Europe sets British an example on childcare

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN has little statutory childcare provision and little help with childcare for mothers. Usually the limited number of public childcare places available are used for children deemed to be "at risk".

Comparing Britain with three other countries shows that greater state involvement in caring for children has a twofold purpose: to encourage parents into employment and to help children to develop.

Only 41 per cent of lone mothers in Britain are employed, compared with 82 per cent in France, and 70 per cent in Sweden. In Europe only Germany, the Netherlands and Ireland have lower employment rates.

This week ,The Independent launched its campaign for a tax allowance for working mothers, urging the Chancellor to invest in the nation's children.

Parents in Britain pay a higher percentage of the cost of childcare than in virtually any other advanced economy. We feel that there are lessons to be learned from other countries and with 1.1 million women expected to enter the workforce by 2006, unless something is done about childcare we face serious problems. In France, childcare is heavily subsidised and there is a long tradition of early childhood education in the public sector.

After creches for children up to three years old, the state makes universal educational provision for children aged three to school-entry age at ecoles maternelles, which are provided to help parents in employment but also to help the child develop.

These state-funded institutions are an accepted way of life for children and 35 per cent of three- to six-year olds attend. In recent years, two- year-olds have also been admitted and the handful of ecoles maternelles that are run privately receive state subsidies.

Alternatively, French families can employ an assistante maternelle, or childminder. They receive financial support in the form of a grant and a payment to cover social security contributions.

For schoolchildren up to 17 years there are recreation centres, Centre de Loisirs sans Hebergement, that provide care from 8am to 6pm or 7pm. These come under the ministry for youth and sport at a local level and are sometimes subsidised by private companies.

Scandinavia has long been seen as a symbol of child-friendly policies. In Sweden, public funds meet the costs of day care for 72 per cent of three to six-year-olds (compulsory schooling does not start until seven).

Parents are provided with daghem - day-care centres, typically open between 6am and 6.30pm - and those who want to stay at home to look after their children qualify for payment by the state of 360 days on 90 per cent of their previous income, plus an additional 90 days on a flat daily rate of SKr60 (about pounds 6).

Other services include Sexarsverksamhet, pre-primary schooling for children and Fritidshem, centres providing care and recreation for school-age children up to 12 years.

The United States is one of the countries Britain is watching most closely after President Bill Clinton's State of the Union address last month. There, the drive to get lone parents off welfare has been run in conjunction with more childcare provision.

The President announced last month that $20bn (pounds 12.5bn) would be spent over the next five years on childcare to help working families pay for care, to build after-school programmes and to emphasis quality of care through research and monitoring. The number of children receiving childcare subsidies will double to two million by the year 2003 and tax credits are also to be increased for three million families.

A new tax credit will also be offered to businesses that offer childcare services to their employees. After-school care will also be opened up to 500,000 children - at present there are five million latchkey kids in the US.

Head Start, the scheme for children from a deprived background which has shown good results has also been given more money to reach one million children by 2002.