5 reasons why child care in Iceland is special

Published on Wednesday, 06 October 2021
Last updated on Monday, 04 October 2021

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Iceland is a cool customer when it comes to early childhood education.

UNICEF has ranked ‘the land of fire and ice’ number one in the world for child care quality, and when parental leave policies, child care access and affordability are thrown into the mix, UNICEF says Iceland has the second best child care polices amongst rich countries (behind Luxembourg – which didn’t rate so well for quality and affordability).

So, what makes Iceland’s child care system the envy of the world?  Well, here are five things it does wonderfully.

1. Iceland offers unbeatable child care quality

It’s no mean feat to attract the highest ranking for child care quality out of a field of 41 developed countries, and Icelandic children benefit from very low adult to child ratios and great care-giver qualifications.

In Iceland, there’s one educator for every five children, which ensures they get dedicated and individualised care, and although New Zealand measures up very well in comparison, places like France and Mexico have one educator looking after 23 or 24 kids. Yikes.

2. Iceland offers gender equal parental leave

For the 12th year running, Iceland has been rated the most gender equal country in the world, and its parental leave policy backs this up.

As of 1 January 2021, Icelandic mums and dads are entitled to six months paid parental leave each. Either parent can transfer one month’s leave to the other parent, meaning one parent can take seven months off work and the other can take five.

Subject to a couple of eligibility criteria and monetary caps, each parent is paid 80 per cent of their average total salary from the Parental Leave Fund, and Iceland’s gender equal parental leave policy means there’s a great incentive for dads to take time off work to care for their little one.

As a result, Icelandic dads take 30 per cent of the parental leave, which is high compared to the 10 per cent average in other countries.

It’s also great to see that equal pay is enshrined into Icelandic law, so there’s less likely to be a chasm between what Mum and Dad earns (both normally, and when taking parental leave).

In Iceland, companies with more than 25 employees must prove that they pay women and men equally for a job of equal value, or else they incur a daily fine.

Both parents can also take unpaid parental leave (aka ‘temporary parental leave’) for up to 16 weeks until their child turns eight.

Plus, there’s a childbirth grant for parents who aren’t eligible for paid parental leave.

3. Iceland’s child care is affordable – especially compared to ours

Child care in New Zealand is world-famously expensive, but in Iceland, it’s affordable for double and single income families.

Under twos receive care from ‘day-parents’ or ‘day-mothers,’ and government subsidies help parents pay for child care.

Single parents and students can get a subsidy from the time their baby is six-months-old, and couples can get one from when their baby is nine-months-old.

Child care then gets cheaper when littlies go to kindergarten between the ages of two and six (with some kindies enrolling one-year-olds).

Cost-wise, OECD data shows that Icelandic couples on an average wage, with two kids in care, spend five per cent of their income on child care (compared with 37 per cent for Kiwi couples).

Single parents in Iceland will spend four per cent of their income on this care (compared with the 10 per cent spent by single parents here).

To help with child-raising costs, Icelandic parents receive a means-tested, non-taxable child benefit for each dependant, which continues from their child’s first to 18th birthday. There are also some special income-related benefits for kids under the age of seven.

4. Iceland’s child care is very accessible

UNICEF ranked Iceland fifth in the world for access, and this means it’s easy for families to access formal child care and education programmes for under threes and in the year before Icelandic kids go to school.

According to 2020 OECD data:

  • Enrolment rates exceed 50 per cent for ages one and over in Iceland
  • By the age of two, more than 80 per cent of Icelandic children are enrolled in early childhood education, and
  • Iceland has one of the highest enrolment rates for ages three to five, with close to 100 per cent of preschoolers enrolled.

To ensure that all children aged 12 months and over can be offered a kindergarten place, the Icelandic government has been spending billions of  króna building new kindergartens and extending existing ones to care for more children under each roof.

5. Iceland’s government invests generously in its preschoolers

In 2020, Iceland and Norway were the only OECD countries where spending on all three- to five-year-olds enrolled in early childhood education and primary education amounted to one per cent or more of gross domestic product.

To put things in perspective, the average for other countries was 0.6 per cent, and our neighbour, Australia, spent in the order of 0.3 per cent.

All of these facts and figures help to explain why Iceland has been ranked so highly for its child care policies, and even if we don’t have the same system in New Zealand, we can be proud of our child care quality and inspired by another little country that’s embracing gender equality and giving kids a world-class start.

Further reading

The Hijalli nursery school in Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, teaches gender equality from an early age.

The kids’ uniforms and toys are gender-neutral, girls and boys are separated for most of the day, and they’re encouraged to break free of stereotypical gender roles and behaviours – with boys putting on nail polish and girls building courage by running through snow in bare feet!

To learn more about the Hijalli teaching model, read here.

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