In the Czech Republic, the focus is on maternity care, says Siun Creedon Prochazka.
The 39-year-old Dingle native lives in Prague with her two children Marketa (3) and Alvy (9). She recently returned from three years of maternity leave after giving birth to Marketa, and is in the process of setting up her own business as a coach for children with ADHD.
“There’s a chunk of money awarded to everyone who has a baby, a quarter of a million krona (about €10,000), and you can take from a month up to four years and stretch that money accordingly,” she says.
Czech children don’t enter childcare normally until the age of three, so there is no public funding for such care, although an EU-funded programme for under-3s can see a parent’s workplace fund 15% of such care in a private creche for children aged six months and older, meaning the care is effectively free.
At present, Siun pays €58 per month for full-time kindergarten for Marketa.
“The standard is amazing, it’s just incredible,” she says. “The nursery my daughter is in is as good as a private nursery, and the standard of care is the same all about the place.” In the Czech Republic the average wage is lower than in most of Western Europe, at about €1,400 per month however.
That does not alter the fact the country is a very parent-friendly place to raise children.
"Everything is very child-friendly, and the goal is to get parents back into work as easily as possible,” Siun says.
“Everyone pays into social insurance, so when I had my daughter I had four days in a private room and didn’t have to pay anything. You don’t have to worry so much about money when having a child here.” For older children, after-school care runs until 5pm and costs “a bit less” than kindergarten, she says.
Would she consider staying there for good?
“Definitely. I just have a feeling here that childhood is treasured and cherished. Like they’re having children’s puppetry at the weekend, there’s a real culture of childhood. Even during communism they had free childcare for infants,” she says.
“It’s a wonderful place for children to grow up, and the healthcare is amazing - you pay about €100 per month out of your wages and everything is covered.”
Cork native Rob Hilliard moved to Sweden after doing his masters when he was 23. With a Swedish mother, the decision for the 32-year-old technical director with games studio Electronic Arts was probably easier than you might think.
He and his Georgian wife Ana now have a son, Matthew, who is two. So what’s it like to raise a child in a country renowned for its childcare.
“Oh it’s an absolutely pleasant place to live,” he says of his life in Stockholm. “But the main thing that would prevent me from moving country again is the quality of life for a kid.”
“If people think of childcare as a glorified nanny, that is not the case in Sweden. Childcare hours are 7.30am to 5.30pm. We don’t let our son stay that long but for others without the option it’s there,” Rob says.
“They learn how to share, how to talk, they have themes each week, and it’s divided by age, so the older kids go to museums, or they take the subway, different kinds of parks, maybe a play, and it’s all completely covered.” Swedish childcare isn’t free, but it is very highly subsidised proportional to a parent’s income.
“For the first child it’s 3% of your household income,” Rob explains.
All childcare services are priced the same in Sweden. “You apply for your top five choices when your child is six months old. They don’t go into care until they’re a year old though,” Rob says.
“You’re guaranteed a place in your municipality. It might not be your first choice, but you’re guaranteed a place.” Fees meanwhile drop by an additional 33% once a child turns three as the years between then and six are considered a necessity for social development. And all sundries - textbooks, pens, snacks, catered lunches - are free.
What of the most frequent argument against publicly-funded childcare - that better terms for parents equates to higher taxes for everyone else?
“That’s a bit of a common misconception,” he says. “The system is both very complex and very straightforward. They are two brackets for municipality-based tax, which the authority uses to run itself. That’s about 30% in Stockholm, with a further 20% if you earn above €60,000, but there are also lots of tax subsidies to reduce what you pay.”
“Those who get paid more don’t get that much more money maybe, but the payoff is that you get this great standard of care for everybody.”
Finland isn’t a giant economy like Sweden. It doesn’t have enormous oil reserves like Norway. If anything, Finland is highly comparable to Ireland given its population.
One thing it does have in common with its Scandinavian neighbours is affordable childcare.
33-year-old Dan Nickstrom from Mullingar (he took his wife’s name through marriage) is married to a Finn, Paulina. A physics lecturer and a graphic designer/animator respectively, they have one son, two-year-old Daithi, with a second baby on the way.
The couple pay €190 per month for full-time childcare.
“Over here everything is publicly run by the local authority and state-funded. The absolute maximum you can pay is €288 per month. If you have a second child you’re charged at 40% of the cost of your first. And if you’re a couple and your collective income is less than €3,800 per month then your childcare is completely free,” Dan says.
Tax is a little bit higher, but not so much you’d notice, he says, being split between the municipality and income tax.
“If you earn €3,500 per month you’ll pay 30%. If it’s €6,000 you’d pay 39%,” Dan says.
Childcare workers themselves are funded properly, he says, with a qualified worker starting on a salary of €30,000 per year.
He is quite emotive regarding the disparity between what Finnish and Irish parents pay. “The difference is unbelievable,” he says.
“People in Dublin could be paying €1,500 a month. Over here you’re far more encouraged to have children. Almost every child goes to daycare from a year onwards. It gives you the freedom to get a job if you don’t have one, there’s no negative feedback loop.”
How about quality of life? “For families it’s very, very good. If I’m on the bus in Helsinki with my son I don’t pay for the ticket because I’m minding my child. They’re very child-centric,” he says. There are also daycare clubs in parks, people in the park who take care of your child for you for a couple of hours”.
“I’ve friends here doing PhDs who have kids on the way. You don’t have to be loaded before you can have a child,” Dan says.
“The idea is that it’s in everyone’s interests that this service be provided. It just seems to be a far more economical way of doing things. It’s been like this for years here. Finland is a small country, it doesn’t have money, it’s just managed well and has been left-leaning since it was founded.”