Doing things differently in Denmark

Guest Letterr: Nursery World Magazine (9th March 2022)

You may have read the many national news stories last week reporting on the Duchess of Cambridge’s two-day whistle stop visit to Copenhagen – part of which was to learn about how Denmark promotes infant mental wellbeing alongside physical health, and how it harnesses the power of nature, relationships and playful learning in the first five years of life.

We often get exasperated when the Nordic childcare model is held up by British politicians and policy makers as the best example of childcare. They make it look like we could never be as good as our Nordic friends, but they fail to acknowledge the level of support, funding, and societal appreciation that underpins the Nordic childcare service which our Government does not provide here.

I have always been interested in the Danish model because parents pay no more than 30 per cent of the costs of the nursery and most guarantee a place for children from the age of one. That’s roughly, £425 a month including lunch. Pricing and discounts are set by the local municipality’s placement service and the Government subsidises the whole model service, so no one loses out. Interestingly, none of the situations we face here in the UK relating to shortfalls in funding are experienced in Denmark.

The other reason I like the Danish childcare model is because going to nursery is considered a rite of passage. It’s not a two-tiered system where attendance depends on being able to afford it. The importance of accessing care and education is accepted by society. This is shaped though their social pedagogical approach. The ultimate aim of a social pedagogy is to create a more just society through educational means. This is evident in the Danish model which considers raising and educating children as a shared responsibility of society, underpinned by support for families and the importance of building strong relationships.

The LEYF approach is framed within a social pedagogy and I wish more of the UK early years sector supported this. Social pedagogy is framed by relationships and social context. In early childhood education, social pedagogy begins from the view that early education is a combination of social, pedagogical and political practices and the boundaries between these disciplines must be crossed in order to provide useful services to both children and adults. In essence, social pedagogy is concerned with well-being, learning and growth – recognising everyone’s intrinsic worth and ability to reach their full potential. Staff have a multi-dimensional and holistic understanding of well-being and learning. Children are viewed as competent where we facilitate them to think for themselves developing the skills for living in a democracy.

Central to the Danish social pedagogy is the value of play. The joyous photographs taken of the Duchess of Cambridge during her visit show her having fun whilst observing the children learning outside and wallowing in the play opportunities. In Denmark, there is no fixation of targets and outcomes but instead a firm focus on the joy of being and learning. Their staff are all qualified to degree level and properly paid along with high status in society. The focus on play has not affected their international ratings. So, in a country of just under six million people, it can achieve literacy of 99 per cent for its population. In fact, Denmark remains 10th in the world for their education systems and is ranked second in the World Happiness Index. Perhaps our politicians who mess with our education system might wish to remind themselves of those impressive stats.

Without doubt, I admire the Danish’s focus on the future which is helpfully facilitated by social pedagogy where continual reflection and review allows pedagogical responses to societal changes which risks societal fragmentation and social exclusion.

Social pedagogy challenges our perceived reductionist approach to pedagogy. Acknowledging that pedagogy includes education in its broadest sense, i.e. a deep engagement with a child’s whole upbringing, social pedagogy continues to be shaped by social pedagogues who courageously embrace a level of pedagogical fluidity driven by continual discussion and reflection as we observe and understand the ever-changing world faced by our children.