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France's childcare system - French lessons

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Fagnani, Jeanne and Lloyd, Eva
Publication Date: 
11 Feb 2013



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.

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

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.


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.

-reprinted from Nursery World

Entered Date: 
13 Feb 2013
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