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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 ...

Slovenia: Have one, get a discount on the second (and the third is free)

Much like Sweden, tiny Slovenia has developed a universal child-care system that is run by municipalities, which are required to create enough spaces. Families pay an average of $460 a month for a toddler, but only one-third as much for a sibling – and no charge for the third child. In fact, daycare for all siblings was free until last year, when an economic downturn forced the government to tighten its belt; still, the rates are discounted on a relatively steep sliding scale based on income, so the poorest families pay nothing.

As in Sweden, private centres exist to promote family choice, but because of the competition from the public system, their fees are comparable, and quality is high.

As of 2009, 74 per cent of children from the age of one to school age were enrolled in early-childhood education. Slovenia had virtually eliminated wait lists, but they began to grow again after the free-sibling rule was introduced in 2008 and the fertility rate rose.

Municipalities are expected to correct any gaps in care as quickly as possible – at least in principle, since this often depends on budgets and infrastructure, says economist Nada Stropnik of the Institute for Economic Research in the capital, Ljubljana. Still, wait lists and available spaces are listed online by municipality – with details about the setting – so parents clearly know where care is available.

Japan: Take the bus, leave your baby

In May, the Japanese city of Yokohama – population 3.7 million – announced it had eliminated its wait list for certified child care, once one of the longest in the country. To do so, it co-ordinated the construction of privately managed child centres in such places as train stations, so commuters need not travel to the suburbs in search of care. If space is in short supply at one transit stop, the city buses children to neighbouring sites. It also provides a “child-care concierge” to help families find spots.

The system is far from flawless – the quality of the private care is under scrutiny, and Canadian parents would probably object to putting daycare centres under highway overpasses. But the fact remains that Yokohama set a target, drafted a city-specific plan, then met it.

Word has since spread, however, and applications have risen 30 per cent, according to media reports. Many are mothers who now feel they can go back to work. But there are also families who are moving to Yokohama just to be eligible for a spot.

Australia: Gold stars aren’t just for children

A few years ago, Australia faced a child-care nightmare. The country’s leading for-profit provider, ABC Learning, went bankrupt virtually overnight, forcing the country to address its market-based, largely private system. A group of investors stepped in and took over more than 600 sites, turning daycares into non-profit, early learning centres.

Australia also created a national quality standard that has been adopted by every state and territory and applies to all forms of child care. Centres are graded from “excellent” to “significant improvement required,” and the results must be displayed in the centre and online.

The revised approach remains a work-in-progress: Six months ago, it was reported that about half the centres had failed to comply with the new standards. But Australia’s experience is instructive for Canada, child advocates say, highlighting both the risks of relying too heavily on for-profit care and the value of national guidelines.

“If we are going to build a nation,” says Charles Pascal, a specialist in early education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Toronto, “you have to have some quality assurance and mutual commitments to doing certain things the same way.”

This summer, the U.S. state of Georgia started something similar, issuing daycares stars for quality – as well as extra government grants for participating in the program. Results appear online in a searchable database.

New Zealand: It’s never too early to learn about diversity

All early-childhood educators are trained to follow New Zealand’s national curriculum, called Te Whariki, which means “woven mat.” Implemented in 2002, it teaches through play and is designed to create a seamless transition into school. The program has been praised for its specific emphasis on environmental and cultural values as much as literacy and social behaviour, and the curriculum is developed in both English and the Maori language.

Evidence suggests that early-childhood education, when designed properly, can play an important role in social cohesion. Immigrant children benefit from an early introduction to a second language, and all kids (along with their parents) gain from crossing paths with families from different backgrounds.

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