Day care rebellion set off a strike

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Thousands of staff members at day care centers in Oslo, joined by parents, went on strike on Wednesday afternoon over cutbacks, chronic staffing shortages and increasing privatization. Local politicians are fighting what amounts to a day care rebellion, with other day care staff and parents unhappy around the country.

Day care for children in Norway has become an issue of great political debate, as local governments grapple with budget cuts. The cuts led to a strike by day care workers in Oslo on Wednesday. PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet

Oslo’s city government (byrådet), with its current Conservative (Høyre) majority, has confirmed major cuts in its budget for 2013. These cuts are believed to have a direct bearing on the quality of Oslo’s day care centers and what they can provide for the city’s 35,000 children, reports newspaper Dagsavisen.

Newspaper Aftenposten reported back in November on planned privatization of several day care centers currently run by local public authorities. A report from consulting firm Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC), commissioned by the city government, concluded that it was more profitable for the private sector to run nurseries.

Parents fear that when private companies take over day care centers, they are most interested in maximizing profit. Since 80 percent of day care costs go towards staff salaries, that’s the area where most cuts are likely to occur.

The city of Oslo has now also terminated current staffing standards, which guarantee one adult per three children under three, and one adult per six children over three. Although there is a current recommendation that there also should be one pre-school teacher per 14-18 children over three years of age, and one for every seven to nine children under three years, there is no law to enforce this. Instead there is just a vague demand that the number of staff in kindergartens should be “educationally justifiable.”

Children unhappy, too
Parents and day care workers fear for the quality and safety of the day care centers. Many of the children in day care centers around Norway also feel that the adults there don’t have enough time for them: Half of those questioned in a recent widespread survey said that they could not get hold of a grown-up when they needed to.

There is currently a major shortage of pre-school teachers in Norway, so day care centers often struggle to fill teaching posts and can end up employing unqualified staff instead. If staff are off sick, the centers often have no money to pay for substitutes.

There is also high staff turnover and several day care centers in Oslo no longer have their own leader. Instead, one leader is appointed to lead several centers, with up to 150 children. Staff are expected to spend increasing amounts of time on paperwork, including charting each child’s progress, and have significantly less time to actually spend with children.

‘Desperate parents’ and crying kids
Skjalg Bjørndal, leader of the Parent’s Council Working Committee (FAU) at the Rodeløkka day care center in Oslo, said other parents tell him their children cry when they leave because they feel unsafe and see new faces every day. He told Dagsavisen that “desperate parents” ask for the nurseries’ staffing schedules so they can use their own flexible working hours to drop off their children at a time when someone that the child knows well will be there.

Politicians are left arguing with parents, day care advocates and amongst themselves, with local governments blaming the state for a lack of funding and the state blaming local politicians for not earmarking funding as intended. Norway’s current left-center coalition government made day care a priority and the Socialist Left party (SV), a member of the coalition, pushed through guaranteed day care placement for all children who need it. They accuse local governments of no longer giving day care high enough priority.

Nursing home and school needs, too
The local politicians, though, are also under pressure to improve schools and elder care with demand rising for more nursing homes, and claim they can’t provide it all. Top Oslo politician Torger Ødegaard of the Conservatives has defended his government’s day care programs, saying “nurseries do not need staffing regulations” and that “there isn’t necessarily any connection between the number of staff and the quality of what kindergartens can offer.”

SV’s new proposals, aimed to help win national elections next year, include a requirement that 50 percent of day care staff should have formal teacher training, as opposed to the current 35 percent. SV is also promising to introduce standards to guarantee enough staffing, to ensure that all employees have basic training in working with children and to have two admissions of new children per year. There currently is only one, and only children who have their first birthday before September 1 are guaranteed a place for that year. This has in the past led to an upsurge in summer births, placing huge demands on hospitals, with parents planning for day care places.

The government will be putting forth its own proposals for new day care regulations in the spring. Everything points to a tough political fight around minimum staffing requirements in day care.

Views and News from Norway/Elizabeth Lindsay

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