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International perspectives on quality in mixed economics of childcare

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Penn, H.
Publication Date: 
1 Jan 2009

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This 2009 article highlights the important issues surrounding for-profit and non-profit childcares, on an international systems levels. 


This paper briefly reviews international perspectives on quality in mixed economies of childcare. It explores the particular features of the childcare market and suggests that conventional economic rationales do not apply in such a market. It claims that, contrary to government predictions, competition in the private for-profit childcare sector does not lead to ‘quality’ childcare.


This paper briefly reviews international perspectives on quality in mixed economies of childcare in a number of countries; in the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the USA, the Netherlands and South Africa. In all these countries the private market is dominant; that is, the Government takes the view that childcare is best provided by private for-profit or non-profit entrepreneurs, even if part-subsidised by the state through tax credits or some other form of subsidy. This contrasts with countries like France where for-profit care is simply not permitted, and the state provides universal services through the école maternelle system. [...]

In conventional professional terms, that is from the perspective of an early years practitioner or policymaker, all these news items are disturbing. Offering places for children which are contingent on their parents’ ability to pay, not on the needs or interests of the children; regarding parents as potential cheats and tricksters; an excessive concern with safety, and minimising personal contacts in favour of some kind of computer generated recognition; a reliance on quality control methods with limited room for any kind of considered, reflective assessment; and objections to practice sharing, all contradict current rhetoric on quality (National Children’s Bureau, Quality Assurance Network, 2007). The business expertise which is required at a corporate level – and childcare in the UK is increasingly corporatised – offers sophisticated managerial and financial approaches, but requires no prior knowledge of the professional issues of childcare – can the same business principles apply equally fruitfully to a marina in the Virgin Islands and a Children’s Centre in Bradford? [...]

Cleveland et al. (2007), using a reanalysis of large-scale Canadian data sets, estimate the difference in quality between for-profit and non-profit care to be between 7.5– 22 per cent. Quality is significantly higher in the nonprofit sector, although the trends are slightly modified in thick (high demand for places) and thin markets (little demand for places, i.e. in a rural area).There are fewer incentives for entrepreneurs in thin markets to improve quality. A subsequent study (Cleveland et al., 2008), reviewing the impact of the Quebec ‘$5 a day programme’ of universal childcare, also concluded that for-profit care was of poorer quality than non-profit care. [...]

The problems of low quality are not those of inadequate operators failing to achieve reasonable standards or lack of adequate measuring instruments; they are not individual problems but the structural problems of a system of financing in which historical inequalities in provision persist, and quality and equality cannot be achieved. In relation to the Government’s own criteria we have a poorly functioning system of childcare in the UK, despite the money spent on it.

Entered Date: 
30 May 2018
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