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UK vs. Scandinavia – What can we learn?

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Published by: Dutyfy

11th September 2013

A couple of well-informed individuals suggested to us on our Dutyfy survey that their lives, and the future of working parents in the UK would be drastically improved if we looked to Scandinavian countries for inspiration.  So we thought it would be interesting to look at what exactly it is that makes the Nordic model seem so Utopian to working parents.

For starters, Denmark has an extremely strong culture of female working. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 70.4% of women in 2011 were in work, making it second in the EU.  This gets more impressive when we look at mothers with children under six, for whom the statistic raises to 79%, the highest in Europe.

Eurofound carried out a survey showing that in Denmark, 79% of mothers return to work to the same extent after parental leave , and in Finland 62% do.  In the UK this figure is at just 35%.  Furthermore, a UK poll of 1,600 part-time working mothers by the Resolution Foundation found almost half (48%) on low-to-middle incomes took a less skilled job when they returned to work. Of those with degrees, 42% have taken a job that required fewer qualifications so that they would be able to work part-time.

The differences are huge, and we do not have to look very far to work out why this is the case.  In the UK, the cost of childcare is crippling.  For 41% of UK families, childcare costs are as high as mortgage or rent payments.  And it seems that, when compared to other countries in the EU, our childcare costs are astronomical.  In the UK a family with two salaries spends 27% of their family income on childcare.  Among the 34 countries that form part of the OECD, the average is 12%.

The problem is not that the UK aren’t investing in families. 3.6% of the UK GDP is spent of family benefits, which is the third highest in Europe, after France and, you guessed it, Denmark, at 3.7%.  The difference is how it is spent.

In Sweden, all children between one and six go to pre-school, and the maximum a family pays is £114 per month.  In Denmark, families pay up to 25% of childcare costs and this is means-tested.  Poor families can pay as little as nothing, and the government foots the rest of the costs.

While the Nordic model sees more of the budget spent on services, the UK opts instead for cash benefits.  In the UK, 10% of state spending on family policy goes towards maternity and paternity leave, compared with 17% in Denmark. Just 26% of the spending in the UK is on childcare, compared with 49% in Denmark. The largest proportion of family-related state spending in the UK is on tax credits, at 29%, compared with zero in Denmark.

Perhaps the UK should really be changing its focus, especially since the Institute for Public Policy Research has calculated that universal childcare would pay its way. This government would be getting back £20,050 in tax revenue over four years for every single woman who returns to full-time employment

Even if we acknowledge that the differences between the UK and Scandinavia are too fundamental for comparison, for example the much higher taxes involved in the Nordic countries, there are some issues that are societal, and embedded in attitudes rather than governmental practice.

Finland’s practice of sending out a baby box, filled with clothing and other essentials for newborns, is demonstrative of the idea that every child matters, and that babies are a collective responsibility.  The maternity box sends out the message that all babies are important, and that all parents deserve support.  This attitude is further demonstrated by the fact that every child under the age of seven has an unconditional right to municipal day care services.


And speaking of collective responsibility, the burden (and joy) of bringing up children is widely considered the duty of both parents.  In Sweden, both parents can share the collective 16 months paid leave available to them.  As an economic incentive for mothers and fathers to share childcare more equally and to improve mothers’ participation in working life, in July 2008 the Swedish government introduced a ‘Gender Equality Bonus’.

The UK government can learn a lot from these attitudes in their implementation of policy, and in the kinds of discussion they bring to parliament.  We can also be inspired by them in our own management of our lives, and how we manage working and parenthood.

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Dutyfy is a network for women who want to make space for personal goals, such as motherhood, volunteering and philanthropy, alongside and in partnership with their career. Join the conversation as we strive to re-define ‘normal’, and challenge the assumptions that prescribe our choices and dictate how we see ourselves. Together let’s explore a path that recognises and values all aspects of a life’s ambition.

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