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Childcare Crossroads

Would it work here? The countries finding success in key aspects of childcare

As part of a Noteworthy and The Good Information Project deep-dive into childcare, we look to how other countries are managing the sector.

 The Good Information Project and Noteworthy, with logo of speech bubble as well as woman minding two toddlers with toys.

WHEN IT COMES to childcare, no country is perfect – a country can perform well on one metric but fall down elsewhere.

In Ireland, the Government’s First5 strategy commits to investing €1 billion per year into childcare by 2028, and to move to a new hybrid model that will include more public funding and management. 

In Noteworthy’s deep-dive into childcare in Ireland for The Good Information Project, we interviewed a range of experts who said that the public good is best served by a publicly-funded, publicly-owned model of childcare.

(Indeed, there was very little, if any, argument for the State to stay out of childcare or for the system to be fully or mostly private).

Ireland has, so far at least, shied away from the public model: former minister for children Katherine Zappone, commissioning Partnership for the Public Good: A New Funding Model for Early Learning and Care and School-Age Childcare, constrained the expert report by explicitly prohibiting the academics and civil servants from recommending a public childcare system. 

Her successor, Roderic O’Gorman, who came into office shortly before the report was written, loosened this constraint somewhat, leaving at least the possibility that Ireland could have a public model of childcare within the next decade.

As we make changes that are intended to improve childcare and early years education for parents, children, and childcare and early years professionals, is there anything we can learn from other countries?

In July 2021, Unicef published a report looking at how 41 relatively rich countries stand on childcare. Where Do Rich Countries Stand on Childcare looked at four key metrics – cost of childcare, availability of childcare, parental leave entitlements and quality of childcare – and graded each country accordingly. 

Some of the countries in the report scored high on one metric but poorly elsewhere, highlighting the complexity facing governments trying to get childcare right.

Overall Ireland ranked 36th out of 41, with 33rd on affordability, no data on quality, 14th on access and 38th on leave

Ireland scored 36th overall, slightly ahead of Australia, Switzerland, Cyprus, the United States and Slovakia but behind Turkey, New Zealand, Czechia, Israel and Mexico.

Ireland and the UK – which also scores poorly when it comes to childcare provision – have traditionally provided childcare services via the market, rather than through a social democratic or corporatist model which links social welfare to labour force participation. 

Let’s take a look at the top performers in various areas outlined by Unicef – and see how their successes may, or may not, be useful primers for Ireland.


Overall Italy ranked 15th out of 41, with 1st on affordability, 14th on quality, 28th on access and 28th on leave.

“In 2020, a couple of two average earners would need to spend 14% of one wage [across countries surveyed] to keep two children in childcare,” Unicef reported. “The spending would range from nothing, due to free childcare (Chile, Malta and Italy) to Ireland, New Zealand and Switzerland where a couple would need to spend between a third and a half of the average wage.”

Italy’s success here appears to be related to the number of free early childhood care and education hours it provides – more than double the hours provided in Ireland. In the first half of 2020, Italy was among 12 rich countries that introduced policies to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 on families: alongside Canada, Korea and Poland, it introduced childcare benefits. 

Despite Italy’s affordable childcare, however, the country scores relatively poorly on the access and parental leave metrics. 

QUALITY: Iceland

Overall Iceland ranked 2nd out of 41, with 15th on affordability, 1st on quality, 5th on access and 19th on leave.

The report found that Iceland, Latvia, New Zealand, Finland and Denmark have the highest quality of childcare. 

“Denmark, Finland and New Zealand combine a low children-to-staff ratio with high qualifications of caregivers to ensure that children get sufficient attention from trained personnel,” the report said.

In wealthier countries, a pre-primary teacher looks after an average of 14 children, ranging from five children per teacher in Iceland to 24 children per teacher in Mexico.

Ireland was not ranked on this metric as the report found there was no comprehensive or consistent data to available, which would indicate an obvious starting point for any government aiming to measure progress in the sector.

ACCESSIBILITY: The Netherlands

Overall the Netherlands ranked 28th out of 41, with 30th on affordability, 28th on quality, 1st on access and 31st on leave.

The Netherlands is relatively expensive for childcare although, unlike Ireland, parents and guardians have no trouble finding a place. 

There is no formal educational provision for children under the age of four, but Dutch culture sees childcare as a common interest and shared responsibility of parents, government and employers, with a wide variety of arrangements available including playgroups, oppas (babysitters) widely available, trained nannies, gastouderopvang (childminder services), kinderdagverblijven (nurseries) and even 24-hour reception care for children of shift-workers.  


Overall Japan ranked 21st out of 41, with 26th on affordability, 22nd on quality, 31st on access and 1st on leave.

Although we are primarily looking at countries in the European Economic Area, Japan is an interesting example because it is a relatively traditional country – but a business-oriented nation that sees the benefits of a cultural change promoting parental leave.

Japan tops the Unicef index for leave, followed by Romania, Estonia, the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and Luxembourg (which tops the chart overall). 

Romania and Estonia have the longest leave available for mothers, while Japan and Korea have the longest leave reserved for fathers. Initially, very few fathers in Japan used this leave but the uptake has increased each year. 

Japan offers the longest entitlement to paid leave for fathers: 30 weeks of full-pay equivalent. When it was introduced in 2007, only 1.6% of fathers used it. By 2019, the number went up by five times (7.5%), including a record 16.4 per cent of government workers. In June 2021, Japan introduced more flexible paternity leave as the government wanted to increase the uptake to 30 per cent by 2025. 

The country scores relatively poorly on the other three metrics, however.


Overall Finland ranked 11th out of 41, with 24th on affordability, 4th on quality, 19th on access and 15th on leave.

Finland’s model provides parents or caregivers with an allowance to stay at home and provide care for the first three years of a child’s life. Finland also has the second highest take-up of paternity leave in the OECD.

It should be noted that evidence from Unicef suggests that take-up of paternity leave is highest in countries that introduced paternity leave a long time ago, so any such move in Ireland would need to be approached with a view to ensure that women taking longer leave than their male partners did not suffer hits to their careers and salaries. 

This investigation was proposed and part-funded by readers of Noteworthy, the investigative journalism platform from The Journal, and carried out by Peter McGuire.

This work is also co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here

 The Good Information Project and Noteworthy, with logo of speech bubble as well as woman minding two toddlers with toys.

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