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Steady efforts, clear understanding needed to end childcare waiting lists

The Yomiuri ShimbunResolving the shortage of facilities able to provide childcare services is essential to overcoming the nation’s declining number of children. Policies that give peace of mind to families with small children must be steadily pushed forward.

The number of children on waiting lists because they are unable to attend childcare centers despite their parents wishing them to do so has dropped for the first time in four years. According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, 19,895 children were on waiting lists as of April, down by 6,186 from the same time last year. The number dipped below 20,000 children for the first time in 10 years.

The total capacity of childcare and other facilities increased by almost 110,000 from the previous year. Of this figure, about 40,000 children were attending so-called company-led facilities that private firms establish with subsidies from the government. Accelerated efforts by local governments and companies are to be applauded.

The government has set a goal of having no children on waiting lists by the end of fiscal 2020. While the number of such children has indeed fallen, many children still could not be admitted to day care facilities. This number tops 80,000 when “hidden waiting children,” who are not officially counted in these figures for reasons such as their parents wanting them to attend only facilities near their homes, are included.

The employment rate among women of child-bearing age is increasing. The need for childcare services is certain to grow further. The government is hammering out a plan to provide additional facilities capable of accommodating 320,000 children by the end of fiscal 2020. This plan should be made a reality as soon as possible.

Plans by local governments and other entities are scheduled to secure childcare spots for 290,000 children. While this raises the prospect of waiting lists being eliminated, there is no room yet for optimism. In previous cases, overly rosy forecasts by local governments have spoiled efforts to resolve the problem. Any repeat of such mistakes must be avoided.

Improve staff conditions

The impact of the government’s plan to make childcare services and preschool education free of charge from October 2019 also is worrying. It has been pointed out that making them free will highly likely raise demand among households that currently do not use childcare services.

In fact, the city of Akashi, Hyogo Prefecture, which independently made childcare services free in the city two years ago, received a surge in applications to use these facilities. According to the latest ministry figures, Akashi was the municipality with the most children on waiting lists.

Are the wishes of families with small children being accurately understood and reflected in childcare plans? It is vital that local governments constantly examine these issues and flexibly review their plans to fit actual local conditions.

As more facilities are established, securing enough childcare staffers is becoming a serious problem. In some cases, difficulties in finding sufficient human resources have forced childcare centers to reduce their admissions quota or delayed their opening. Labor conditions must be quickly improved, such as by further increasing wages and reconsidering where staffers should be placed. These steps also are essential for boosting the quality of care provided to children.

Establishing new childcare facilities is becoming difficult in many urban areas due to reasons including a shortage of land and opposition from nearby residents. Using kindergartens equipped with playgrounds and other facilities could be an effective option to get around this problem.

Efforts should be made to encourage these facilities to offer childcare for extended hours and accept children at an early age, leading to their promotion in status to nintei kodomoen, which are certified childcare facilities that combine the functions of a childcare center and a kindergarten. The government also should provide solid financial support for these facilities.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Sept. 14, 2018)Speech



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