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The Swedish daycare experiment has been a social disaster


We continue to republish several key articles from the TCW archive on the silent revolution in childcare that has taken place over the last thirty years. As with most revolutions it has not turned out well. Today the UK Government invests some £5billion a year in separating babies and young children from their mothers, an experiment that Sweden pioneered. Damaging to both children and mothers, this iniquity is all but forced on families by the once pro-family Conservative Party in government.

Challenging this heartless and uneconomic policy was a key motivation for starting this website nearly ten years ago. The Conservatives’ continuation of Labour’s anti-family, anti-maternal socialist revolution dismayed and appalled us. Nine years later its consequences for child misery, poor mental health, identity addiction and herd mentality are all too visible. Yet the evidence from Sweden, set out here by Jonas Himmelstrand, a Swedish childcare expert and educator, was there to be seen and should have warned politicians and parents of the poor to dire outcomes. It was ignored. The feminists and ideologues won, mothers repressed their instincts and parents swallowed the convenient myth that their children’s needs were being met.

This article was first published on September 19, 2015.

SWEDEN is a pioneer in public, tax-subsidised, out-of-home daycare. In 1975, the Swedish government made daycare available and affordable to all. Daycare expanded greatly during the 1980s and was made even cheaper in 2002 when a maximum fee (maxtaxa) was introduced. No matter how many children, no matter how many hours they spend in care, no matter how high your income – you never pay more than a fixed maximum amount, which [2015 figures] is about £180 a month. A low income family with one child would pay around £66 per month in 2015.

Daycare in Sweden is tax-subsidised at up to £15,000 per child annually [2015 figures]. Parents who stay home, in most municipalities, receive no benefits of any kind. In high-tax Sweden this forces many homecare families into poverty. The result, not surprisingly, is that daycare is the new norm in Sweden. More than 90 per cent of all children aged 18 months to five years are in daycare.

How Swedish daycare got its start

In 1978, the women’s caucus of the ruling Social Democratic Party, a party that was in power for the better part of 40 years, published The Family of the Future: A Socialistic Family Policy. The pamphlet strongly called for state-funded, affordable daycare. The goals were better outcomes in child social development and academic achievement, class equity and gender equity (or, as they put it, the liberation of women from their maternal instincts).

The results

Forty years later, official statistics show that the anticipated outcomes have not been realised. Poor outcomes are acknowledged across the political spectrum, but these are not connected to the daycare system in any way. Furthermore, there is surprisingly little interest in finding out why they exist at all. The following list shows what the outcomes are.

Rapidly declining psychological health in youth

Physical health among Swedish youth is among the best in the world, but the same cannot be said for psychological wellbeing. An official Swedish government investigation in 2006 showed that mental health among Swedish 15-year-olds declined faster from 1986 to 2002 than in 11 comparable European countries.

For girls, rates of poor mental health tripled during this period, from 9 per cent to 30 per cent. According to the latest report in 2014 from the Public Health Agency of Sweden the numbers have remained at these high levels.

The study is based on self-reported symptoms such as anxiety, fright and alarm – a point to which we will return. The increase happened in all groups of youth regardless of family situation, labour market situation or parental socioeconomic status. These self-reported studies are confirmed by a comparable increase in diagnosed psychiatric illness among youth during the same period. Suicide attempts among Swedish youth are also increasing.

The Public Health Agency of Sweden is careful about how to interpret these findings. They say they do not know the reasons, but possible causes could be a tougher labour market or cultural changes, like increased individualisation.

Increased sick leave among women

Sick leave for Swedish women is among the highest in Europe, with half leaving work before age 65 due to psycho-social stress.

A 2005 study showed that the first generation of Swedish mothers who used the new daycare system had an ‘extremely high’ rate of sick leave in contrast with other European countries.

Anecdotal evidence tells the story of stressed out mothers who feel coerced, both culturally and financially, to leave their one-year-olds in daycare. That many parents prefer to care for their youngest children at home is well known.

Deteriorating quality of parenthood

A study by school consultant Britta Johansson published in 2007 in the Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet under the title ‘To Dare to Set Limits’ showed that even healthy, intelligent and reasonable middle-class Swedish parents are losing their parental abilities. They are unaware of their children’s needs and are not able to set limits. She concludes: ‘The public offer of full day childcare seems to make many parents lose grip on their own responsibility. They believe/want that their children are raised by the daycare/school and believe that the experts on their children are found there.’

She states the obvious: ‘Daycare/school can never fill the gaps caused by parents’ lack of time or their lack of trust in themselves.’

This is confirmed by Swedish school teachers, counsellors and psychologists.

Highly gender-segregated labour market

Sweden is often hailed as a model for gender equality. It shouldn’t be.

The Swedish labour market is among the most gender-segregated in the world, not just in the West. Men typically work at well-paid jobs in the private sector, and women in lower-paid jobs in the public sector.

Although the rate of employment of Swedish women may be among the highest in the Western world, comparatively few reach top career positions, public or private. Sweden has never had a woman prime minister or president, differing from all other Nordic countries.

Rather, Swedish women have become ‘public mothers’ as they work largely in daycare centres, schools and the healthcare sector.

Plummeting school results

PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) is the tool used by the Operation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to rank country academic outcomes.

PISA studies show that Swedish school results for 15-year-olds in mathematics, science and reading have gone from above the OECD average in years 2000 and 2003 to well below the OECD average in 2012. No other country participating in PISA has seen a stronger decline in student performance in the past decade.

The results are so shocking that the Swedish Government asked the OECD to evaluate the Swedish school system.

The OECD report identifies several problems in the Swedish school system, one of which is the lack of high academic expectations on the pupils. Lead author Andreas Schleicher writes: ‘At the top of the list is the need to raise standards and aspirations for students.’ It emphasises the need for better teacher performance. However it does not mention daycare as a possible negative influence on Swedish school results. It seems clear from the report that the writers have not conceived of daycare as a possible correlation to later academic performance.

Disorder in Swedish classrooms

Both PISA and TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) research shows that Sweden has a high degree of disorder in its classrooms. This includes lateness, truancy, bad language and disorderly behaviour.

Low quality care, no questions asked

Swedish daycare has the reputation of being high quality. This was true during the 1980s when there were stricter regulations over group sizes and child-to-adult ratios.

By 1990, the average group size was almost 14 children with a child-to-adult ratio of 4.2 children per adult. Children under three were typically in groups of eight to nine with three adults. Today, many children under age three are in groups of 17 or more.

The number of adults may vary with sick leave – daycare staff are one of the top three categories in taking sick leave – and often substitutes are not used, to save money. This means that some days a group of 17 children under three can be looked after by only two adults, or even one, for several hours.

Some Swedish experts are concerned that Swedish daycare quality is in some cases so low that healthy child development may be at risk. Two books on the subject have been published recently: Daycare for the Smallest Children – for Good and for Bad (2009) and Are the Children Doing All Right in Daycare? (2014).

In the latter, Professor Ulla Waldenström asks for more research on the effects of daycare on children’s development. She notes that no substantial research has been done on the topic in Sweden since two small studies in the 1980s.

This is puzzling given the enormous possible effects of a phenomenon involving more than 90 per cent of all preschool children at the most sensitive ages, and with allocations of two to three per cent of national spending.

Before other countries copy Sweden’s public daycare system, they should be careful to consider what the results have been.

This article is reproduced by kind permission of Mercatornet

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Jonas Himmelstrand
Jonas Himmelstrand
Jonas Himmelstrand is a business consultant and founder of The Mireja Institute.

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