Mira Banjac loves her job. Banjac is one of the 31,000 university-educated preschool teachers working in Sweden’s far-reaching system of early-childhood education and care.
Forty children ages 18 months to 5 1/2 years attend the Forskolan Sälen in downtown Stockholm where Banjac works. The children are divided into two groups of 20, with three teachers per group. Banjac spends her days working with her young charges on everything from social skills to the alphabet. But the emphasis, she takes care to note, is always on having fun.
“The basic method for teaching is teaching through play,” she says. “We work together like a team, and I am more like a guide.”
Today in Sweden, the concept of combining learning and care for even young children is a given. With generous leave benefits for new parents and a nationwide system of government-supported child-care centers, Sweden is widely praised for its attention to the needs of its youngest citizens.
An “ethos [exists] that caring for young children is the right thing to do” in Sweden, says Sharon Lynn Kagan, a professor of early-childhood and family policy at Teachers College, Columbia University. Kagan headed a research team convened by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to study Swedish preschools in 1999. Her findings were overwhelmingly positive.
Observers say the Swedes have built a comprehensive-care strategy because the concept of early-childhood education is not new to them. Swedish policymakers hammered out the framework for the nation’s child-care system three decades ago, when economic and social changes sent more Swedish women than ever into the workplace.
And while the system has undergone changes over the years, the commitment to government-supported, education-oriented care for children from age 1 onward has remained a constant.
“Swedish parents should not have to choose between children and work,” Barbara Martin Korpi, a senior adviser in Sweden’s Ministry of Education and Science, says.
A Year’s Paid Leave
In land mass, Sweden is comparable to the state of California, while its population--about 8.8 million people--is about the size of New Jersey’s. Well-known for its generous--or, some would argue, overwhelming-array of government benefits, the Scandinavian country makes no exception when it comes to caring for young children.
Under Swedish law, a parent--either a child’s mother or father--is entitled to up to 480 days of job-protected leave after the birth of a child. Such parents are paid 80 percent of their regular wages for the first 360 days they are home, and a lower, flat-rate benefit for the following 90 days. They receive no pay for the final 30 days. In addition, the parent who does not stay home is granted one month of leave, which he or she must use or lose.
After the first year, most parents head back to work, but the government continues to ease their transition. The central government sends money to municipalities which, in turn, must provide care for children age 1 or older whose parents work or are students. The system also makes it a priority to serve children deemed to be in particular need, such as the offspring of immigrants or low-income parents, and youngsters with disabilities. The municipality must provide care within three months of a parent’s request.
“Sweden offers the most comprehensive and universally high-quality approach to serving young children and families, birth through the start of formal school, of any country I’m aware of,” says Kagan.
According to the Ministry of Education and Science, parents pay about 17 percent of the cost of their children’s care, while the central and local governments pick up the rest of the tab. The ministry reports that, in 2000, 66.1 percent of Swedish children ages 1 through 5--or about 315,000 children--attended government-supported child-care centers. By comparison, about 11 percent were home with parents on leave, 10 percent were cared for by professional “child minders,” and 1 percent were cared for by a fulltime stay-at-home mother. The remaining children fell into a range of care categories, including care by an unemployed parent, parents working in shifts, or private care by a relative or nanny.
In 1996, Sweden made its priorities clear when it transferred responsibility for childcare programs from the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs to the Ministry of Education and Science. Toward that end, the Swedish government recently ordered that preschool teachers study education for 3 1/2 years at the university level, up from a mandate of three years’ study.
Swedish preschools also work from a national curriculum for children ages 1 through 5--a concept that would undoubtedly prove controversial in the United States. Swedish officials say, however, that their curriculum is broad and open to interpretation by local officials.
“It is not a detailed cookbook,” says Martin Korpi of the Education Ministry. “It is very much a goal-oriented document.”
not to do so in a heavy-handed way. “Children should be allowed to be children. Children should mainly play,” Martin Korpi says.
Over time, the Swedes have refined their programs. The nation also began implementing a voluntary maximum fee for the care of young children on Jan. 1. The change was made because of concerns that there was too much variance in what different municipalities charged parents, says Hakan Carlsson, a political adviser in the central government. Labor union officials speak out because they want policies that make it easiest for their members to work, he says. Parents also play a significant role in the policy debate. “They are powerful,” Carlsson says.
A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2002 edition of Education Week