Affordable, quality ECEC remains out of reach in many wealthy countries, UNICEF says
Australia has ranked low in terms of access to affordable, quality childcare, a new report from UNICEF’s Office of Research – Innocenti has found, while countries like Luxembourg, Iceland, Sweden, Norway and Germany rank the highest.
Slovakia, the United States, Cyprus, and Switzerland joined Australia at the bottom of the table, which ranks countries across the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the European Union (EU) based on their national childcare and parental leave policies. These policies include the accessibility, affordability and quality of childcare for children between birth and school age.
Where Do Rich Countries Stand on Childcare? notes that the high-performing countries combine affordability with quality of organised childcare. At the same time, they offer long and well-paid leave to both mothers and fathers, giving parents a choice in how to care for their children.
“To give children the best start in life, we need to help parents build the nurturing and loving environment that is so critical to children’s learning, emotional well-being and social development,” Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director said. “Government investment in family-friendly policies, including childcare, ensures parents have the necessary time, resources and services they need to support their children at every stage of their development.”
While it is recognised that paid prenatal, maternal and paternal leave enables parents to bond with their babies, supports healthy child development, lowers maternal depression and increases gender equality, the report notes that less than half of countries offer at least 32 weeks of leave at full pay for mothers.
When paternal leave is offered – always substantially shorter – few fathers take it because of professional and cultural barriers, though this trend is changing.
Once this paid leave support ends and parents are ready to return to work, access to high-quality early childhood education and care (ECEC) can help parents secure a balance between caring for their children, paid work, and taking care of their own well-being, report authors noted. Despite this, the end of paid leave rarely coincides with the start of entitlements to affordable childcare, leaving families struggling to fill this gap.
Lack of affordable ECEC is also a key barrier for parents, compounding socioeconomic inequalities within countries.
In high-income households, nearly half of children under three years of age attend ECEC, compared to less than 1 in 3 in low-income households.
In Ireland, New Zealand and Switzerland, a couple with an average income would need to spend between a third and a half of one salary to pay for two children in childcare. While most rich countries heavily subsidise childcare for vulnerable families, single parents with low income in Slovakia, Cyprus and the United States would still need to pay up to half of their salary.
The report notes that COVID-19-related closures of ECEC facilities have pushed families of young children into further difficult circumstances. Many parents have been struggling to balance childcare and the responsibilities of their employment, while others have lost their jobs entirely.
The research brief offers guidance on how governments and the private sector can build on their childcare and parental leave policies, including through:
- A mix of paid maternity, paternity and parental leave for mothers and fathers in the prenatal period and the first full year of a child’s life;
- Parental leave that is gender-sensitive and gender-equitable to ensure neither parent is overburdened with home care;
- Leave that is available to full-time staff and those in non-standard forms of employment, such as part-time, and support that includes costs related to birth and parental care for parents in other life circumstances, such as the uninsured;
- Affordable childcare that starts at the end of parental leave, so there is no gap in available support;
- Accessible, flexible and affordable quality childcare available to all children irrespective of family circumstances;
- Publicly provided and regulated childcare to facilitate access to low-income families and ensure standards in provision;
- Investment in the childcare workforce, their qualifications and their working conditions, to encourage the highest possible standards;
- Encouragement of employers to provide inclusive and gender-sensitive paid leave entitlements, flexible work arrangements and childcare support systems; and,
- Alignment of childcare services with other family care policies, such as universal child benefits, to reduce the risk of children’s existing inequalities being replicated in public childcare settings.
“Giving parents the support necessary to provide children with a strong foundation is not just good social policy, it is good economic policy,” Ms Fore said.
To read the report in its entirety, please see here.