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Childcare: How the UK compares to rest of Europe


Politicians are very keen on pointing to the different childcare systems in other countries in Europe and saying how superior they are to the childcare system in the UK.

Last year, childcare minister, Elizabeth Truss, launched an attack on nurseries in Britain, saying many are “chaotic”, “where children are running around” and “there’s no sense of purpose”.

She called for a traditional approach to be adopted in early years settings, similar to that in France, where she said “children get into the habit of waiting their turn, of saying hello to the teacher when they come into the room.”

“What you notice in French nurseries is just how calm they are. All of their classes are structured and led by teachers. It’s a requirement.”

After Ms Truss made the comments, Ofsted confirmed that she had only been on six official visits to nurseries in the UK.

Nurseries in Britain were quick to defend themselves, with Sarah Steel, managing director of the Old Station Nursery chain saying she could show her some “purposeful, engaged children” in her nurseries, saying: “The political point scoring which has invaded what we do is tiresome and unfair on the staff who deliver high quality care and work so hard to help children to develop their own interests”.

Only Switzerland more expensive than UK for childcare

Another common complaint by politicians and parents is the cost of childcare in the UK, with the average British family spending over a quarter of their income on childcare. The only other country in the whole world which is more expensive for childcare is Switzerland.

However, interestingly the UK has a higher than average national spend on childcare, spending 0.4 per cent of its GDP on childcare. This is higher than all the other countries, bar Norway which is 0.7 per cent, Denmark is 0.8 per cent, Spain which is 0.5 per cent and Sweden, which is 0.6 per cent. Luxembourg and France is on a par with the UK at 0.4 per cent.

The cost of childcare in the UK is thought to be so much more expensive because the ratio of carer per child, as required by Ofsted is much higher than in other countries.

Ms Truss did try and reduce the ratios last year in a bid to make childcare cheaper but the Government did a U-turn after an outcry by parents and the childcare sector.

Her decision to uphold childcare systems in other European countries as the Gold Standard and denigrate childcare in Britain has angered the early years sector.

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance said: “The Minister continues to make disparaging comments about the quality of childcare in the UK. She is quick to praise childcare in other countries but has little good to say about childcare here.

“She argues that other European countries, like France, operate with looser ratios – so why can’t we? She fails to mention that the independent Starting Well report published by the Economic Intelligence Unit – which, incidentally, was extensively quoted by the Department for Education during the launch of the Childcare Commission consultation – ranks the UK’s childcare system as fourth in the world, above France, Denmark and the Netherlands. Surely this is something to celebrate?” has examined the childcare costs, ratios and school starting ages for the countries often lauded by politicians in the UK for being superior to that in Britain.


All three and four-year-olds in England are eligible for 15 hours of free childcare, in Wales it is 10 hours and in Scotland, 12.5 hours. In England, from September 2013, the Government pledged to provide 130,000 free part-time nursery places for disadvantaged two-year-olds. It plans to double that from September 2014.

Cost of childcare: The recent Family and Childcare Trust's annual report found many parents are spending more on childcare than their mortgage with average fees for one child in part-time nursery and another in an after-school club costing £7,549 per year. Full-time childcare costs for a family with a two-year-old and a five-year-old child are estimated at £11,700 a year. Average costs are lower in Scotland than in England and Wales.

The Family and Childcare Trust attribute the high cost of childcare to nursery staff wages, with recent Government research suggesting 77 per cent of group-based (nursery and club) childcare costs were staff costs.

Ratios: Currently in nurseries and pre-schools, there has to be one adult to three children for under two-year-olds, one adult to four children for two to three-years-olds and one adult to eight children for three to seven-year-olds. The ratio is increased on outings and trips according to a risk assessment.

School starting age: Children in Britain start school in the September after their fourth birthday. Legally children in England and Wales don’t have to be in school until the term after their fifth birthday. Children in Scotland usually start primary school in the August term after their fifth birthday.


Finnish babies sleep in cardboard boxes which they are given by the Government with a starter kit of gender-neutral baby clothes, nappies, bedding sheets and a small mattress.

Cost of childcare: Every child in Finland under the age of seven has the right to childcare and pre-school by law, regardless of family income. People in Finland pay a lot in tax to fund childcare programmes so childcare is basically free. Parents can also claim paid childcare leave after the end of parental leave if they decide not to use official childcare.

Ratios: For children under three – one adult per four children, children aged three to six – one adult per seven children

School starting age: Children in Finland don’t start school till the age of seven. When they are six, they do one year of pre-school. In secondary school, Finnish pupils outperform all but a few countries on international assessments.


Sweden spends more money on its pre-school budget than it does on its defence budget. Each child is guaranteed a place at a public pre-school and no parent is charged more than three per cent of their salary, with fees capped at just over £100 a month. This may sound like utopia to many, however Jonas Himmelstrand, an expert in Swedish family policy, claims this policy has turned Sweden into a country where over 90 per cent of children aged 18 months to five years are in childcare and stay at home mums are discouraged. He says this has led to an increase in psychological problems among young Swedes, an increase in disciplinary problems and deterioration in parents’ ability to raise their children. Around five per cent of nursery staff in Sweden are men, compared to one per cent in Britain.

Cost of childcare: Sweden has a policy stating parents should only have to spend between one and three per cent of their income on childcare.

Ratios: Specific national standards regarding adult-child ratios and group size do not exist. These are set by each municipality, and vary considerably from one municipality to another. In centre-based ECEC centres and in family day care, the ratio is typically five to six children per adult.

School starting age: School is compulsory from the age of seven


In Norway, children at nurseries play outdoors in all weather, unless it is less than minus six degrees. Forest schools are also a key part of nursery life in Norway.

Cost of childcare: The monthly cost of childcare is capped for parents at around £250 a month. Low income parents receive childcare for free or at a low cost.

Ratios: One adult per eight children for over three-year-olds

School starting age: Children start school when they are six.


Childcare minister, Liz Truss, has been full of praise for the more formal childcare system in France where sessions are often teacher-led and more structured than in the UK. Teachers at the ecole maternelles are graduates with four years of specific professional training. On average, there is one teacher to 25 children, along with one assistant with childcare training.

Cost of childcare: Nurseries in France are free and children aged from three upwards can attend

Ratios: Each nursery staff member is responsible for up to eight two to three-year-olds

School starting age: Children start school at the age of six


Education and childcare minister, Elizabeth Truss, favours the Dutch model of childcare as a means of making childcare more affordable for parents. Reforms in the Netherlands have led to childminders being deregulated and adult to child ratios being relaxed. The Dutch Childcare Act says parents, employers and the Government must all shoulder the costs burden of childcare. The Government in the Netherlands imposes a childcare levy on all employers.

Cost of childcare: The cost of childcare is low because Dutch employers pay a third of fees.

Ratios: One adult per six children aged three.

School starting age: Children have to attend primary school from the age of five by law


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