Policy Brief – Childcare and early education systems: A comparative literature review of liberal welfare states

Policy Brief – Childcare and early education systems: A comparative literature review of liberal welfare states
Early Childhood Ireland Policy Brief

Late last year the Fawcett Society, who campaign for gender equality in the United Kingdom, launched their report Childcare and early education systems: A comparative literature review of liberal welfare states. This comprehensive report reviews the system of Early Years provision in England, bemoaning its lack of vision, strategy and chronic underfunding. Moreover, a barrier to quality provision is recognised as being a system of public-private provision with a wildly varying range of scales of delivery, something that is particularly of interest in an Irish context.

Affordable childcare linked to women’s participation in the labour market

The paper also highlighted a point that has been a running theme in our recent Policy Briefs: that access to affordable and accessible Early Years provision increases women’s labour market participation. What the authors highlight here as being particularly exemplary of this fact is the early years system in the Quebec province of Canada, where parents pay a low flat fee for a universal system of early years. According to this paper, this has resulted in a significant increased rate at which women are employed or actively seeking work. For the authors, this system should be considered alongside other measures as they note that smaller scale initiatives in England have helped to support women’s labour market participation.

Childminding

Of interest also is the prevalence of childminding in each of the countries mentioned in the review. For most of these systems, childminding is a smaller feature. Childminders provide 12% of places in England, higher than the 7% in Switzerland, Australia and New Zealand. Japan does not appear to have a regulated childminding sector, but in Canada the proportion is much higher, at 19%. Australia and New Zealand have seen a decline in childminders in recent years. Given the recent decrease in available childminding provision, the English system should not take for granted the number of flexible places this form of provision offers. Childminders inclusion and consideration in national systems should be strongly considered, something that Ireland has done with the National Action Plan for Childminding 2021-2028.

COVID-19’s Effect on Reforms

The paper further notes that other countries are innovating and reforming, partly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Several of the countries mentioned throughout the review have very recently adopted large-scale reforms or are in the process of proposing, planning or implementing them. These changes have been prompted due to a mix of factors including a need to engage mothers in the labour market, supporting the middle class, and responding to the impact of Covid on mothers’ unpaid work. For example, Japan is offering free care for all 3–5-year-olds. Canada is expanding the Quebec model discussed earlier in this brief, reducing average fees per day to $10 by 2026. Switzerland is more than doubling their tax allowance for early years care, and Australia is offering over $1bn of higher subsidies to larger families. The UK is alone in the countries explored in that the government has not publicly acknowledged the case for reform of the system – reform which is urgently needed. Change is present in Ireland too. Since the pandemic, there has been a widening of the eligibility of the National Childcare Scheme (NCS), the removal of wraparound care in the NCS, the establishment of a new stream of funding in Core Funding and the introduction of a Employment Regulation Order establishing minimum rates of pay in the Early Years and School Age Care sector. You can read more about the changes in Ireland in Part 1 and Part 2 of our 2022 review.

Challenges

However, with widescale change comes potential pitfalls and challenges. The authors argue that careful planning is required when implementing major reform, given issues where reforms have taken place at speed: in Quebec, problems of high staff demand against low staff supply, incentives for long hours of day care, and quickly ramping up new private sector provision led to trade-offs on quality and increases in behavioural difficulties in children. Issues regarding high staff demand are certainly present in the Irish system. However, where quality is prioritised, the risks to child development outcomes of long hours and expansion are mitigated and, in cases, safeguarded. In Japan, despite children receiving long hours (40-50 per week) of centre-based care, detrimental effects on behaviour are not seen, since quality is reportedly high. Questions remain here regarding the indicators of quality, something that can vary wildly across systems even in close geographic proximity.

Ultimately the paper argues that England would be better served adopting alternative systems, that place a priority on gender equality and high-quality outcomes for children. A public-private system may not be optimal, with a non-profit system being notable in terms of provision of high-quality early years across a number of national systems. You can read this paper from the Fawcett Society on their website.

If you would like to know more about this report and how it relates to Ireland, or speak to us about our work, please get in touch with our Policy, Advocacy and Campaigning team at policy@earlychildhoodireland.ie.

 

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