A sure start in Sweden

    Bronwen Cohen  is chief executive of Children in
    Scotland and visiting professor at the Thomas Coram Research Unit,
    University of London. From 1986-96 she was the UK member of the
    European Commission’s Childcare Network and is co-author of A
    New Deal for Children? Reforming Education and Care in
    , Scotland and Sweden, just published by The Policy

    The pens are out again: manifestos are being drawn up for the
    next Westminster election. And the signs are that a major rethink
    is under way on early years policy. Former cabinet minister Stephen
    Byers, who is working on it, has written about the need to rethink
    the National Childcare Strategy and move beyond a “highly targeted

    He wrote in The Guardian on 30 April: “If we are serious
    about providing universal child care so that all parents have a
    genuine choice at a price they can afford, we need to rethink the
    National Childcare Strategy. We need to ensure an equal start by
    caring for children from different economic groups in the same

    The search is on for a way to help all parents access child care.
    What appears to be missing from this analysis at present is any
    reference to the long-standing divide – conceptual and structural –
    between education and child care and how these relate to family

    Since 1997 the UK has been engaged in joining up services. And, at
    a national departmental level in England and Scotland, pre-school
    and school age child care have been brought together alongside
    schools within the education system. The move to greater
    integration reflected concerns over the early years muddle and low
    levels of provision with different providers and focus, varying
    from child care for working parents to family support. Although
    nursery education was free, public funding for other services was
    largely limited to children and families described as “in need”.
    And schools might offer nursery education but not child care.

    In 1997, the incoming Labour government recognised the muddle.
    Although its most prominent commitment was to nursery education,
    its manifesto referred to setting up early excellence centres
    combining education and care. In Scotland, it promised a strategy
    to “draw together the interests of working parents, the educational
    needs of children and the social welfare needs of families”. The
    National Childcare Strategy, published a year later, referred to
    the need for “better integration of early education and child

    Much attention and considerable resources have been directed
    towards early years services. In disadvantaged areas, two major
    programmes – the UK-wide Sure Start and the children’s centres
    programme in England – have recognised the need for a holistic
    approach to meeting the needs of children and their families. So
    why are we still talking about child care and education as though
    they are separate? Why an interdepartmental child care review in
    England? Why child care tax credits? Is it language or policy that
    fails us?

    In Sweden, which preceded England and Scotland in bringing together
    the same responsibilities in its education ministry, the transfer
    of its already extensive and well funded system of pre-school and
    school age child care services to education enabled access to
    services to be extended beyond those in paid employment. An
    employment-related system of early childhood services has become a
    universal entitlement with a maximum level of parental fee six
    times less than the average cost of a nursery place for parents

    But the transfer also formed part of an ambitious educational
    reform, covering children from birth to 19, which seeks not only to
    integrate education and care but to develop new and equal
    relationships between pre-schools, schools and school-age child
    care. Barbara Martin-Korpi, of Sweden’s education ministry, says:
    “The reform programme identified pre-school education as the first
    step to realising a vision of life-long learning.” A curriculum for
    0-6 year olds was introduced and the training of teachers and child
    care workers was integrated. When the first intake of students
    graduate this year there will be a single qualification – as a
    teacher – although with different age and subject

    Government policies in England and Scotland have emphasised the
    need for a close relationship between education and care, and
    aspire to go further in creating what has been described in
    Scotland as a single unitary system for children’s services. But
    decades of under-investment have resulted in an uphill struggle.
    And the agenda has largely been set by high levels of child poverty
    and the need to develop services. Public investment has been
    targeted at disadvantaged areas and families; the development of
    child care for other families has been left mainly to the market,
    stimulated through tax credits. Integration of education and care
    has been limited and most apparent in early education for three and
    four year olds. Structurally and conceptually, child care and
    education remain divided. As a result services remain fragmented,
    with a variety of providers and staffed by a divided

    A National Audit Office report on England published earlier this
    year found that the government has spent £14bn since 1998 on
    early years services but has fallen far short of its target of new
    places for a million children by 2004. The net increase – taking
    account of closures – is 325,000 places, of which only 96,000 are
    for pre-school children. The report says there is considerable
    local variation with few providers able to cater for disabled
    children. Its recommendations include a greater focus on developing
    integrated provision and ensuring that schools play a key role in
    expanding provision in deprived areas.

    So, should Byers follow Margaret Hodge’s recent example and visit
    Sweden? Journalist Polly Toynbee, who accompanied Hodge on a visit
    in February, wrote in The Guardian on 5 March that Labour is now
    looking hard at Sweden: their model “still looks distant, yet
    perhaps less impossible for a third-term Labour regime”.

    Certainly, the Swedish system has largely achieved Byers’
    aspiration of giving children an equal start in life through almost
    universal, affordable and popular services for children from the
    age of one. And a focus on rights rather than need has not been at
    the expense of the most vulnerable in society. On the contrary,
    child poverty rates in Sweden remain substantially lower than the
    UK – in 2001 they were 7 per cent compared with 24 per cent.

    Yes, it does cost more. In 2002-3 Sweden spent 1.9 per cent of its
    gross domestic product on early years services while England spent
    0.4 per cent. Swedes pay higher taxes, but Swedish families get a
    lot back. And Swedish reforms offer lessons in economics as well as
    pedagogy. “Integration offered some financial advantages,” says
    Martin-Korpi. “Running two parallel systems did not make a lot of
    sense.” Continuing with the plethora of services and projects and
    funding streams that characterise UK provision makes even less
    sense, and may ultimately prove more expensive. And it seems
    unlikely that it can offer children an equal start.

    Nordic solution

    • Every child has a right to a full-time place in a pre-school or
      school age centre from 12 months to 12 years.
    • Swedish parents have 480 days of paid parental leave, including
      390 days paid at 80 per cent of earnings and 120 days of paid leave
      per child a year to care for a sick child.
    • Half of pre-school workers have a three-year university
      training and, since 2001, the initial education of pre-school and
      school-age workers and teachers has been integrated into one
    • Increasingly, “whole-day” schools combine education and school
      age child care and are often integrated with early years services
      under the school principal.


    Despite a policy emphasis on early years integration, there is a
    continuing conceptual and structural divide in England and Scotland
    between child care and education. Public investment has largely
    gone into tackling poverty while child care provision has been left
    to the private sector. By contrast, Sweden has used the transfer of
    its early years services to education to establish a universal
    entitlement for children and develop relationships between
    pre-schools, schools and school age child care.

    Further information

    – Bronwen Cohen, Peter Moss, Pat Petrie and Jennifer Wallace,
    A New Deal for Children? Reforming Education and Care in
    England, Scotland and Sweden
    . Price £19.99 (plus
    £2.75 p&p). Available from Marston Book Services. Tel:
    01235 465500. www.policypress.org.uk 

    Children in Europe, Issue 5: “Early Years Services:
    Understanding and Diversifying the Workforce”. Online at www.childreninscotland.org.uk/cie
    or e-mail sburton@children 

    – National Audit Office, Early Years: Progress in Developing
    High Quality Child Care and Early Education Accessible to All
    Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General HC 268 Session
    2003-4, The Stationery Office, Price £10. Available from 

    – NCVCCO, Briefing on Children’s Trusts, 2003. Price
    £1.25 non-members from ncvcco.org.uk/p.asp?curr=p&id=7 

    – Scottish Executive, For Scotland’s Children: Better
    Integrated Children’s Services
    , 2001. www.scotland.gov.uk/library3/education/fcsr-00.asp 

    – Scottish Executive, Integrated Strategy for the Early
    Years, 2004
    . From: www.scotland.gov.uk/library5/education/isey-00.asp 

    Contact the author

    Contact Bronwen Cohen at bcohen@childreninscotland.org.uk

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