The Childhood Education and City Politics Conference

Adress by Mariëtte Hamer at the The Childhood Education and City Politics Conference.

7 June 2016
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Thank you very much for inviting me to speak at the conference on Childhood Education and City Politics, organized by the cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam, BOinK and Childcare International, during the Dutch Presidency of the EU in the first half of 2016.

The reasons for this conference are very clear: Child care, development and education of young children are subjects which are the focus of attention within the European Union.

I hope everyone knows what the Social and Economic Council is and has an idea of what it does. A month ago we produced what we consider to be a very important advisory report.

It is actually concerned with policy in the next government period, but that will be arriving sooner than we think – if everything goes according to plan – there will be a general election next year and the parties are already busy writing their election manifestos. We therefore felt this was a good time to publish a report on child care. And that’s exactly what I want to talk to you about this morning.

Stimulating the development of talent and citizenship of your European citizens in the 21st century is a major challenge. We know of course, that your start in life, the neighbourhood you are born in and what your parents do, makes quite a difference in the Netherlands, and in that sense everyone’s future is different.
So what we very much want to accomplish with this report is to ensure that children at least have the same opportunities from a young age, so that every individual is ultimately able to shape his or her own future and it does not depend on where you happen to have been born.

The SER report that I will be telling you about shortly corresponds closely with that motto. The title of the report is “An even start”, which encapsulates the advice it contains: investment in young children pays for itself and cannot start soon enough. For those of you who may not be familiar with it, the Social and Economic Council (SER) is a body made up of an equal number of representatives from employers’ organisations and trade unions. There are also 22 Crown members, who are independent experts, many of them university professors from a range of disciplines.

The SER writes its advisory reports for both the government and both houses of parliament, the House of Representatives and the Senate. It is said, although you would of course never hear it from me, that it is very difficult for the government and parliament to ignore advice, from the Social and Economic Council that has been unanimously endorsed by the representatives of the employers and the unions and the independent Crown members. We will see. I always feel it helps if civil society also plays a part. So if you agree with me, I hope that, as the councillor said, together we can make further advances in child care in this country.

We conducted a lot of research into how child care is organised in the Netherlands and in other countries for the purposes of our report.
And what we found was that, although there was perhaps a time when the Netherlands was a front-runner it was a long time ago, and that all of the surrounding countries have progressed further in terms of child care provision than we have here in the Netherlands.
However, I always feel it is important to mention that this says nothing about what happens in individual child centres (we also work with those children) or in your group.

But it does say something about the system, about how important it is to us and how it is financed. You could not describe the system in the Netherlands as particularly progressive, although there are of course many municipalities that are trying to improve the situation, as we just heard.

Let me return now to the advisory report. How was the report produced? Who requested it? It originated from a motion by Steven van Weyenberg, a member of parliament for D66, who secured the support of the rest of the House of Representatives for a motion calling on the government to ask the SER to write this report. But why did he make the request? How was the request for our advice formulated?

There were actually two reasons for the request. One was to investigate whether the current system of child care meets our wishes for it, and secondly, what improvements did we feel could be made to achieve two purported objectives of child care.

The first, and this is a subject we have naturally discussed very often, is the importance of providing child care so that parents are able to work. But the second question, which was one we ourselves regarded as very important, was: ‘Can child care make a contribution to children’s development?’

I can imagine that some of you in the hall are thinking what a strange question that is. Haven’t we known for a long time that it can? Nevertheless, I do believe it was relevant that parliament asked that question so explicitly, giving us an opportunity to provide an answer that will, I hope, end the discussion once and for all. Because the request for advice prompted us to explore both aspects of the issue: whether child care facilities can advance not only the aim of promoting both parents’ participation in the labour market but also the development of the child. The conclusion of our advisory committee’s report is perfectly clear.

It is that child care naturally does make a contribution to the labour participation of parents, but more importantly it also helps children in their development and can also, provided it is well organised, make a very important contribution to eliminating, although preventing would be a better term, the disadvantages suffered by some children.

We researched the subject in every conceivable manner. We reviewed earlier research in the Netherlands, interviewed a great many experts with practical experience in the field and consulted guests from other countries.

We also held talks with the child care sector itself, because we urgently wanted to learn the conditions under which child care can help to meet the objectives, and what other criteria the sector should meet.

We are aware that as soon as the topic of teaching children under the age of four is raised, there is a section of the population that regards it as a complex issue and is immediately worried about the idea of children sitting in a classroom at such a young age. It is therefore important, I feel, that we looked at the term learning and concluded that it is the same as development. Because we do know from all of the research that a child’s mental and physical development starts incredibly early, something I myself saw very clearly when I used to play with my dolls as a child.

Naturally, you want to reflect that, so we are obviously talking here about playful learning or learning through play.
In the advisory report, we made a distinction between the long term and the short term, and then focused on what we called the medium term.
We addressed the long term because it seemed useful to identify where the employers and unions have common interests and then explore how we could match those common interests to everything we had learned from the research.

If you look carefully at the research, the conditions under which children can best develop their talents are incredibly important, but the system in the Netherlands is in fact highly fragmented. That was already mentioned in the first talk here today.

There are many different sources of funding and, they all have different origins. Kindergartens were originally intended to promote childhood development and crèches to promote labour participation. So therefore in many municipalities a great many different forms of child care still exist alongside one another.
We also found during working visits that sometimes there would be a single building with separate entrances, one for the kindergarten and another right beside it for the crèche, and the children attending them, although they are sometimes from the same neighbourhood, go to different child care centres. Fortunately, that is not always the case, but it does still happen.

Accordingly, we learned, partly on the basis of the information we acquired about experiences in other countries, that this fragmentation really is a problem when it comes to organising good child care and that it would be far better if the children were all in the same location where they could do more things together. You could then also make better use of the building.

In other words, create a single universal system with a clearly regulated flow of funding, in which, and this brings us to the different pathways to the future, a lot of attention is devoted to the needs of each individual child. The ultimate long-term objective, and this I believe is important news, is shared by employers, emphatically so by the employers in the Netherlands, and trade unions.

I will return shortly to the reasons why they actually feel it is becoming increasingly important, but it is of course important that we all share the same vision on this point. So when you read our report, you will also find that the point on the horizon, the long-term objective, is to create that unified system.
But we also know where we are starting out from. We know that we pursue what I call a yo-yo policy when it comes to child care. When things are going well with the Netherlands we do a great deal in terms of child care, because then we want women to participate in the labour market and so there is also some money for the children. But when there is an economic slowdown in the Netherlands, the first area where spending is cut is the same child care. It’s like a yo-yo: up, down, up, down. We thought we could immediately strive to achieve that ultimate objective, but we also knew that it would be impossible. Instead, what we have tried to do in our report is to plot a realistic initial step towards that point on the horizon that could be taken at the time of the formation of the next government, since we know it will be possible to find money for it then.

We also say something in the report about the short term and I’ll return to that in a moment, but the emphasis in the report is on the medium term. I feel it is important to mention that, so that it is clear to you that what we propose has to be seen as a step on the way to the long-term objective.
So what precisely are we proposing? Let me start by telling you what everyone felt in their bones needed to be done, and that is to expand the policies targeted at disadvantaged children.

What we learned from all the research and the experiences of the people we consulted is that disadvantaged children in fact need at least 16 hours of early childhood education if it is to be effective. At present, in the Netherlands the average is about 10 hours, or two half-days (it depends on how you calculate it), but you should actually be able to offer 16 hours if it is to have any real effect. So that is what we propose. We also calculated what it would cost: 169 million euros, which is in fact a relatively modest sum in the context of a government formation.
That is our first proposal, and is the least that must be done if we want to give all those children the chance of a future in which they can develop in their individual ways.

But the research taught us something else, and this was a topic we deliberated over for a very long time. Because there are some who believe that you should also adopt a tailored approach for these children and that they should be kept together so that special programmes can be devised for them. However, the research and the experiences in other countries show that it is far more effective, that the benefits in terms of a child’s development are far greater, if children of every level of ability are placed in a group together, in other words not in a group with only other disadvantaged children, but with all the other children.

One of the Crown members of the SER is the director of the Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis (CPB), which advises the government on economic affairs, and it had some critical questions about our proposal. It asked, for example, whether all the other children shouldn’t also receive 16 hours.
And if they do, is it a good investment and is it actually necessary, since the main reason they would need it is because of the situation in the labour market. The important news, I believe, is that we all became convinced, including the CPB, that it would be very good for every child to be offered the 16 hours of child care, so that you can make those generic groups and then devote specific attention within those groups to those children that learn very quickly and to the others who need additional support.

So another of our proposals is that all children, regardless of whether their parents are working or not, should be offered 16 hours of child care. Accordingly, on top of the costs of 169 million for early childhood education that I mentioned earlier, it would cost an extra 189 million euros to expand the scheme to other children. Adding these sums together, the total comes to roughly 400 million euros. It sounds like an awful lot of money, but at the same time we know that it is, if I may say so, a relative bargain for a genuine investment.

Because you get an incredible amount in return, although it is of course always difficult to measure what an investment made at an early age will ultimately bring up. But all the research shows that the investment generates enormous returns later, because then you don’t have to provide additional support for the disadvantaged children because they have already caught up. There is an additional factor, and that is the fact that the economy is changing and with it the labour market.

I will say something more about that in a moment, but it is becoming increasingly important for children to become agile at a young age and to be taught in a playful and enjoyable manner that learning is fun. One of the things needed to accomplish that is an assurance of the quality of child care.
So in addition to the number of hours and the diversity of the group, the quality of the child care facilities must be good and it is very important, to return briefly to the yo-yo policy, that the institutions and the managers of the facilities that have to provide the care, know where they stand.
This is why we believe it is preferable to proceed in slightly smaller steps, but then with continuous progress, than to face a repeat of the situation that occurred previously. Then all the parties promised free child care in their election manifestos, but then nothing happened. That doesn’t work, in any case. There has to be a steady upward line. Stability and permanence in the system and in funding are incredibly important.

Naturally, we also considered who should pay for it all? When the Child Care Act was drafted, the funding of the system was divided into three parts: the employers would pay a third, parents would pay a third and the government would pay a third. What is happening now? The employers are paying, the parents are paying, but the government, because of the austerity measures in recent years, does not come close to paying its share.
We therefore believe that the 400 million euros will also help to restore that allocation “of a third, a third and a third”. We therefore think it is a realistic proposal. That is very briefly the proposal that the Social and Economic Council has made.

Naturally, we also looked at the short term, because we assume that the current government will serve out its term of office and a new government will only be formed next year. That means we have some time, and we suggest that the time we have should be used to experiment.
There are already plans for Child Centres 2020, municipalities are developing plans and the minister herself has made a number of proposals. We are very eager to support these initiatives so that the next six to nine months can be used to explore what constitutes good quality in practice and
how we can achieve it. We also stress that the funding should be arranged by the central government, but add that the municipalities should be consulted, because they can play an incredibly important role in the process of bringing together the various institutions with their different sources of funding.
We also refer to the importance of realising that the child care facilities and schools actually form a continuous learning path. It would therefore be tremendously useful for teachers in the first class of primary school to be aware of what the children have done in the child care centre and vice versa.
The municipality can also play a very important role in that regard, by acting as an intermediary in encouraging cooperation between schools and child care centres.

I have already mentioned a few of the reasons why it is so important to define the areas in which particular children are lagging behind.
Naturally, the purpose is to avoid having to take various remedial actions later, but it is also because we are now quite certain, because there is far more research than there was around 10 years ago, that the younger you start laying the basis for a child’s development with playful learning or learning by playing,
the more effective it is and the better the child will perform at school later. Accordingly, many countries have launched development programmes in recent years. Two countries that are close to us in cultural terms, Germany and the United Kingdom, have recently made the investments that we are now proposing.
Children in those countries have been given greater entitlement to child care. I said at the beginning, in the context of the title of your conference, that we are eager to remove the divisions and give every child the chance to engage in playful learning with their peers.

It is important for disadvantaged children because of their home environment, but it also important for children of well-educated parents in light of the growing trend among parents to have only one or two children.
When I was young, if I wasn’t playing with my dolls I would go to the playground near my home in Amsterdam and play with the other children. When you visit that playground nowadays there are no children, because there are fewer children in families. It is therefore also important for the children of parents with a higher education to grow up together with other children.
So how can we use this instrument? We believe that it is in any case important to start from the age of two. Why have we focussed on the age of two? Because all the research, in the Netherlands at least, starts at that age. There has been some research about the period before the age of two in other countries, but not very much.

We are not saying that there must be facilities for children from the age of two, since we actually feel it is important for children to be together from birth up to the age of four and that there should then be a continuous learning path with schooling, but we have given ourselves an additional assignment.
In the coming period we are going to investigate precisely how a child’s development progresses in the initial period from birth, but also from the age of one. What precisely do you need for that? As luck would have it, we were already working on another advisory report, this one about work and life in the future, and we have given ourselves the task of returning to the period from birth until the age of two in that report. But because we really wanted to present this report to the government in time, what we say in it is: at least make a proper start from the age of two.

I want to move on and discuss a few proposals we have made about quality, a subject I feel it is important to emphasise. There is of course a lot to say about what we think of the quality.
But we explicitly want to make the observation that whatever you might say about the quality of child care, it has to be seen in the context in which the child care facilities have to operate and that it has of course been very difficult for the sector to maintain standards with all the changes that have been occurring.
In the last few years we have seen fewer parents using child care as a result of the cutbacks, which has naturally had an effect on those groups. Our message therefore is to invest now, create stability, but then also ensure that you genuinely meet the quality requirements.

In our opinion, that means that the child care sector needs employees with qualifications at both secondary vocational (MBO) and higher professional (HBO) level. The sector explicitly needs both. There have been reports that recommended that only HBO graduates should be hired. We are not saying that.
What we are saying is that a combination is needed, and that investment is therefore also needed in the training of group leaders in child care centres. Naturally, we also considered the question of accessibility and our view is that the system must be accessible to everyone. That certainly doesn’t mean that it should be free for everyone, but money should not be an obstacle. In our advisory report, therefore, we have asked the government to reconsider the parents’ contribution very carefully, because we observe that child care is still very often too expensive for some groups, particularly the middle-income groups. We actually wanted to avoid being drawn into the discussion about free child care in the knowledge that, as we have seen on a previous occasion, it seriously complicates the political debate. We also know that parents are willing to pay for child care, if they can afford it. Many parents don’t want something for nothing, but money must not form an obstacle, and we state that explicitly.

After publication of the SER advice on child care, Minister Asscher has taken some important measures that are in line with our recommendations and will have significant consequences for the child care sector (parents and children).
First of all, Minister Asscher is making 60 million euros available so that municipalities can pay for daycare for toddlers whose parents do not receive a childcare allowance, for example because one or both parents are not employed.

All toddlers between the ages of two and a half years and four years should be able to attend daycare or a playgroup, at least for two half-days per week. Municipalities get six years to arrange this. I think this is a good step in the right direction, but to really invest in children more is needed. The SER recommends all children between two and four years 16 hours a week to child care. Secondly, the government is increasing childcare subsidies in 2016 after years of cutting back. There will be more childcare subsidies from 2017, especially for families on higher incomes. This certainly improves the affordability of child care.
I think I have now explained the broad contours of our advisory report. It is a thick volume, so naturally I have not been able to cover everything in this short space of time.

I would therefore suggest that you read the full report, because I feel it is an extremely interesting document and I hope that together we can push forward the proposals it contains.