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Breda O’Brien and the Scandinavian model of childcare June 9, 2011

Posted by WorldbyStorm in European Politics, Irish Politics.

It’s a funny thing. I often read Breda O’Brien’s column in the Irish Times of a Saturday and find myself in broad agreement. Generally this is because on economic issues she’s leftish of centre. On the other hand I read some of her columns on social issues and find myself diverging from her position. That’s fair enough, but a column a few weekends back was odd – and today there was a good riposte in the pages of the Irish Times. But having written this already and not being one to let something go to waste here is a more direct analysis of her piece.

O’Brien was fresh from an Iona Institute seminar, of which she is a sponsor, at which there was a discussion of the ‘Nordic model’ of social provision. And harsh words there were for the Swedish childcare, and not merely Swedish childcare at that…

Dr Catherine Hakim of the London School of Economics, demolished the idea that Sweden has achieved gender equality. The glass ceiling, she said, is harder to smash in Sweden than anyone imagines. Sweden has a highly segregated labour market, with women clustered in lower-paid public service jobs, while men are much more likely to be in higher-paid private sector work. The gender pay gap still remains.
She cited the work of Swedish economist Magnus Henrekson who, until 2009, was professor of economics at the Stockholm School of Economics. When he had raised the issue of continuing gender inequality in the Swedish labour force, he could not get published in a European academic journal. It was considered heresy.
A 20-year International Labour Organisation study showed levels of occupational segregation in Nordic countries were higher than in other OECD countries – higher than in Egypt, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia and India. Swedish women have very high sick leave levels, with the highest among women working in daycare.

Firstly let’s address the straw man embedded in this argument. Who would claim that there was gender equality anywhere? I certainly wouldn’t. And who would continue by arguing that there was no gender pay gap, even in Sweden. But it’s hard to see why the existence of either of those would per definition discredit the Swedish model. And it’s not as if academic reporting on Sweden ignores this. In a piece on broader child care issues by Sven Hessle & Bo Vinnerljung it explicitly notes that:

Women’s participation in the labour force is among the highest in the world, 80% compared to 85% for Swedish men in 1995. A tax reform from the middle of the 1970s has been helpful in promoting female employment, conferring on married women the status of independent taxpayers. But the Swedish labour market has the same gender related segregation patterns as in many other countries. Women form the vast majority of employees in all “care sectors”, e g nursing, childcare and social work. 30% work part-time, compared to 5% of the men. In national and local politics, 42-45% of representatives are women (parliament, local city councils etc.)7

One would hope that the latter figure will diminish gender segregation patterns elsewhere in the society.

Okay, and on to childcare. According to O’Brien:

Jonas Himmelstrand, a Swede, concentrated on negative outcomes for children, and the virtual eradication of the choice to be a full-time carer for your own children.

Interesting. So, how has this choice been eradicated?

Himmelstrand explained that while he has great respect for spirituality, he is not himself religious or affiliated to any religious organisation. Religious belief motivates very few of the Swedish parents who question the expectation that virtually every child will go into childcare by 18 months while their parents return to work. Often, they are self-employed people. If they are not going out to work, they wonder why their child has to go to daycare. Most of them are shocked when they find their choice is seen as antisocial. Major pressure is put on people to conform.
Working as a management consultant, Himmelstrand heard from women how sad they were about leaving their one-year-olds in daycare. He began to notice there were no children in the playgrounds during the day. If you walked down the street with a three-year-old toddler, people were amazed and disapproving the child was not in daycare.

The oddity here is that there’s no tangible evidence that bar social disapproval there is any compunction to put children into childcare. Is it compulsory? It isn’t.

Even Himmelstrand only faced curiosity, not prohibition when:

…he had children himself, two of whom have special needs, he and his Swiss wife were considered almost perverse to want to care for them at home.

Well, the Canadian Union of Public Employees has a fine profile on Swedish child care. But the most pertient aspect is as follows, at least in relation to the structural aspects:

Public provision
As in most European countries, most ECEC [early childhood education and child care] in Sweden is publicly operated.
The program is primarily delivered by municipalities, with the national government providing overall policy direction and contributing a share of the funding.
The current picture
The latest data on ECEC coverage (spaces) in Sweden show that in 2005:
• 97% of all four- and five-year-olds were enrolled in ECEC programs.
• 85% of two- to three-year-olds attended ECEC.
• 46% of one-year-olds attended ECEC.
• 76% of six- to nine-year-olds attend school-age programs (“leisure centres”).
• Generous maternity/parental leave provisions mean that enrolment of infants under one year old is rare; in 2005, only 30 infants under one year attended child care.

I find these figures fascinating because in themselves they suggest that there are alternatives, that parents [up to 3% of 4 and 5 year old children] can choose to keep children outside ECEC programs.

But moreover, look at the crucial figures, those for children up to and over 1 years of age. Almost 100% of those up to 1 and 54 % of those over 1 but under 2 are outside the system. And why? Because ‘generous maternity/parental leave provisions’ enable parent[s] to be there at that formative point.

How generous?

When a child is born, the parents are entitled to 450 days of leave paid for by the Social Insurance
Office. For most of the leave period (80 per cent) parental benefit is on a par with sickness benefit.
The 450 days of leave have to be taken before the child turns eight.

And what of costs?

Parent fees
Since 2002, Sweden has set a limit on the maximum fees paid by parents:
• 3% of family income to a maximum of 1,260 kroner ($193 CAD) per
month for the first child in child care.
• 2% of family income for the second child ($129 CAD max.), 1% for
the third child ($64 CAD max.), no charge for a fourth child.
• Starting at age four, children are entitled to 525 free hours of child
care a year.

And it’s worth noting that ECEC accounts for 30% of the education system budget and 1.9% of its GDP.

It’s also important to consider the voluntary aspect of this – at least in terms beyond the economic.

As this document notes:

Public child care is extended to children aged 1-12. In Sweden, compulsory school begins at the age of seven but prior to that
almost all six-year-olds attend voluntary preschool classes designed to prepare them for the first grade. Children who have yet
to start school or preschool classes for six-year-olds can attend regular preschools, family daycare homes and open
preschools while older children have access to leisure-time centres, family daycare homes and open leisure-time activities.


The preschool (förskola) cares for children while their parents are away working or studying or if the children have special needs of their own. Preschools are open all year round and daily opening times are varied to fit in with parents’ working hours.
Children are registered and the parents pay a fee that in most areas is linked to the family’s income and the child’s attendance.
In 1999, some 64 per cent of all children aged 1-5 attended preschool, or 319,000 children in all. Children are generally divided into groups of between 15 and 20. As a rule, three employees – preschool teachers and daycare attendants – are allocated to each group. The average preschool comprises three such groups.

The family daycare home (familjedaghem) involves municipal childminders providing care in their own homes while the parents are working or studying. The children are registered and opening hours are varied to fit in with the parents’ schedules.
The family pays a fee in the same way as for preschool care. Family daycare complements preschool by providing in particular for children who for one reason or another need to be in smaller groups or who live far from the nearest preschool facility. This alternative is more common in rural areas and in small towns than in metropolitan areas.
The number of children in family daycare has steadily declined since the late 1980s. Today, some 11 per cent of all children aged 1-5 receive this form of care. Family daycare is sometimes provided for schoolchildren outside school hours as well. In the autumn of 1999, some 3 per cent of all children aged 6-9 were in family daycare. All told, about 69,000 children were provided with this form of care in 1999.

The open preschool (öppna förskolan) is an alternative to regular preschool for the children of parents who are at home during the day. It also supplements family daycare. Together with their parents or municipal childminders, children are invited to take part in a pedagogical group activity. In some housing areas, open preschools collaborate with public bodies like the social welfare services and the maternity care and child health care services. The children are not registered and are not required to attend regularly. Most open preschools are free of charge. In the autumn of 1999 there were about 900 open preschools in Sweden.

The leisure-time centre (fritidshem) provides care for children whose parents are in gainful employment or studying during the time the child is not in school, i.e. mornings, afternoons and during holidays. Leisure-time centres are open all year round and daily opening hours are varied to fit in with parents’ schedules. As in the case of preschool and family daycare, parents pay a fee which in most areas is linked to the family’s income and the child’s overall attendance. In the autumn of 1999, some 62 per cent of all children aged 6-9 and 7 per cent of those aged 10-12 attended a leisure-time centre.

But let’s circle around to a point which is simply not articulated in O’Brien’s article, that in this state and this economy the idea of parental ‘choice’ is an illusion. Consider the following:

Most of the audience were fascinated by the divergence between what they are constantly told about Sweden, and what Hakim and Himmelstrand were saying. But there are hints of it even in that yummy mummy article.
Norwegian Lena Maher migrated back home with her husband and four children, and is very happy, but warns of downsides. She believes there is far more respect for women staying at home in Ireland. Her Norwegian friends envy her for having been able to enjoy the early years with her children.
In Ireland, we are told that if only we had a daycare system like in Sweden, all would be well. This is despite the fact substantial numbers of Irish women choose to stay at home, while many others try to replicate home-like conditions for their children, relying on relatives and friends for childcare.

I think this is almost laughably wide of the mark. Some people no doubt do try to replicate home-like conditions, but most simply try to do the best they can in the context of the resources available.

Many families, particularly those on lower to medium incomes with children are in a position where both parents must work in order to bring money in. There’s no choice there at all. That’s the way it is. Indeed the complaint of ‘sadness’ – which is a natural response, and one I noted here in relation to seeing my own daughter go into the local community creche at 1 and half years of age, is outweighed by the basic reality that there are two parents working and that this isn’t a choice in a readily definable sense of the word, but a necessity.

Indeed there’s an element of ‘don’t look at the achievements – look at the problems’. That’s not, of course, a bad thing in itself – at least in the sense that all systems should be critiqued, but when those problems are used to diminish or even obscure the achievements, and when those problems seem somewhat intangible as against the fairly concrete reality of the achievements then there’s a strong sense of an argument that lacks validity.

But O’Brien takes it upon herself to articulate the following view:

Irish families don’t want a Nordic model. They want flexibility, and respect for their choices. They want the State to be neutral about the way they fund one option or another, either to work inside or outside the home. They want an end to unfair practices such as tax individualisation, which add insult to injury when a person in a dual-income family loses a job. They lose their wages and find they have to pay more tax on the other spouse’s income. Under Budget 2011, due to tax individualisation, a one-income married family on €60,000 a year will pay almost €5,000 extra a year in tax and charges than a dual-income couple where one spouse earns €40,000 and the other €20,000.

I’m always suspicious of blunt statements that seek to articulate a view like the one stated in the opening sentence. O’Brien is in no better position than I to make such an assertion. It might be that Irish families offered the Nordic model might well be very very happy to adopt it. Or not. But to state emphatically that they don’t want it is absurd.

And taking a practical issue, even if tax individualisation was removed [and I’m not sure that her analysis there is accurate as regards the examples she gives] – something that may simply be politically impossible in the current climate, it’s hard to believe that a revision of that would financially permit families with children to revert to the one parent working in the home, one person working outside it model. Indeed only those on higher medium and higher incomes would seem to be likely to benefit [frankly I think €60,000 plus is an higher income].

The dire economic situation means we can’t replicate the Swedish model. Maybe we have had a lucky escape.

I find that hard to believe too. I’d love to live in a context where there was real choice, where one or other parent could decide to work inside or outside the home [for myself I think that child care has been a positive for my daughter in terms of developing social skills, making friends and having a life which even at the age of three has a degree of autonomy separate from her parents, but that’s irrelevant to the broader argument and in any event I also believe that parents should ideally have the choice of either approach]. My own politics is based precisely in such an approach informed by the thoughts of Andre Gorz and others.

But that’s truly utopian in the present context, and short of that the Swedish model seems like one designed to at least soften some of the harder edges of the economic context within which parents operate. It’s hardly surprising that take-up is so great given what is provided – given that choice it’s understandable that many [perhaps most] would be happy to see their children enter that system. Most important it appears to me to genuinely make the effort to be child centred in a mixed economy. That’s no small achievement in itself.


1. yourcousin - June 9, 2011

I think the economic argument is huge. My kid went to daycare at three months old because he had to. My wife used all of her sick time and vacation time for quite awhile to be able to spend as much time at home with him as possible, but since both of us have to work to make ends meet the entire question of whether to stay at home was a moot point.

Many folks who stay home with their kids do so because their wages would be totally offset by daycare expenses. So many wives either work only part time on weekends or stay at home altogether. Again the economics decide it both ways.

As for recreating other models I would caution that it is always difficult to recreate a social from a different starting point. I see it happening in the gun control debate for example as people compare to countries like Britain and the US and say, “see why can’t hte US get rid of guns like Britain”. Failing of course to note the different histories and contexts of a country. It seems kind of immature to suggest that an official government program would automatically create a dual unofficial social stigma to participate in said programs


WorldbyStorm - June 9, 2011

I think it does tend to be economics. And indeed for those that can afford to stay at home that too is dictated by the economics.


2. Barney - June 9, 2011

The right of a parent to stay at home to mind kids and the right to affordable childcare equal and complimentary rights.One is available in Sweden and neither in this country.


WorldbyStorm - June 9, 2011

I don’t have any problem with people staying at home to mind kids. And I agree these are complimentary rights, but it seems to me that O’Brien overstates how difficult it is in Sweden, albeit it’s still far from optimal. As you say it’s not in this state.


3. cruella - September 9, 2011

As a Swede (who even used to know Mrs O’Brien, but that’s neither here nor there) I can confirm that pre-school daycare is by no means “compulsory” even if certain right-wingers and also hippie type parents who tend to take an alternative view in other respects too like to formulate it that way. It’s a matter of choice – but it’s a choice that means that you may have to scale down your material expectations for a while. Save up. The problem is often of the first-world kind: You have already built up your life style around two incomes, with mortgages and rather expensive habits that you now feel entitled to.

My main problem with Mrs O’Briens argumentation (and her likes) is that it only fully concerns two-parent families – single parents (nearly always mums, and yes, they really do exist everywhere) will never be eligible for a state sponsored career as a home maker.


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