Thursday 22 August 2019

Fairytale in Finland: Why Ireland needs to look towards Scandinavia to fix our messy childcare system

Our childcare system is in disarray, a prohibitively expensive and badly regulated mess. But how do we fix it? In Part One of a major series, our reporter visits the Finnish capital to see how the Scandinavians get it right

Cathaoir Sona with his son, Kellan
Cathaoir Sona with his son, Kellan
John Meagher

John Meagher

It all starts with a box. A brightly coloured cardboard box that is sent by the state to every expectant mother in Finland. It is colloquially known as The Baby Box and it's packed with gender-neutral clothes, cloth nappies, blankets, a picture book and a myriad other baby care items to help welcome another Finnish child into the world. And it's completely free.

The box doubles as a cot thanks to its built-in mattress and many children spend their first weeks sleeping in it. It has been a tradition in Finland for the past 77 years and its remarkable design is often cited as a reason why the country now has one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world.

Mention the box to any Finn, and their sense of pride is immense. It's seen as a symbol of equality and it is given to every mother, irrespective of social background, age, or where they live in the country. It is possible to receive money rather than the box, but nobody ever does that. The box means too much and is often kept as a souvenir of a happy time.

Finland is one of the very best countries in the world in which to be a parent. From the time a child is born to the day they leave university, a Finnish parent barely has to put their hand in their pocket. Childcare and education are subsidised by the state to such an extent that both are effectively free.

Mention Ireland's prohibitively expensive crèche costs to anyone in Finland, and the reaction flits from puzzled to stunned. Day care between the ages of six months and six years is completely free in the municipal system for the low-waged, while high earners pay a fee per child that's capped at €283 per month. That's four times cheaper than the typical crèche cost in Ireland and, remember, it's only a small minority who have to pay such an amount. Some opt to go with private crèches, but these too are so heavily subsidised that it would be unthinkable to pay more than €400 a month.

Read more: Parenting in Norway: 'Our five-day-a-week kindergarten only costs us €279 a month...'

Day care centres are in plentiful supply and are very well resourced. A typical Helsinki facility might have 80 children on its books at any one time, with up to 20 police-vetted staff members looking after them. Carefully designed food options, which change every day, are provided free of charge. A large selection of educational toys are provided and there is always adequate outdoor access, including during the winter months when heavy snowfall is a given. The children are merely wrapped up well.

But winter feels a long way away from Helsinki this week with late summer sunshine casting a fine glow on this compact and elegant capital.

At a small park just off Helsinki's so-called Design District, two mothers - Anni and Ronja - have just picked up their children from separate crèches in the area. They are the closest childcare facilities to their respective homes, just a short tram ride away each, and they were their first choices. Both were happy to avail of the generous maternity allowance: nine months' paid leave, and the provision to be able to take time off at various stages in the first three years of their children's lives.

Each pay their crèche a small monthly fee - less than €120 - to send their daughters to day care and they say they have never considered what a good situation they have until they hear the lot of Irish parents. "As much as €1,000 a month for one child," Anni says in disbelief. "Are people paid huge salaries in Ireland?"

"The tax must be very low there," Ronja chimes in. When she hears that in many cases, tax is charged at a higher rate in Ireland than it is in Finland, her brow creases. "But how do Irish people afford this? And what happens if they have more than one child?"

It's a sentiment echoed by social worker and mother-of-three Pia Ohman who says she has come to realise how effective Finland's pre-school care is when hearing about the far-from-ideal scenarios in other countries. Her biggest concern was finding a Swedish-speaking school for her children, as she is part of the 6pc of the Finnish population who have Swedish as their mother tongue.

Read more: Parenting in Finland: 'I don't have to search for a school. They're all good'

She has concerns about proposals by the government to increase the numbers in childcare per staff member, just one of the legacies of a recession that has hurt Finland more than its Scandinavian neighbours. "We have to be careful not to lose the high standard we have at present," she says, "and while it is not perfect, we realise that it is better here than in many other European countries."

She speaks with a sense of modesty that seems to be a national characteristic. Finland has regularly come first in international studies on pre-school care, most recently by the Economist's Intelligence Unit. It's no mean feat, especially when one considers that children don't start school here until they have reached their seventh birthday.

Timo Saavalainen, chairman of the Teacher's Association, says this late start has no impact on their ability to learn to read and write. In fact, a relaxed culture of education through play in the pre-school years may make them more receptive to more structured learning once they start school.

While Irish children often steal a two or three-year march on their Finnish counterparts when it comes to learning to read and write, Finland beats us when it comes to literacy levels of 15-year-olds. In fact, the country comes close to the top in the global PISA tests, which analyses the quality of education systems around the world. (Despite this, some critics say the results show Finland is very good at raising the bar for the average student, but not as impressive when it comes to the brighter ones.)

Timo is convinced that Finland's long-established childcare system is the bedrock on which its celebrated education system is based. "Every child has a right to pre-school care," he says, "irrespective of the earning potential of the parent. They also have the right to a free education. You don't have to pay in university either. Finland takes this responsibility very seriously."

There are no fee-paying schools in Finland, with the exception of a handful for the children of foreign diplomats and business people. The concept of paying for education is utterly alien in Finnish society, and when they hear that private Irish schools charge up to €10,000 for a school year, they are horrified by the thought. The idea that's drummed into heads is that everyone, irrespective of economic circumstance, is entitled to free childcare and a free school and that the quality should be high always.

While there is some evidence that certain Helsinki schools are more in demand than others, children tend to go to the local school and there is no difficulty finding a place for them. Finland does not have the culture where parents ring around schools from the maternity ward hoping a secure a place for their child five years from now. Furthermore, the gap between the best performing and the worst performing schools is among the narrowest in the world, and there is a far greater socio-demographic mix in a typical Helsinki school than you would find in Dublin.

Unlike Ireland, the pre-school year normally takes place in the school where the child is set to attend. There is no charge for this in all circumstances. The emphasis is on learning through play and 'classrooms' are very relaxed. It will provide an introduction to Finnish children about what to expect from school until they leave at 16: either to go to secondary high, if following an academic route; or a vocational school, if interested in a trade.

Kirkkojarvi Comprehensive School is located in a city of Espoo - a half hour's train journey from Helsinki Central Station. It is the sort of high-achieving, but ultra-relaxed school in an airy, architect-designed building, that progressive Irish educationalists must dream about. A pre-school, primary school and secondary school rolled into one, its 600 pupils from more than 30 nationalities are catered for by 62 teachers.

The principal, Kari Louhivuori, is as chilled out as you will ever meet and once you have spent some time in his company, it comes as little surprise that when he's not presiding over this school, he's in a band knocking out Beatles and Kinks covers. "Mutual respect between teachers and students is fostered at an early age," he says. "It's there in crèche and pre-school. There's a relaxed relationship between the two."

Children pad around in their socks - a Scandinavian affectation - and are not compelled to sit at rows of desks. In a maths class, a pair of boys make themselves comfortable squatting on the floor near the door. Not only does their teacher not mind, she encourages her pupils to get as comfortable as possible.

Like all schools in Finland, the teachers are referred to by their first names but it does not denote a lack of respect. Despite salaries that are in line with those of Ireland, teaching is one of the most covetable professions in Finland, up there with medicine. Only 7pc of those who apply to Helsinki's teacher training colleges are accepted.

"It's a sign of the importance that Finns place on the care and education of their children," Kari says, "and it's something that's there from the very start of a child's life. We're a small country without resources like, for instance, Norway's oil, so we have to make sure our workforce are as well educated as possible. And not just that: we want them to have the social skills too, and that's every bit as important in our education system as academic achievement.

"It's all well and good to do well in the PISA test, but the most important thing for us is that every child is helped, no matter what they're academic level might be, or if they are from an immigrant background and cannot speak Finnish." And that help begins from the moment they are born.

'The Baby Box should be given to Irish parents'

"My son is receiving good care, though through Finnish which does make his English learning a bit of a struggle but that is more to do with unique circumstance rather than the system. [Cathaoir and his partner are separated and she has guardianship].

"I have no experience of being a father in Ireland, but from my experience of Finland, I was given a relatively good period of time to be at home with my son in his early months without having to worry about the social welfare office.

"The Baby Box is an idea that should exist in all countries (a starter kit of clothes, sheets and toys that can even be used as a bed) - Ireland, take note. It really does give families a much needed start out to life of parenthood, even if you are capable of buying all the necessary items, it removes all the stresses and worries of being a parent.

"Oulu is a city of over 200,000 citizens so it is not so rural. In comparison to Helsinki, I feel Oulu gives my son as many opportunities as any other city. Of course, the southern cities will be more open to English language speakers and the job opportunities are far greater in the capital but Oulu is cheaper, quieter without losing the city feel and a safe, friendly city to grow up in.

"Finland is often regarded as an egalitarian place, but I'm not so sure I'd agree. Women still fall short in terms of salary equality and I feel that in cases of parental rights, men suffer greatly.

''if the mother does not want the father to have access to the child, despite the father being legally entitled to see his child, there seems to be little the child welfare system can do without a long drawn-out process. Luckily for me, I do not have such troubles, but it is unsettling to know how easily it could happen."

Naughty corner: how Ireland  lags behind

The Irish Government spends 0.15pc GDP per year on pre-school services.

The OECD average is five times that at 0.75pc.

Across the EU, childcare costs around 12pc of a family’s income.

In Ireland it accounts for approx 35pc.

Finnish childcare costs €283 per month in municipal crèches.

Norway caps the monthly cost of childcare at about £280 a month and the government makes up the difference.

Ireland averages over €750 per month, higher in urban areas like Dublin.

France provides childcare from the age of two months to three years. Crèches are funded by local authorities but are means tested.

Spain provides childcare for the whole day, costing approx €250 per month (including lunch).

Germany passed a law in 2013 enshrining a legal right to a childcare place, subsidised by the state.

Belgium provides full-day services for 30pc of children under three and all children aged three to school age.

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