France's childcare system - French lessons

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Many of the proposals in 'More Great Childcare' have been inspired by early years provision in France. Jeanne Fagnani and Eva Lloyd explain the system and some of the pluses and minuses.

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French early childhood education and care provision has been much in the news recently, but whether the Coalition Government would genuinely want to replicate its basic principles must remain doubtful.

These include a commitment to substantive state funding of universal early childhood services in the interests of families' health and well-being and of gender equality in employment, with obligatory employer support for this and other forms of social welfare provision.

In France, employers fund around 60 per cent of family policy through their social contributions. The whole system is founded on principles enshrined in the 1946 French Constitution and regulated via extensive education and public health legislation. The national and local maternal and child health - PMI - services play a key role in supervising staff in the childcare sector and promoting the well-being of children.

Despite this principled approach and the level of investment in the system, tensions exist between certain aspects, such as between quality and quantity, and quality and affordability. These are the subject of ongoing and lively public debate.

Varied provision

The oldest component of the French early childhood system is the ecole maternelle, free and full-time nursery education for three to six-year-olds; two to three-year-olds can also attend. Children have good quality hot lunches, supervised by dietitians at the cantines and parents' fees for these are income-related.

All teachers are graduates with four years of specific professional training. Children are grouped according to age into junior - petite section, medium and senior groups for three-, four and five-year-olds respectively. On average, there is one teacher to 25 children, along with one assistant with childcare training.

Only about 13 per cent of two-year-olds currently attend nursery school, whereas ten years ago it was 30 per cent. The minister of education has pledged to accommodate more two-year-olds. In designated 'educational priority zones', mostly economically deprived areas located in some outlying suburbs, child:staff ratios are reduced to 20 to one teacher plus a trained assistant. The issue of two-year-olds' attendance does generate some controversy.

Since the 1970s the number of state-run day nurseries - creche - and licensed childminders - assistante maternelle - for 0 to three-year-olds has grown, as women with children entered the workforce in greater numbers.

Even over the past decade there has been a dramatic rise in public expenditure on formal childcare services. This coincided with an increasing emphasis by health and psychology professionals and practitioners on the importance of service quality to children's well-being and development.

Nevertheless, in 2010 the requirement that at least 50 per cent of creche staff must hold a relevant qualification was relaxed to a minimum of 40 per cent. Ratios are set at one staff member to five for children not yet walking and at one to eight for children who can walk. These do not seem particularly generous ratios, given the current discussion in this country about the advantages of the French 'model'.

In some multi-accueil centres, flexible forms of childcare are grouped together in one place, such as creches, halte-garderies providing sessional care, and jardins d'enfants for occasional and out-of-school care for children aged two to six.

They also provide space for parent-run playgroups, and for childminders who want to meet as a network and offer their charges opportunities to socialise. Up to 18 per cent of children whose parents both work now attend these centres, which stay open weekdays all year round for up to 11 hours a day.

Since 2003, for-profit daycare centres also play a state-subsidised role within this system, provided they meet quality criteria defined by PMI services and charge income-related parental fees. Workplace creches are among their number, though their market share remains small, at around 3 per cent of places in all centre-based childcare.

Childminders

More than a third of children aged under three are cared for by registered childminders, closely supervised by PMI services, who are the major providers of non-parental childcare provision for this age group. Remember that receipt of financial childcare assistance is not restricted to working families! So mothers or fathers on parental leave can be entitled to a flat-rate benefit and unemployed parents can have access to a place in a creche.

Since 1977, childminders have been required to have training if they want to be registered; this is a condition for parents to qualify for the related childcare allowance. This training was increased to 120 hours in 2004. They receive a statutory minimum wage, but there is still considerable local variation in this respect.

France currently has some 500 childminding support centres, relais assistants maternels, where childminders can receive advice and can socialise with other minders and children. Heated national debate followed a 2012 relaxation of ratios from three to four children per childminder, which was aimed at increasing the number of formal places in childcare provision.

The promotion of social justice that underlies the operation of an income-related parental fee system in childcare provision also accounts for the encouragement of a mix of children from diverse social backgrounds. However, though public funding for early childhood provision has been steadily and significantly increased, it still leaves many working families without childcare or acts as a brake on the labour market participation of many low-income mothers.

Professor Jeanne Fagnani is emeritus research director at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Centre d'economie de la Sorbonne, University of Paris and associate researcher at the Institut des Recherches economiques et Sociales (IRES), Paris

Eva Lloyd is reader in Early Childhood at the University of East London and co-director of ICMEC, the International Centre for the Study of the Mixed Economy of Childcare.

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