In 1975, Sweden's National Preschool Act vastly expanded the public childcare system by providing a minimum of 525 hours of free preschooling. The Act was the culmination of economic initiatives aimed at meeting the needs of working mothers in a time of acute labour shortage. The Act had strong public and cross-political backing throughout, and Sweden saw an increase in female labour force participation from 59.3 percent to 81.7 percent between 1970 and 1988.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Sweden's population was in steep decline, and birthrates were not high enough to compensate. Up until this point, childcare was largely for the poor – in the form of child crèches, which were run by charitable foundations and churches – or for well-educated, affluent families in the form of private kindergartens, run for purely pedagogical purposes. It was at this time that the idea emerged of a universal public system that combined childcare and early learning.
The goal was to provide children from all social classes with the same opportunities for development. However, tangible progress was slow, and it was not until the 1960s – when Sweden enjoyed strong economic growth combined with an acute labour shortage – that both the political climate and public opinion were ready for major childcare reform. The average yearly growth in GDP between 1960 and 1965 was 9.4 percent, and unemployment was under 2 percent for the whole of the 1960s. “Demands for the expansion of childcare had become more vehement, there was a great need for labour and the claims of the women's movement at that time for equality and democracy through participation in working and societal life on the same conditions as men were becoming more widely accepted.”
The government’s response to the growing need for labour and the consequent demand for childcare culminated in the 1975 National Preschool Act, which imposed on Swedish municipalities the duty of expanding universal childcare. They were required to provide all six-year-olds with a minimum of 525 hours of free preschooling per year, which corresponds to 15 hours a week.
The 1975 Act was backed up by two related initiatives: separate taxation for married couples, which was introduced in 1971, and paid shared parental leave for fathers and mothers, introduced in 1974. These initiatives helped create an incentive for women to work, as well as an opportunity to split parental leave between both parents.
Since the 1970s, several further initiatives have helped to continue the expansion of childcare services. In 1985, the government established that all children aged between one and six had the right to childcare if their parents were working or studying, or if the child had special needs. Ten years later, in 1995, new legislation required all municipalities not only to satisfy the need for childcare but to provide it themselves, and without unreasonable delay.
A political decision in 1996 to integrate preschool and childcare paved the way for a new national curriculum for preschool in 1998. The responsibility for childcare therefore moved from the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs to the Ministry of Education and Research.
In 2000, the entitlement to attend preschool was extended to all children, and in 2002 a so-called "Maxtaxa" was introduced: "parent fees for preschools and after-school care depend on income and the number of children in ECEC [Early Childhood Education and Care] in the household. In addition, the maximum amount any parents pay is capped at a 'maximum fee' (called Maxtaxa), which is set annually and on a national level." The preschool curriculum from 1998 was revised in 2010, and in the same year the entitlement to free preschooling for at least 525 hours per year was extended to include all three-year-olds.
The public impact
In the OECD's 2014 report on maternal employment rates, Sweden ranked first out of 43 countries with 83 percent employment. Moreover, the gap between men and women’s labour force participation was the narrowest of all OECD countries, at just 3.7 percentage points, according to 2016 data from the OECD – down from 20.3 percentage points in 1975. In comparison, the average gap between men and women’s labour force participation within OECD countries in 2017 was 17 percentage points.
The change in the female workforce was most clearly seen in the two decades following the 1970s reforms, with female labour force participation increasing from 59.3 percent in 1970 to 81.7 percent in 1988, steadily increasing by between 0.6 percent and 2.7 percent per year.
Besides increased female workforce participation, the result of the legislative efforts that began in the 1970s was also evident in the increasing numbers of children attending Swedish preschools. Between 1970 and 1998, the number of children in full-time care increased from 71,000 to 720,000 and, by 1998, 73 percent of all children aged between one and five attended either preschools or family daycare centres.
In terms of the shared parental leave policy introduced in 1974, the impact was not as evident immediately, as most men took the option of signing over their share of parental leave to their partners. The percentage of fathers' share of days used rose from 0.5 percent in 1974 to 10.6 percent in 1996. However, this meant that "90 percent of the leave days were still being used by women".
To deal with this issue, the Swedish government introduced a "daddy quota" in 1995, which allocated 30 days leave to the father. If the father failed to take it, the paid leave for those days was lost for the couple, as it was unavailable to the mother. The reform was extended to 60 days in 2002 and 90 days in 2016. “Both reforms had a direct impact on the proportion of leave taken by the father so that by 2014 men were taking 25 percent of all the days available to the couple. As of 1 January 2016, the quota has risen to 90 days.”
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What did and didn't work
Stakeholder Engagement Strong
The reforms were preceded by the 1968 National Commission on Child Care, which took four years to conclude its investigations, and tried to stimulate different stakeholder groups, such as parents, teachers and schools. In 1971, the commission published a discussion memorandum called 'Content and methods in the preschool activity’ to stimulate a public debate about the direction of preschool childcare. According to the commission’s final report in 1971, a large number of organisations, associations, authorities and attendees at preschool seminars gave their written opinions on the commission’s first draft and the preschool pedagogical programme.
A total of approximately 400 reports were sent to the commission from different local stakeholders, resulting in a combined mechanism to have different groups involved. In addition, the commission collected professional opinions from conferences which they organised with the National Board of Health and Welfare [Socialstyrelsen] across six municipalities (Malmö, Gothenburg, Stockholm, Falun, Umeå and Luleå). These professional opinions provided guidance on the structure and direction of the pedagogical programme, and showed a strong support for the need to expand and improve preschooling.
In addition, both the National Preschool Teachers’ Organisation [Sveriges Förskollärares Riksförening] and the Swedish Teachers’ Organisation [Svenska Facklärarförbundet] had representatives on the commission, and were able to exert direct influence on the commission's work.
Apart from the commission, there were private stakeholders who engaged in direct political lobbying. The Swedish Trade Union Confederation and the Confederation of Swedish Employers specifically influenced political discourse through their roles as direct advisors to the government. They joined forces to lobby for the expansion of daycare facilities to enable more women to join or rejoin the labour market, thereby combating the labour shortage faced by their members. They created the Women’s Commission of the Labour Market, whose views on the need for daycare were presented to the Social Democratic government in 1961.
Political Commitment Strong
There was clear cross-party support for the policy. The bill went through parliament in 1974 – when Prime Minister Olof Palme of the Social Democratic Party led a minority government – and gained support from across the political spectrum. “That all political parties voted for it in 1974 was a clear signal from the state that men and women should have the same status as parents and that one gender shouldn't take main responsibility."
Swedish political parties were at the forefront of childcare policies. “When the 1960s were over, Sweden had taken the lead in Europe in developing a new family policy. The expansion in childcare and parental insurance became the consistent strategy of the Social Democrats in family policy over the coming decades. The Left party and the Liberal party contributed to wide-ranging cross-party agreement in the Riksdag.”
Public Confidence Strong
Public opinion was strongly in favour of the preschool reforms, and the demand for childcare places grew as more mothers with small children began to enter the workforce. In fact, parent marches were commonplace in the 1970s, demanding “childcare for all” [Ropen skalla – daghem for alla], as they thought the government’s progress towards expanding childcare was too slow. “Different groups, educators, female politicians, administrators and not least parents' fight for an expanded preschool coincided. The politics were formed from demands from above as well as below.”
The vigorous public support for the reforms was also documented in the National Commission on Child Care report. “The preschool reform is under way and the expansion of the reform work has a strong support amongst different groups in society. This is evident from the answers and different reactions on the commission’s discussion memo.”
During the 1960s, women’s demands for liberation grew, along with increasing demands for gender equality, in the workplace as elsewhere. The generation of women born after the Second World War wanted to contribute to supporting their families as well as having their own professional life outside the home. Such calls for reform were helped in the 1960s by a booming economy in Sweden, which increased the need to expand the workforce through greater female participation. This in turn highlighted the need for a radical improvement in the provision of childcare, and put pressure on the government to act.
Clear Objectives Strong
From the beginning, there has been a clear vision of the purposes and objectives of Sweden's childcare reform. The two main aims of the 1975 Act were to support all children’s early development and learning, and to facilitate parents’ participation in the labour force. “Public childcare shall give children the opportunity to have a good and safe upbringing. It shall also give women and men the opportunity, in equal measures, to combine work with family life. A widespread expansion of the public childcare is therefore the most important question for family politics today.”
Specifically, the goals concerning Swedish preschool services were defined early on by the 1968 National Commission on Childcare:
"(a) Providing stimulating and developmental activities for children that combine education and care
"(b) Close cooperation between parents and service providers
"(c) Service provision for all children, with an emphasis on children in need of special support
"(d) Service provision designed to permit parents to combine parenthood and work
"(e) Public funding complemented by reasonable parental fees
"(f) Municipal responsibility for full coverage.”
Sweden’s vision of universal childcare, which became a national strategy in the early 1970s, has been praised for its clarity by Barbara Martin Korpi, formerly senior adviser at the Ministry of Education and Research. “In a retrospective view of this kind, it is easy to see the consistency with which Swedish childcare has been developed and how early on there was a clear vision about its purposes and objectives. The development of childcare in Sweden demonstrates what politics can achieve.”
The National Preschool Act of 1975 and the subsequent expansion of universal childcare drew heavily on the findings of the National Commission on Childcare's report. This comprehensive report took four years to complete and was 1078 pages long. The committee that produced the report based their recommendations on prior research and pilot schemes. Their recommendations included the following:
- Age-mixed groups
- The integration and normalisation of children with special needs
- "Dialogue pedagogy"
- The importance of play
- Thematic work
- The teaching materials to be used
- How the childcare premises should be designed, equipped and laid out
- Collaboration between parents and teachers.
The main aim was to enable a powerful democratisation of preschools and a progressive pedagogy in order to provide equal conditions for all children. The commission had drawn on progressive educational experts in Sweden and elsewhere to complete its work. The scientific foundation of their thinking was based on Jean Piaget's development psychology and on Erik Homburger Eriksson’s social psychology research into the growing child.
Before the full rollout of the Act, the Swedish government commissioned comprehensive pilot studies to refine the policy. These were led by the research and development group at the National Board of Health and Welfare, which sent representatives to nurseries in different municipalities to investigate various aspects of the preschool activity. They often allowed higher education students to follow their work and write up reports of the results. The group used different methods to gather data, such as interviewing parents and preschool staff, observational studies of children at play, surveying the existing work of municipalities, and reviewing academic literature on relevant topics. The municipalities that participated included Nacka, Karlstad, Botkyrka and Bredängen. The results were then used in information materials for the public and staff at municipalities and preschools.
To meet the requirement of the 1975 Act for additional preschool places, it was necessary to invest in a significantly expanded programme of preschool teacher training. At the time of the Act, training had been the responsibility of the Preschool Teacher Training College, which had fulfilled this role since 1962. Following the Act, this responsibility was transferred to the higher education sector, and the number of places was increased from an annual cohort of approximately 2,000 to nearly 5,000.
Separate taxation for married couples, regardless of whether one parent was working, had been introduced prior to the Act. This provided both a mechanism to help fund the expanded preschool provision and an additional incentive for mothers to return to the workplace. Additional funds were raised through a special levy on employers.
Overall, the Swedish investment in childcare was considerable, starting at 1.68 percent of GDP in 1980 and growing to 2.13 percent of GDP by 1993. By 1997, the total gross expenditure for the preschool system was SEK38.5 million, which corresponded to 2.3 percent of GDP. These funds were split between preschool centres (67 percent), family daycare (15 percent), and leisure time centres (18 percent). “During the period 1975-1990, the total costs of childcare increased from SEK2.9 billion to SEK35 billion. No other sector of society could come close to matching the expansion of childcare.”
The government applied a top-down approach to the expansion of preschools, led by the National Board of Health and Welfare. The Board concluded that, in order to expand preschools, it needed to reform preschool teacher training, moving it to the higher education sector and extending it from four to five terms. The Board also made changes to the teacher training curriculum, and increased the number of teacher training places.
In addition, the Board gave a lot of advice and directions to municipalities to help them plan the provision and expansion of the preschools over time. For example, the Board issued detailed guidelines and instructions on pedagogy content, parent cooperation, work plans, and the different responsibilities of preschool staff and the municipality concerned. The Board also had a team of consultants placed in municipalities across the country to help support the rollout.
In addition to setting the direction of the pedagogical content and identifying responsibilities, the National Board of Health and Welfare issued detailed guidance documents for the municipalities on how preschool premises should be designed and equipped to best serve the children’s needs. It also issued detailed architectural drawings based on commissioned research into the optimal use of space in preschools. These were intended to serve as a blueprint for the municipalities, building project managers, and building inspectors who were involved in planning and building the new preschools.
Nowadays, the state is responsible for setting goals and guidelines for the municipalities’ activities and for setting the financial framework. The municipalities then decide how to achieve the national goals and spend the allocated funds. A shift has occurred “from a rule-oriented steering system to a more goal-directed system”, placing more management responsibilities with preschool professionals.
Every year, Statistics Sweden collects information from municipalities about their preschools. The information includes:
- The number of children signed up for preschool
- The demographics of families using the service
- How many children speak a different language at home from the language of the preschool
- The staff and their education
- The opening hours of the preschool facilities.
This information is then analysed and is used to refine the policy. For example, when it was found that white-collar workers used the municipal preschools more than blue-collar workers, efforts were made to offer extended opening hours to accommodate shift-workers’ needs. Nowadays, the National Agency for Education [Skolverket] is in charge of monitoring and evaluating policy and practice on a national level. It also plays a key role in supporting the implementation of the policy.
The National Board of Health and Welfare oversaw their own research and development studies on behalf of the government in order to inform the expansion of preschools. For example, they conducted studies with Lund University, the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, and the teacher training colleges in Malmö and Stockholm into the optimal use of preschool premises (see also Management above). This pilot project – called MAFF – started in 1975 and was a combined research and pilot study operation focusing on alternative and flexible uses of the preschool premises and personnel. The project was very extensive and engaged both architectural and pedagogy researchers.
Because one of the conditions of being accorded state grants for preschool was that they collect and provide data about their services, municipalities conducted regular and accurate measurement of their own preschool activities. This resulted in detailed data being collected nationwide.
The National Board of Health and Welfare, the Swedish municipalities, preschool teachers, and parents were well aligned in the early years of the reform, due to the coordinating role played by the Board. Its central management approach – with an emphasis on rules and guidelines – helped to ensure that the minimum quality levels were high and consistent throughout the country, in both urban and rural areas. “The municipalities were willing to listen, this was still a new activity for them. Advice and instructions – and there were many – were gratefully received and followed to the letter.”
However, the municipalities were given greater autonomy from the mid-1980s onwards, when the organisation of the preschool system started to become highly decentralised. This meant that the role of the state and the National Board of Health and Welfare in shaping the public preschools decreased.
In 1991, at the start of the Swedish economic downturn, there was a shift in power, with the formation of a new centre-right coalition. For the first time, private organisations were allowed to compete with municipalities for public childcare subsidies. State grants for preschools were cut at the same time as preschool groups were growing, due to a high birthrate. Alignment between municipalities and the state weakened, affecting the previously consistent quality of preschools across the different municipalities.
Since then, the state has made efforts to increase the consistency of preschools in different municipalities by reintroducing additional earmarked grants. "When the economy started to grow again at the turn of year 2000, some earmarked grants were introduced in both the preschool and school."
Arbetsplan för förskolan 1: Vår förskola – En introduktion till förskolans pedagogiska arbete, Socialstyrelsen, 1975, LiberFörlag Stockholm
Changing Family Structures and Social Policy: Child Care Services in Europe and Social Cohesion, National report, Sweden, Victor Pestoff and Peter Strandbrink, October 2002, TSFEPS Project, EMES European Research Network
Early Childhood Education and Care Policy in Sweden, Memorandum produced at the OECD conference Lifelong Learning as an Affordable Investment, Barbara Martin Korpi, 27 November 2000, Regeringskansliet
The politics of Preschool – intentions and decisions underlying the emergence and growth of the Swedish preschool, Barbara Martin Korpi, The Ministry of Education and Research, 25 October 2007, Government Offices of Sweden