The Child Care Transition – UNICEF Report Card on Early Childhood Education and Care in Economically Advanced Countries

UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre

Download the Report (PDF)

UNICEF Canada calls for measurable standards, guidelines, appropriate funding for child care, and solutions by July 2009
Toronto, 11 December 2008 – A new study released by UNICEF states that a far-reaching change is overtaking childhood in the world’s richest countries, including in Canada. For the first time in the history of the industrialized world, a majority of the rising generation is now spending a significant part of childhood in out-of-home child care.

The Child Care Transition is the 8th annual report cardproduced by the UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre in Florence, Italy. According to the report card, this child care revolution offers enormous potential for children, society and the economy, if sufficient supportive policies and programmes are in place.

The report card states that these changes reflect new opportunities for women’s employment outside the home. But in part, also, they reflect new necessities. And the poorer the family, the greater is the pressure to return to work as soon as possible after a birth – often to unskilled, low-paid jobs.

“High quality early childhood education and care has a huge potential to enhance children’s cognitive, linguistic, emotional and social development,” says Marta Santos Pais, Director of the UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre (IRC). “It can help boost educational achievement, limit the early establishment of disadvantage, promote inclusion, be an investment in good citizenship, and advance progress for women.”

The UNICEF report card proposes 10 benchmarks to compare the early childhood policies of the 25 most affluent countries in the world, and these benchmarks should be regarded as a first step toward establishing a set of minimum standards to facilitate good early childhood outcomes. According to the report, Sweden meets all 10 benchmarks, Norway eight, Austria five, Italy and Japan four. Ireland and Canada meet only one benchmark.

Equity and quality services required

Although there is progress in many parts of Canada, Nigel Fisher, President and CEO of UNICEF Canada states that “greater equity in the provision and monitoring of quality services would give all Canadian children the chance for the best possible start in life.”

And, considering current evidence from neuroscience on how important the first months and years of care are to human development, and the evidence of what works in early childhood policy and programming across the industrialized world, “it is clear that underinvestment limits the potential to ensure that the childcare transition is good for our children,” says Fisher.

In addition, investing in early child care and education is a key strategy to respond to current economic challenges, and promote economic stimulus and recovery. Early childhood care and education is an investment not only in the development of children, but economists agree that the social and economic benefits include a more competitive workforce, higher tax revenues, lower social programme costs down the road, and economic returns to the GDP in excess of the dollars invested.

“For all these reasons, UNICEF Canada strongly supports the recommendation of the Senate of Canada Standing Committee on Human Rights,” reaffirms Fisher. “The federal government must take the lead in developing a coordinated approach to the establishment of measurable standards, guidelines and funding for child care, with solutions presented to the public by July 2009.”

“Canada can ensure that this major social and economic transition – which is here to stay – has positive outcomes for the rising generation and that investment in these services achieves the intended results,” he adds while recognizing that the federal government’s pledge to extend parental leave benefits to the self-employed is a welcome step in that direction.

“This report clearly shows that quality child care and educational services with strong family supports, such as effective parental leave, are crucial to both our children’s and our nation’s potential,” concludes the President and CEO of UNICEF Canada.


Related articles

Canada ties for last among developed countries when it comes to child supports
December 10, 2008
Canadian Press

TORONTO — Canada fails to meet nine of out 10 proposed standards aimed at ensuring children get the best start in life through education and support programs, tying for last place among affluent countries, an analysis released Wednesday by UNICEF concludes.

The UNICEF benchmarks are crucial for children in their formative years, says the United Nations organization.

“We over-invest in remedial action down the line when kids reach their teen years and under-invest in the early years when their behaviour, their comportment, their learning can really be set for the rest of their lives,” said Nigel Fisher, head of UNICEF Canada.

The benchmarks, which UNICEF calls practical and reachable, include providing a year of parental leave at 50 per cent or more of salary and spending one per cent of gross domestic product on childhood services.

Sweden was the only country to meet all 10 standards and Iceland met nine among the 24 members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Slovenia, which scored six out of 10, was the only non-OECD country assessed.

At the bottom, Canada and Ireland were found to reach only one benchmark: half of staff in accredited early-education services have proper post-secondary qualifications. The United States met three.

Martha Friendly, director of the Toronto-based Childcare Resource and Research Unit, said Canada’s poor showing came as no surprise.

“The child-care transition . . . is being facilitated by public policies in most countries,” Friendly said.

“In Canada, this has been left to be a private family responsibility. We have very weak public policy and that would be at the national level and at the level of most of the provinces.”

Friendly said the federal government needs to send an “emergency signal” showing it considers the issue important by making commitments in its budget next month.

The UNICEF report argues that many OECD countries need to almost double current levels of expenditure on early childhood services to meet minimum acceptable standards.

Canada, for example, spends roughly 0.2 per cent of its GDP on child supports, Fisher said.

The report notes that most children in the developed world are spending their earliest years in some form of care outside the home.

About 80 per cent of children aged three to six are in some form of early childhood education and care outside the home.

About one in four under the age of three are also cared for outside the home – with the proportion rising to one in two in some countries.

“What we are now witnessing across the industrialized world can fairly be described as a revolution in how the majority of young children are being brought up,” the report states.

“To the extent that this change is unplanned and unmonitored, it could also be described as a high-stakes gamble with today’s children and tomorrow’s world.”

The report emphasizes advances in recent years in scientific research show the long-term importance of giving kids a good educational and emotional start in life – something especially key for marginalized or otherwise disadvantaged children.

The report can be found at

UNICEF proposed benchmarks and rankings for early child care

UNICEF has issued a report ranking 25 countries against 10 proposed benchmarks when it comes to early childhood services.

Among proposed minimum standards:

  • Entitlement to paid parental leave of at least one year at 50 per cent of salary
  • A national plan with priority for disadvantaged children
  • Subsidized and regulated child care for 25 per cent of children under three
  • Subsidized and regulated child care for 80 per cent of children aged four
  • Accredited training for 80 per cent of child-care staff
  • Staff-to-children ratio of 1:15 in groups of under 25
  • Public funding for children under six of one per cent of GDP

Top five and bottom five affluent countries in terms of meeting early child-support standards:

  • Sweden: 10
  • Iceland: 9
  • Denmark: 8
  • Finland: 8
  • France: 8
  • Switzerland: 3
  • United States: 3
  • Australia: 2
  • Canada: 1
  • Ireland: 1



The real child-care challenge
Winnipeg Free Press
14 Dec 2008
By: Susan Prentice, associate professor of sociology at the University of Manitoba

A newly released report from UNICEF provides important information for Manitobans and should prompt immediate action.

The study, The Child Care Transition, finds that children of the world’s most affluent countries spend a large part of their early childhood in some form of child care — but the child care they are in does not always meet best practices. Nevertheless, child care is a fact of life for most children. “Preschool enrolments,” says the U.S. National Research Council, “are large, growing, and here to stay.”

Some commentators worry about this new reality, but for the wrong reasons. Rebecca Walberg recently argued against daycare, critiquing Quebec’s generous innovations (For the Sake of the Children, Winnipeg Free Press Dec. 7). She and others who oppose universal child care and education are in the minority and are missing the real focus

Social scientists, development psychologists, health researchers and educators embrace the idea that good-quality child care supports children’s development. In their exhaustive report, From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development, eminent researchers at the American Academy of Science conclude that “the positive relation between child-care quality and virtually every facet of children’s development that has been studied is one of the most consistent findings in developmental science.”

High-quality care “is associated with outcomes that all parents want to see in their children, ranging from co-operation with adults to the agility to initiate and sustain positive exchanges with peers, to early competence in math and reading.”

In addition, child care is essential for reducing family poverty because it permits parents to participate in training, education and employment. Dependable care is essential for mothers who need or want to take a paid job, develop job skills, or go back to school.

Without affordable, reliable childcare, women may be forced to stay out of the labour force, to work at poorly paid part-time employment, or be stuck in dead-end jobs. Some women — especially single mothers — are forced to depend on social assistance or may fall into poverty.

Reliable child care helps all parents balance work and family responsibilities. Even affluent families struggle to balance jobs and families, and early-childhood education programs are one remedy for reducing family stress. In the 21st century, as families move across countries and around the globe, extended kin networks may no longer be available for caregiving. Child care is one way to build new family supports, a followup to paid parental leaves that allow new parents to spend time with very young children.

Economic realities also play a role in why Manitobans, like all Canadians, need highquality and universally accessible child care. In the immediate term, employers lose time and productivity to work-family conflict. The Conference Board of Canada estimates that such conflict costs Canadian businesses at least $2.7 billion each year.

The Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce has identified labour issues as the biggest constraint to economic growth. It has cited retention, training and succession planning as key concerns for employers. Child care can help business meet these challenges.

Child care is a green and labour-intensive service, providing sustainable jobs. New Manitoba research estimates that every $1 invested in child care generates $1.58 of economic activity.

Economists like Nobel Prize winner James Heckman have shown that investment in early childhood brings proven benefits to children, families, governments and national economies.

The key to positive gains is the quality of children’s experiences. The UNICEF report assesses the world’s 25 most developed countries against 10 benchmarks for quality and excellence. Sadly, Canada ties for last place, meeting just one of the 10 recommended standards.

Policy-makers must immediately re-examine the current policy architecture, which devotes too few resources and allocates them ineffectively. Manitoba can learn much from Quebec, which meets six of the 10 benchmarks. Quebec has expanded access, reduced parent fees (to $7 a day) and increased staff training and remuneration.

The current economic recession provides compelling reasons to make improvements now, rather than wait. Heckman explains why: Investing in young children “is a rare public policy initiative that promotes fairness and social justice and at the same time promotes productivity in the economy and in society at large.”

For the sake of our children and families, Manitoba urgently needs an excellent, high quality early-childhood care and education system.