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‘A developing country’: Why do so few Swiss children attend childcare?

Switzerland has the second-lowest childcare attendance rate of all OECD countries. High costs, tax policy and conservative family attitudes are to blame.

A child plays with toys behind a white curtain
Switzerland has the second lowest rate of childcare attendance in the OECD. Why? Photo by Kelli McClintock on Unsplash

Switzerland sits second last in the most recent OECD rankings for early childhood education, placing ahead only of Turkey in the 38 nation bloc. 

The figures take into account the percentage of children aged three to five who are enrolled in early childhood education. 

In Switzerland, around 50 percent of children in that age bracket are enrolled in day care or similar educative facilities. 

READ MORE: How much does it cost to raise a child in Switzerland?

In other OECD nations like France, Ireland, Israel and the UK, this rate is at 100 percent. The OECD average is 88 percent. 

In Switzerland, children of wealthy families are much more likely to attend day care, which has the effect of entrenching educational inequality. 

As a result, Switzerland has one of the largest gaps in reading abilities between wealthy and disadvantaged groups of any OECD nation. 

Early childhood education is seen as essential not only for teaching many of the fundamental skills that will become important during schooling, but also for basic social skills. 

Social Democratic National Councilor and former teacher Matthias Aebischer told Swiss news site 20 Minutes this meant many Swiss children, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, were forced to catch up on other students when entering school. 

“Some children have no social behaviour because they are in front of the PC or television all day,” Aebischer said.

“These children can hardly speak in kindergarten or still wear nappies, you can never make up for that.

“We have the best education system in the world, but at pre-kindergarten level we are a developing country.”

Educator Dominik Büchel told 20 Minutes it was not easy for children to then catch up when they arrive at primary school. 

READ MORE: How to save money on childcare in Switzerland

“In early childhood, a lot of things are already set; the biological development of the brain, for example, is already in full swing after birth,” Büchel said. 

Early childhood education is therefore essential for “acquiring knowledge and social behaviour in a playful way, learning how to communicate correctly and how to behave in a group.”

Aebischer launched a parliamentary motion to call upon the federal government to provide more support for the cantons to keep childcare costs down. 

Why do so few Swiss children attend daycare? 

As with most things in Switzerland, the answer comes down to money – although the country’s conservative culture can also play a part. 

Switzerland has the highest net costs for childcare of any country in the OECD. In Switzerland, the costs of childcare for a two-child family with parents earning an average wage are just under 30 percent of the total household income. 

By comparison, the cost is above 20 percent of net household income in only two other countries – while the OECD average is ten percent. 

A consequence of this is that a greater deal of pressure is exerted upon parents to ensure one of the parents – most commonly a woman – stays home to care for the children. 

When combined with other factors in Switzerland, such as the relatively minimal paternity leave allowances and a tax system which can penalise two parents who both decide to work, this often means one parent stays home to care for the kids. 

READ MORE: Does marriage make financial sense in Switzerland?

Another major reason is the prevalence of conservative attitudes in Switzerland, whereby family care is prioritised over organised daycare.

Toni Bortoluzzi, from the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, opposes the plan and said being cared for by grandparents was more important than daycare. 

Bortoluzzi said children taken care of by their grandparents would not have any disadvantages in comparison with daycare children. 

The former MP also said compulsory daycare had no place in Switzerland. 

“We’re not in the GDR, where everyone had to go to daycare. I am a freedom-loving person and it is the freedom of parents to decide for themselves how they want to raise their child.”

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How does the cost of childcare in Switzerland compare to elsewhere in Europe?

Childcare in Switzerland is not cheap, in fact it's on the most expensive in Europe as our comparison reveals.

How does the cost of childcare in Switzerland compare to elsewhere in Europe?

Switzerland

The average Swiss family spends a massive 41 percent of their net income on childcare, three times the OECD average of 13 percent.

The high costs of childcare are a frequent complaint of many a parent in Switzerland. 

While this of course varies dramatically from canton to canton, the average cost of childcare in Switzerland is CHF130 a day (€136).

Due to tax breaks and subsidies paid out in the cantons, many parents will pay between 30 and 80 percent of this cost, depending on income. This equates to paying between €41 and €108 a day, roughly €902 to €2,376 a month.

 

It’s even more expensive to hire a nannie, which will cost between CHF3,500 (€3,678) and CHF5,000 (€5,255) a month, including mandatory pension contributions.

It is difficult to provide a nationwide overview due to the fact that things differ from canton to canton, but all cantons offer some form of subsidy for childcare costs depending on your income. 

Be warned though that subsidies will be determined on the basis of both parents’ income, with two parents both earning an average income often not qualifying for subsidies in some cantons. 

The amount you pay will be based on last year’s tax figure. 

Cantons will often provide assistance in working out whether you qualify for a subsidy and how much it will be. 

In Zurich for instance, if you earn 80,000 per year, you will be liable for around 70 francs per day. 

While the differences from canton to canton may be confusing, the fact that there are 26 different sets of rules can actually work out in your favour. 

For instance, some cantons have introduced more competitive subsidy systems recently in order to attract workers (and their taxes). 

Norway

The cost of nursery and kindergarten is capped at 3,050 Norwegian kroner, regardless of the hours attended or whether that facility is state-run or private. This means you’ll never pay more than roughly €295 a month per child in childcare costs.

Sweden

Generally, the highest amount parents have to pay for a full-time place in childcare is 1,572 SEK a month, which is around €145. The exact amount is calculated on income. It is half price if you have more than one child in childcare. 

Germany

The costs for daycare centres (Kindertagesstätte, or Kita for short) can differ greatly depending on where you live in Germany, as the fees are set by the local government.

In Schleswig-Holstein in the far north, parents pay on average nine percent of their after-tax income on childcare costs. In Hamburg, 4.4 percent of parent’s income goes on childcare as every child in entitled to five hours of free care a day. In Berlin, daycare is completely free. 

Spain

Costs can vary depending on whether it is a  private or public guardería or centro infantil (as nurseries are called in Spanish).

Public ones are heavily subsidised by the government and cost around €100-260 per month, depending on where you live in Spain and your situation. Private nurseries cost between €150 and €580 per month. There is also a fixed yearly fee called a matrícula or enrolment fee, which is around €100.

There is a 50 percent discount for large families and single parents don’t have to pay anything for childcare.

There’s also a deduction of up to €1,000 (cheque guardería) that is applied to the income tax return and works out at around €100 to €160 per month which is aimed at working mothers and is available up until the child is three years old.

France

In France, crèches tend to be the most affordable option and the cost is based on the family’s income. High earners might pay up to a maximum of €4.20 an hour (€33.60 for an 8-hour day), whereas low-income families might pay €0.26 an hour (€2.08 for an 8-hour day) at a crèche collective, which is for three months to three year olds. At the age of three, compulsory education begins in France.

The cost of a childminder is around €10.88 an hour and up to 50 percent of the costs of a nanny or professional childminder can be reimbursed by the government.

The OECD calculations on the percentage of income spent on childcare – based on two parents both working full time – is 13 percent in France. This is roughly similar to Spain and Italy.

Austria

Public nurseries and kindergartens are heavily subsidised and in some cases free, depending on where you live. For example in Vienna, parents only need to pay €72.33 a month to cover meal costs, with low income families being exempt from that fee.
 
Vienna also subsidises private kindergartens, paying up to €635.44 a month directly to the institution. 
 
In other provinces, kindergarten is free for part-time hours. It is mandatory for all children in Austria to attend part-time kindergarten from the age of five. They start school aged six.
 

Denmark

In Denmark, every child is guaranteed a place at a public childcare facility from the age of six months. The government pays 75 percent of the cost of a place or even more if your household income is below a certain threshold. 

The exact amount parents pay depends on the Kommune. In Copenhagen Municipality, the cost of nursery (vuggestue up to 2 years and 10 months) is 4,264 kroner a month including lunch (roughly €573). For kindergarten (børnehave from 2 years and 10 months to 6 years) it is 2,738 kroner a month including lunch (roughly €368).

If you have more than one child using childcare, you pay full price for the most expensive daycare and half-price for the others.

Some municipalities (kommuner) pay you money if you choose to look after your own child at home after maternity leave.

Frederiksberg Municipality for example pays 8,141 kroner per child per month for looking after children under 3 and 4,198 kroner per month for children over 3.

Parents in Denmark can also receive child and youth benefits (børne- og ungeydelsen), also known as børnepenge. This is a tax-free payment that you receive for each of your children until they reach the age of 18.

For children aged 0-2 years it is 4,653 kroner per quarter (roughly €156 per month per child). For children aged 3-6 years it is 3,681 kroner per quarter (roughly €123 per month per child).

United Kingdom

According to charity Coram in their Childcare Survey 2022, the average cost of full-time nursery is £1,166 (around €1,304 a month), which is even higher in some parts of London. There are some government subsidies available for low-income families and those receiving benefits and every parent is entitled to 15 or 30 free hours of childcare the term after their child turns three years old.

Childcare conclusion

The cost of childcare varies within each country, depending on family circumstances. However, for guaranteed low childcare costs for every parent, Sweden comes out best, with a maximum of €145 a month.

Average monthly cost of state-run childcare:

Sweden: €145 maximum

Norway: €295 maximum

Austria: €72.33 – roughly €500

Spain: €100 – €260 

Germany: €0 –  €368

Denmark: €368 – €573

France: €45,76 – €739.20 

Switzerland: €902 – €2,376 

U.K. €1,304 which reduces the term after the child turns three.

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