New Left Project

The Kids Are Alright: Lessons from the Hungarian Approach to Childcare?

Parents of young children, currently hard-pressed to meet the £15,000 sometimes required to meet annual full-time childcare costs in the UK, might be surprised by a recent initiative from the soft-left grouplet Next Generation Labour. Next Generation Labour call for a '24 hour National Childcare Service' for mothers forced to work anti-social hours. It is clear that problems are endemic; that childcare for all children below school age is patchily available, expensive and of variable quality. 

By arguing for a '24-hour' service before a universal service actually exists, it isn’t clear how Next Generation Labour would attempt to reconcile the idea of childcare specialists as professionals, with the need to cater for children on a 24-hour basis. Most highly-qualified childcare professionals would balk at the idea of wrenching children out of their beds in the middle of the night, in order to cart them to some kind of 'secure facility.' Children generally need domestic stability and routine. So firstly, the '24-hour' aspect needs to be decoupled from the overall concept of universal coverage for all children under school age. Most importantly, the whole service would need to be child-centred, not simply based on the demands of a round-the-clock economy. Most parents and professionals would perhaps then welcome the idea. 

Labour in government did make some, largely unrecognised efforts to extend reception years across the country to include four-year old children. More notably still, the Scottish Assembly under Labour began providing universal part-time education for all three-five year olds. Such efforts were welcome, yet insufficient. The fiddly tax credits awarded to parents for childcare do not address the core affordability – and unaccountability – of privately-provided childcare. More to the point, they do not properly allow low- and medium- earners to re-enter the full-time workplace after their child is two, three or four years old. 

More broadly, these measures in Scotland reflected a piecemeal approach to the issue of public childcare provision. On paper, it is easier to approach the problem from school-age down – for children between three and five years old. The tendency has been to try and provide childcare through the school system.  Yet pre-school education isn’t really classroom education – it’s learning through play. As such it isn’t suitable to be held in schools, or at least, not schools as we understand them. Children at this age require playrooms, activity areas, and empty spaces outdoors, containing toys, games and a range of props. The danger in expanding primary schools ‘downwards’ towards younger children is that adults effectively push their children to start school early, in facilities geared towards academic learning, with staff who are generally teachers rather than kindergarten childcare specialists. 

We can look to other countries for examples of alternative ways of addressing the issue. In Finland and Hungary, parents are offered universal provision of childcare from the age of six months, and facilities are usually open from around 7am until 5pm in the evening. There is a division between facilities offered for children under three years old, and a more formal kindergarten offered subsequently, until the child begins school at seven. In Hungary, the staff are extensively coached in the ability to sing in tune, as well as being required to study to degree-level in child development. Each kindergarten or nursery has to have a fully-qualified child psychologist available. 

A system like this would be a massive leap forwards for childcare in Britain. To give children a kindergarten system based on play until the age of seven would represent a huge political reverse, away from the stern talk of targets which characterise much  political discourse on education. The system existing in Hungary is a culmination of different circumstances. In the 1930s, the Montessori method gained popularity as part of that decade’s obsession with physical vigour and health, with children encouraged to be true to their ‘Rousseau-like’ nature. In the late 1940s, the Stalinist administration demanded the comprehensive production of true communists, whilst prioritising the return of new mothers to the workplace. In the period of peak ideological indoctrination, children were to be introduced to the ‘real world’ of reconstruction and co-operative work, rather than fairy stories or flights of fancy. As ideological devoutness faded in the 1970s, the system was characterised by increasing pragmatism and managerialism. Arguably, the childcare provided in Hungary now is a mixture of all of these approaches. As the Steiner and Montessori approaches have returned to fashion, the system has achieved a blend of liberalism and structuralism, with custom-built facilities dating from the last six decades. 

Another divergent aspect between countries with fully public childcare systems and the UK is that where universal childcare provision is offered, it is often in tandem with generous levels of maternity leave, rather than being provided as a substitute for parenting. Governments have generally been sensitive to charges of coercion, and don’t want to be perceived as tearing children away from their parents. Without longer periods of maternity leave, both paid and unpaid, the effect of providing universal childcare in the UK would almost certainly be to reduce the time that the mother would spend with a child at home. There is no evidence that this would be a positive development for a baby in the first 18 months. Some countries in Europe offer maternity leave for three years. This may be a British employer’s worst nightmare, but it has yet to bring Finland, Norway, Estonia or Sweden crashing to their knees. 

Labour should want to introduce universal childcare, which would combat inequality and enable early interventions for children with cognitive or development issues. Yet Labour would have to think hard about all aspects of this – the facility buildings, the staff and the developmental programme. Perhaps most importantly, it should consider the model of citizenship that a democratic socialist party should develop in the early 21st century, whilst embarking on a huge, employment-generating initiative to develop comprehensive provision of appropriate, high-quality preschool education. Next Generation Labour appear to think that Labour, under its existing national leadership, can deliver on such a massive scheme, which would dwarf the creation of the Open University in scope and scale. I wish I were so optimistic as to Labour’s current potential.

Carl Rowlands is an activist and occasional writer based in Budapest.

About this article

Published on 19 March, 2012
By Carl Rowlands