Do we really want to become Danes when it comes to childcare?

Ah, the Danish model of childcare. So much ink has been spilt over how great of a system it is, in terms of cost, quality as well as just the abundance/accessibility of it – and consequently how it really supports/allows mothers to get back to work after childbirth.
Yet we all know, we can’t all be Danes… or can we? The UK has one of the most expensive childcare service in the developed world, costing up to 300 pounds a week, increasing much more rapidly compared to wages or inflation. Despite the cost, the demand outstrips supply with shortages being reported across England – and finally due to the low wages of the sector, there are also concerns about the quality of care being provided.
But why could the Danes have such a great system while we don’t? Maybe it is because we don’t want it as much?
You can get it if you really want
Although so many reports and articles talk about how the British system fails to meet the standard compared to our northern neighbours, what is rarely talked about is what people really want governments to do in terms of providing childcare.
This was the topic of the recently published paper co-authored by Bart Meuleman, in European Societies(ungated), where we compared parent’s attitude towards public provided childcare services across Europe.
In the European Social Survey, the respondents are asked “How much responsibility do you think governments should have to ensure sufficient childcare services for working parents?” where they can answer 0 – not government’s responsibility at all, to 10-completely government’s responsibility.
Unsurprisingly, UK ranked as one of the lowest in terms of support for publically provided childcare, with only the Dutch and Slovakians being less supportive out of the 23 countries surveyed. On the other hand, the golden boy of childcare provision, Denmark ranked as one of the highest supporter, with an average 1.5 points higher compared to the UK.
So what is driving this result?
We set out different theories as to why people may be more supportive of publically provided childcare. A part of it can be explained by interest/need and ideological stances of individuals. In other words, those who are more likely to need childcare services are more likely to be supportive of public childcare – i.e., those with young children, working mothers, and those with lower income etc. Further, those who are more left leaning, supportive of the welfare state in general, but also those with progressive gender norms are likely to be more supportive.
In addition to this, we were interested in how the current provision structures may change people’s support for public childcare. What the data shows is that those who believe that the current childcare provision is good, they are more supportive of public childcare provision, above and beyond their ideological /political stances or their own interest in the matter. What is more, support increases exponentially as subjective perception of the current system rises. This relationship could also be found at the national level; i.e., in countries with greater public provision of childcare, and where in general people believe that the current provision of childcare is good, parents were much more supportive of public childcare provision.
Again going back to Denmark, obviously, the Danes in general believe that their system is great, and thus is highly supportive of it – compared to the Brits where the population believes that the system isn’t as great, no surprise there, and thus aren’t very supportive of it as well.
The chicken and the egg
But is support first or policy first? Although we were not able to disentangle this question from our own data, we can find some hints based on a study using the case of Norway, another perhaps not as well-known case of also good quality affordable childcare. Studies have shown how initially when public childcare provision was introduced, the support for it was low. However, once a critical mass made use of public childcare the support for it grew significantly. So can this happen for the UK?
The 30 free hours
The government has promised that the free childcare for 3-4 year olds will double next year autumn from 15 to 30 hours a week (during term time). Would such move raise support for public childcare as well? On one hand, as more people experience and benefit from a larger provision, that should increase support. Yet there are concerns that this promise in more hours without significant increase in government budget for the provision will lead to increase in costs for those using non-free hours, decrease in quality due to decline in hourly wages of staff, and also concerns on the increased inequality in childcare provision for different wage groups. All of this can drive down parent’s perceived perception of childcare service provision, which again is the most important factor explaining support. But then again, there are concerns whether the government would go through it at all given the lack of budgetary room.
Studies have shown time and time again, how affordable accessible childcare will allow mothers to take more active part in the labour market – allowing them to fully utilise their ever increasing human capital, and that childcare is a social investment in increasing intellectual capacities of children, especially from lower income backgrounds – all of which will be good news for the economy, which I think you might have noticed needs a bit of a boost. The Danes do it, the Swedes do it, and even the Norwegians do it. So can we as well?
Heejung Chung, Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy, University of Kent
A similar version of this article was published on The Conversation on the 14th of November 2016. Read it here.
photo credit: Vilseskogen @Flickr (creative commons copy right)