STOCKHOLM - He even brought the cook with him. Per Uppmann, who is the general manager of nine Swedish kindergartens, helps serve their German guests salmon cream and chickpea canapés.
"One of our competitive edges is good food," Uppmann says. "Our cook isn’t just there for the kids. Parents can grab breakfast or order dinner that they can then warm up at home." Thirty-five pairs of German eyes stare at him in amazement.
That’s not all they’re amazed about. We are talking about a kindergarten open 24 hours a day, which means children can be looked after evenings and week-ends too. A kindergarten where a large flat screen in the wardrobe area shows a slide show of the day’s highpoints: kids doing crafts, kids playing, kids napping. The highpoints are also available as a smart phone app. There’s a café for parents, monthly informational evenings, regular parent/teacher talks, and catch-up sessions for kids that need them.
The German guests rub their eyes and ask: how do you finance this?
At the invitation of the German-Swedish Chamber of Commerce they have come here from German ministries, state parliaments, district and city councils, youth services. No one can quite believe it could possibly be so simple to organize looking after children in a consumer demand-oriented way. Especially as they’ve just been told that the fee parents pay doesn’t exceed a maximum of 150 euros a month, and that everyone is guaranteed of getting a place within four months.
The Germans have been wrangling for four years about how to be able to guarantee every child kindergarten space from their first year, which becomes a legal requirement as of August 1, 2013. "The local government pays school money for each child to the kindergartens," Uppmann explains. In his community that’s 1,400 euros for children under 3, and 1,100 euros for older ones. Children with special needs get more.
Uppmann continues: "It’s illegal to ask for extra fees from the parents." He still gets a return between 5% and 6%. As a private provider, he has a certain amount of leeway, and can purchase cost-efficiently because he doesn’t have to follow the tender process the way that public kindergartens do. He has fewer administrative costs and one big advantage: he can act quickly. "It would take us six months to open another kindergarten," he says.
A German observer notes that in their region the private sector is not allowed to run kindergartens: the question of whether it’s okay to make a profit from looking after young kids has still not been cleared up by legislators.
Here Ulf Lindberg, in charge of economic policy at Almega (the employer and trade organization for the Swedish service sector) offers the information that in Sweden 40% of kindergartens are communal, 40% are run by public service entities (the equivalent of Caritas or the Red Cross) and 20% are private.
"We couldn’t manage without the private schools," he says. And that is the crux of the issue, the real reason we’re here. According to the OECD, the child care market in the 27 EU states presently turns over 137 billion euros annually, 80% of it in the five biggest countries -- Germany, France, Italy, the UK and Spain.
The potential of that market, again according to the OECD, is 238 billion euros. "Those are huge growth possibilities," Lindberg says. "But how do you control quality?"
The German visitors tour the playground, which has hardly any vegetation, much to the disapproval of a city council member from Baden-Württemberg. Her frown deepens when she hears why there are so many strollers with warm covers on the porch. "The kids have their afternoon naps out here," says the kindergarten head.
A colleague from Hamburg asks: "How many square meters do you calculate per child?" A Saxon MP adds: "Without sleeping spaces you couldn’t get a license to open where I’m from."
Pragmatism is a typical Swedish characteristic, notes Linda Nordstedt, a local politician in Nacka, not far from Stockholm, that has won numerous prizes for its fine kindergartens.
Nordstedt says 60% of the local budget is spent on education and child care, and that many young families move to Nacka for just that reason. The population count will soon be moving into the six figures, she says, up from 93,000.
She is surprised at how many questions are being asked about controls. "For us, supply follows demand. If parents aren’t satisfied, they change kindergartens." Parents are asked twice a year for their thoughts, and kindergarten personnel meet every two months or so to exchange new ideas and decide on improvements.
For example: a kindergarten on wheels in a converted bus equipped with mattresses that could takes kids out to the woods, the beach, or a museum. "And you wouldn’t have trouble getting parking permission, or get complaints from area residents?" one of the Germans asks. Norstedt doesn’t understand the concern: "People like it when there are kids around."