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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