The plan to increase the staff-to-child ratio for childminders will, say advocates, make us more like Denmark, where more than 85% of mothers go back to work. Sadly, it’s not that simple
The sight of a double pram with four babies top-and-tailing and three toddlers trailing behind on reins is not uncommon in Denmark. Neither is a wooden trailer with six children being towed about by bike. Or babies swaddled in blankets and left outside cafes and shops in sub-zero temperatures to sleep. In some ways, Denmark, the land of Lego, Hans Christian Andersen and brilliant fictional females, could be held up as a role model by those supporting the current childcare proposals in the UK.
Early-years minister Elizabeth Truss wants to increase the staff-to-child ratio for childminders and nurseries so that each carer will be able to look after four toddlers, rather than three. Staff with higher qualifications will be able to take charge of more children still. This is said to be a move towards the Danish model where no national standard is set but where child-minders regularly care for four or more children (according to the digital Education Resource Archive and the Department for Education).
A higher ratio makes childcare more affordable and so, Truss argues, will help to get British mothers back to work, propping up the economy, just like in Denmark.
Only the childcare situation in the UK is nothing like that in Denmark. In Denmark, the state pays 75% of the costs of childcare. If your monthly household income (converted to annual household income) is below 470,400 Danish kroner (approximately £54,000), you’ll get a further deduction, and if you earn below 151,501 Danish kroner a year (£17,000), it’s completely free (according to the latest figures from the Central Denmark Region). There’s also a discount for siblings so that if you have more than one child using childcare, you pay full price for the most expensive daycare and half-price for the others.
Of course, the state can’t pay for all this without a significant contributions in the form of taxes from its five million inhabitants. Income up to 40,000 Danish kroner (£4,600) is taxed at 36.5% at present, and anything over this is taxed at progressive rates up to 45.5%
But as well as subsidised childcare, tax pays for the family allowance, given directly to any mother with children below 18 years regardless of income; child benefits, awarded to single parents, children of widows/widowers, multi-children families and to parents who are studying, free schools and universities – where students still receive grants (remember them?).
Is it any wonder that 86% of Danish women return to work after having a baby? All children in Denmark are guaranteed a childcare place from age 26 weeks to when they start school, at six. “Vuggestue”, or nurseries, take children aged 0-3 years and employ qualified staff (called, rather formally, “social educators”) who follow a prescribed learning plan based around wellbeing and play. There’s also daily exercise, a hot meal (often cooked by the in-house chef) and a strong emphasis on arts and crafts. Many nurseries go above and beyond the call of duty, organising everything from birthday parties to “couples time” – caring for children outside of working hours to allow mums and dads to go home together and make more babies.
Staff at Grasshoppers kindergarten in North Fyn announced in September 2012 that they had started offering parents couples time.
Another in Billund, Jutland leads field trips to the home of any child whose birthday it is for an hour’s cake and chaos. The teacher arrives with the class, a parent pops home in their lunch hour with confectionery of some kind, the kids go mad for 50 minutes then the teacher takes them away again.
There’s no hanging around making small talk, social oneupmanship, or infringement on evenings or weekends. It’s like a ninja birthday squad, in and out.
Between three and six, children go to kindergarten where again, all staff are qualified and the range of experiences and activities broadens out to prepare them for school. From the very start, parents can choose whether to send their children to daycare for a full day, three quarters of the day or a half day. Pick-up times can be flexible, from around 3pm to 5pm, and most office working hours are 8am until 4pm.
Whereas the average cost of childcare in the UK starts at £400 a month for a part-time place (25 hours), Danes pay around 2,680 Danish kroner (£300) a month for 30 hours, including lunch.
Truss may have incensed many with her comments on childcare provision in the UK, but she appears to be right on one thing – as she told thinktank Policy Exchange, the Danes know that looking after children is an extremely important job and that the quality of staff is key.