Present an overview and analysis of early childhood education and care policy and provision, in one of the OCED countries, other than the UK, that participated in the Thematic Review of Early Childhood Education and Care.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and developments (OECD), conducted a thematic review of education and care launched in March 1998. The overall goal of the OECD is to provide cross national information to improve policy making in early childhood education and care in the countries participating in the review, Australia, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, United Kingdom and United States. These countries provide a varied range of social, economic and political contexts, as well as wide-ranging policy approaches toward the education and care of young children.

There are a variety of reasons for the comparison of social welfare systems, Pringle, (1998) suggests that one reason is to identify and question the assumptions about social welfare that underpin our own system. This type of comparison enables us to deconstruct all welfare systems. For the purpose of this assessment there will follow an overview and analysis of early childhood education and care policy in Sweden. The report is based on a questionnaire used in the project and describes Swedish school-age childcare today and its development since the 1970 s. The OECD report has been written by Lars Gunnarsson, Professor at the Department of Education at the University of G�teborg.

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The Swedish review (as with all others), ranges from birth to compulsory school age and then continues to look at the transition to primary schooling. The review looks at the experience of the child’s first years of life using an holistic approach as a result, there has been a focus on the roles of the communities and environmental influences on the child’s learning and development. There has been a focus on the quality, access and equality in regards to policy development for regulations; staffing; programme content and implementation; family engagement and support; funding and financing.

Several influential improvements have taken place in ECEC in Sweden over the last few years. Not only has the sector been moved into the sphere of education, but also the system has been much extended and reformed. Every child now has a right to a place “within reasonable limit” (defined as not more than 3 months) has now been achieved in almost all municipalities. A government bill to make pre-school universal and free for 5-year olds has been drafted and, if a draft law before Parliament passes, will be extended to all 4-year olds. Fee inconsistency across municipalities, which sometimes hindered low-income parents from using services, has also been recognized in the draft law, which will introduce a low flat, parental fee for services. The municipalities will be compensated for loss of revenue by central government. Much effort has been invested also into improving quality, particularly for the older children.

When looking at Sweden’s social welfare history, it is imperative to look at it from the eighteenth century where it is rooted. The constant election of the Social Democratic governments from 1932 to 1976 has resulted in Sweden having a welfare state where social policy has been given a high priority. At such time, “Sweden was regarded as a prototype of a modern society” (Thomason, 1970). The Bourgeois coalitions of 1976 and 1979 brought no changes to the public sector and were in able to run the economy. However, the economy was recovered in 1982 and in subsequent elections in 1985 and 1988 with the return of the Social Democrats. The election of the Conservative government in 1991 that were committed to ‘rolling back’ the main focuses of the welfare state and ultimately to reduce tax levels indicates that it is no longer possible to take for granted that the Swedish system will continue untouched.

The modern family policy was introduced in the beginning of the thirties, at a time of repression and a low birth rate there was a need to improve living conditions for new born children, this was achieved by the introduction of a child allowance and money given to newly married couples. Modern housing was developed from a privilege to a civil right and the state helped financially to restructure the housing market. Policy today has moved on considerably as a result with around seventy five per cent of Swedish children living in nuclear families with their birth parents. However fifty percent of Swedish children are born out of wedlock, as it is common now that many couples have their first child before they get married. There is quite a high divorce rate and by the child’s seventieth birthday, one in three children has experienced divorce and as a result the child normally lives with their mother.

The welfare state doesn’t encourage the establishment of lone-parent families and lone parents continue to face significant economic disadvantage. Kindlund, 1988 stated “In 1981, 20 per cent of lone families were dependant on social assistance…there is no guaranteed income for lone parents, but ‘Advanced Maintenance Payments’ were introduced in 1937 and subsequently considerably improved. The index-linked, flat rate payment is about one and a half times the rate of child benefit but payment is conditional on the parent assisting in efforts to establish paternity” (page 89). This shows that not all lone mothers received this payment; in fact only around fourteen percent are entitled to the extra payments. About a third of the payments come directly from the child’s father and the other two thirds comes with the child-benefit. This example portrays the difference between the in equality of one and two parent families.

Childcare in Sweden has been given high priority for nearly three decades and is one of the cornerstones of Swedish family policy. Reforms in the childcare area have also been widely supported in the Swedish Riksdag . This has enabled implementation of a policy, whose guidelines were drawn up by the Government at the beginning of the 70’s and which has since then been subsequently developed – child care of high quality, expanded with the aim of providing full coverage, with the municipalities as the main organisers and financed out of public funds.

The key elements for Sweden’s family policy are extensive support both for early childhood education and care services and for an extended paid and job-protected parental leave. The major economic crisis that Sweden experienced in the early 1990s led to the major unemployment and in turn the rise of unemployment benefits. During this time when the economy was under pressure, the child poverty rate saw an increase to 8.5 percent in 1994 from only 6.0 percent in 1990.By the end of the decade, the economy had recovered and child poverty rates had stabilized at 5.3 percent. During this time of hard ship, the child benefit was reduced from $100 per month to $80, this was the first ever cut in the benefits. Also the extra money for larger families were eradicated.

The childcare remained but the quality of the care deteriorated. Around fifteen percent of the services were privatized and around half of these numbers are now run for profit. Despite the cuts made by the government, the school meals remained free to all children throughout the times of economic hardship. The policies for children have been protected and during 1998 child allowances had returned to their nominal high of a few years earlier and were worth about 7.5 percent of average wages. In a proportional meaning, the Scandinavian model is astonishingly most generous of all countries in the OECD, especially to children and their families.

When looking at social trends, on of the major issues of the time Sweden had experienced a decline in mortality, a decline in fertility, a decrease in family size, a decline in marriage and a rise in divorce. In 1990, there were about one million families with children constituting about 21 percent of households. Fertility rates, which had risen to be one of the highest in Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s (2.1) declined to 1.5 in 1998, the lowest since Sweden started registering birth statistics in the 18th century. The conventional interpretation is that the birth rate fell when the economy was in difficulty, but will increase again as the economy returns to its earlier pattern. (www1). The proportion of children has declined continuously whilst elderly people have increased proportionately. Children under 15 comprise of around one fifth of the population, similar to the section of people aged 65 or over. Sweden has one of the highest proportions of elderly people in the world. Life expectancy is about 80 years for men and 85 for women.

With regard the Swedish education system, during the last twenty-five years, Sweden has turned from an education system set apart by solid central management and detailed regulation to having one of the most decentralized, systems in Europe (OECD 1998). Alongside this change in the education system, market mechanisms have been introduced. These include more choice, vouchers and an increase in the competition. As a result, the State determines the educational objectives of pre-school, primary and secondary school, and controls the extent to which educational goals have been reached.

The majority of the other decisions that are made are assigned to the local levels and in some instances to the educational institution; these could include tasks such as class sizes. One of the unique aspects of the education system is the extensive public childcare for children aged 1-5. Lundahl, l at al (2002) state “If the compulsory pre-school classes for 6- year olds are included, 3/4 of all Swedish children (1-6 years) attend some kind of childcare or pre-school education (table 1). Almost two thirds (64 %) of all school children aged 7 – 9 go to public after school centers, mostly located in the schools”. (WWW3). The large provision for early years can be attributed to a need for working mothers to place their children in day care.

One of the key issues regarding the Swedish welfare state at present is the high rates of females in the labour market however; the majority of these women are working part-time. This growth of women in employment occurred in the 1960s and onwards. Mothers tend to enter employment after the compulsory school age, which in Sweden is seven. With reference to marriage in Sweden, there is an increasing tendency toward cohabitation without marriage as an acceptable societal norm. About 80 percent of children live with their married or cohabitating parents. About 20 percent live with a lone parent (usually their mother). Maternity leave is governed by The Swedish Parent Insurance benefit, established in 1974 and reviewed subsequently. It is a social insurance benefit, to which all parents are entitled when giving birth or adopting a child. The insurance covers a right to leave from work and a right to financial support during the leave.

The policy provides for 14 weeks of maternity leave (including up to 7 weeks before birth) and two weeks of paternity leave after childbirth. Parental leave follows for up to 18 months, of which the father must take at least two months. The first 13 months of leave is paid at 80 percent of wages up to a ceiling another three months at a low flat rate, and the final three months are unpaid, but still job-protected. The parental leave can be collective (to cover 25 percent, 50 percent, or 100 percent of time off from work) or shared by mother and father. All eligible mothers take advantage of the leave. About 75 percent of eligible fathers took some part of the leave in 1994, but this amounted to only 15 percent of all parental leave taken. Nonetheless, on average, fathers were on leave for 44 days.

Figures from Ginsburg, 1993 suggest that the role of the father in the Swedish child care is very gender specific, in 1984, “only 1.9 per cent of days taken are used by fathers, although this rises to 9 percent in the period after the first six months” (page 195). Since 1974, father’s usage of paternal leave has increased relative with mothers but since 1980s there has been a modest decrease. Rapaport and Moss, 1989, believe that this is because the fathers take a greater share of family responsibility”. This portrays traditional role models that are still apparent within Swedish society.

Policies increasing the quantity of care and encourage high quality have been forcefully backed by the Parliament and by the public. According to a recent discussions Swedish childcare has two objectives (1) to make it possible for parents to combine employment or studies with family life, and (2) to support and encourage children’s development and learning and help them grow up under conditions that are conducive to their well -being.

Since the early 1970s, when the dual goals were officially laid down with the launching of a large-scale public childcare program, the program has been viewed as including both care and education. In recent years, the educational policy aspects became increasingly important and in July 1996 responsibility for public childcare was transferred from the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs to the Ministry of Education and Science. Moss, 1994 suggests that underlying these demands are different views of the welfare state and it’s responsibilities.

In conclusion, a number of contrasting theories have been put forward regarding Swedish family policy, the common theme in the majority of these reports suggest the reforms since the 1960’s are linked directly with the demand and opportunities open to women in the employment sphere of society. There is still patriarchy within the Swedish society as women are much more reliant on the welfare state for paid employment than men and their day to day life’s depend much more on the services provided by the welfare state. Despite this, it is still suggested, (Gould; 1994) that Sweden possesses one of the most comprehensive and generous systems of welfare provision in Europe and the world.

Reference:

* Ginsburg, N (1993), cited in Comparing Welfare States, Britain in International Context. Open University Press.

* Gould, A. (1994). European Welfare Policy. Macmillan Press Ltd.

* Kindlund. (1988). ‘Sweden’ in Kahn, A and Kamerman, S (eds) Child Support: cross cultural Studies, Sage.

* Moss, P and Pence, A. (1994). Valuing Quality in Early Childhood Services.

* Pringle, K. 1998. Children and Social Welfare in Europe Open University Press.

* Rapaport, R and Moss, P. (1989). Exploring ways of Integrating Men and Women as Equals at Work, unpublished report by the Ford Foundation

* Tomasson, R. (1970). Sweden: Prototype of Modern Society. Random House.

INTERNET

* http://www.oecd.org/oecd/pages/home/displaygeneral/0,3380,EN-links_abstract-602-20-no-no-1259-602,00.html

* WWW1 http://www.childpolicyintl.org/countries/sweden.pdf.

* (www3) OECD (1998) Education at a glance. OECD indicators 1998 (Paris: OECD/CERI).

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