German minister revamps family policies

3rd April 2007, Comments 0 comments

3 April 2007, Berlin (dpa) - Germany hopes to catch up with other European countries by providing more nursery school places in a bid to encourage mothers to work and reverse a declining birthrate. Plans endorsed this week by Germany's federal states call for tripling the number of day care places to 750,000 by 2013, despite uncertainties about how this will be financed. The move was championed by Family Affairs Minister Ursula von der Leyen, a mother of seven who has aroused the ire of conservatives who s

3 April 2007

Berlin (dpa) - Germany hopes to catch up with other European countries by providing more nursery school places in a bid to encourage mothers to work and reverse a declining birthrate.

Plans endorsed this week by Germany's federal states call for tripling the number of day care places to 750,000 by 2013, despite uncertainties about how this will be financed.

The move was championed by Family Affairs Minister Ursula von der Leyen, a mother of seven who has aroused the ire of conservatives who see the changes as a break with traditional family values.

In order to adapt to the needs of modern society, the minister wants to ensure that every third child in Germany under the age of three will have the chance to attend nursery school.

At present, Germany lags behind its European neighbours in providing day care. Figures released by the government show only 13.5 per cent of children under three attend nursery schools, compared with the European average of 35 per cent.

By increasing the number of day care places, Germany will reach "European standards," the minister said, stressing that "quick action" was needed because "waiting lists are too long."

When von der Leyen first announced her plans earlier this year she saw her popularity rise, but also met with a barrage of criticism from conservative church leaders.

The Catholic Bishop of Augsburg, Walter Mixa, said women were being "degraded into birthing machines," and called the minister's idea "blinded by ideology and hostile to children."

Women who combined a career with raising a family were dubbed "raven mothers," by conservative politicians who saw them pushing their children out of the nest at a very early age.

Von der Leyen won the support of her boss, Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said that there was a need for more day care places, adding that, "Germany needs to be more child-friendly."

Government ministers are also hoping that a greater availability of day care places will encourage women to have more children, offsetting a fertility rate of 1.3 children per woman that is one of the lowest in Europe.

The Family Association of Catholics said it recognized there was a demand for more nursery school places, but warned that they should not be expanded at the expense of family life.

"Increasing the scope of day care should not be financed through a reduction or scrapping of payments or services for married couples or families," a spokesperson for the association said.

Von der Leyen estimates that the goal of creating half-a-million new nursery school places will cost 1 billion euros (1.3 billion dollars) in 2008, rising to 4 billion euros by 2013.

The minister said she would ensure the federal government paid a share of the costs, even though under Germany's federal system, the states and municipalities themselves are responsible for financing day care centres.

Some of the pressure could be taken off the state and local governments if more women join the labour market, according to the Institute for Education, Socio-Economic Research and Consulting (FIBS).

"In this case the increased capacity could virtually finance itself," said FIBS director Dieter Dohmen, pointing to extra revenues from income tax and social security contributions.

Most of the costs of the expansion would have to be borne by the former West German states, which have up to 10 times fewer day care places per 1,000 children than their counterparts in the former communist East Germany.

This dates back to the time when the East German state encouraged women to work in order to support their families, while in the wealthier West Germany the husband was usually the sole breadwinner.

But whether putting children in the hands of carers at an early age is good for them is open to discussion.

A recent study compiled in the United States showed that children who regularly attend day care centres develop more behavioural problems in kindergartens that those who don't.

The more time children spent in day care the more aggressive and rebellious they became in kindergartens, while children who never went to day care showed the fewest problems, according to the survey by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

DPA

Subject: German news

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