governments, he suggests, “tend to say, ‘We can’t do that.’ But what they really mean is ‘We can’t suddenly do that.’ In other countries, they just don’t get to grips with what needs doing and actually plot a course.”

But some countries are doing their best to catch up, with such tactics as setting targets to eliminate wait lists, online quality rankings and regulated fees.

HOW THE REST OF THE WORLD DOES DAYCARE

Portugal: School is here to stay (open)

Portuguese elementary schools are required to operate for a full day, from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. In the last two hours of each day, teachers and teaching assistants run “curriculum-enhancement activities,” from sports to music to English lessons, as part of the public-education system. Outside those hours, there is additional state-funded care before and after school, with fees based on income.

Extending school hours to match the workweek is “on the policy agenda” of several countries, according to a recent European Commission report. It is seen as a way not just to help with child care, but to level the extracurricular playing field for low-income families.

Norway: The other child-care shortage – testosterone

As well as staff shortages, high turnover and low pay, early-childhood education is an occupation marked by one of the world’s biggest gender imbalances.

To increase the participation of men, Norway has set targets, along with extra support for male educators, job advertising and recruiting campaigns targeting them. Similar approaches are under way in Denmark and Scotland, which has created a special training course just for men.

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