Child care services are in a serious process of expansion. Data from a recent IDB study documents that in a sample of 34 programs that offer this service in 19 countries, over the past five years, enrollment has grown by 117% while the number of centers and the amount of staff serving them has increased by 60%. This means that centers are operating with more children and more staff.
If the centers were operating below their installed capacity, this, alone, wouldn’t necessarily be a problem; however, the same study suggests that this is not the case. On the contrary, it seems that the growing demand for these services puts pressure on the existing supply. Demand is on the rise because mothers (and poor mothers, in particular) need to work and cannot look after their own children. Moreover, with the urbanization of Latin America, the presence of the support network offered by extended family is less common.
The worrisome aspect of this growth in coverage of child care services is that it quite often happens without regard for the critical importance of quality. The quality of child care for infants and toddlers is critical precisely because these children are in an extremely important phase during which the brain is growing faster than at any other time of life and the immune system is developing. Hence, the quality of care they receive and the interactions they have will play a key role in their future development (Florencia and I have discussed the issue in previous posts).
In many countries, the accelerated expansion of coverage of child care services has been made possible through growing private sector participation. This participation occurs through different channels:
- First, in many countries, public programs are no longer directly responsible for the delivery of services, and instead they are subcontracted to third parties (community organizations, NGOs, private providers, and even local governments). Under this method of operation, providers receive a subsidy per child, but they also charge fees to parents who use the service. In other words, a portion of operating costs has been passed along to families.
- Second, in tandem, private sector supply has increased. Service offerings can take two forms. At one extreme, we have a very costly form available only to the wealthiest households, which provides services that are generally high quality. At the other extreme is the informal offering from an unregulated sector that provides child care services to lower-income populations who pay very low rates.
To respond to these changes, it would seem natural that governments should be strengthening their authority in such a way as to consolidate quality control systems both for the providers who are (partially or fully) publicly funded and those who operate exclusively in the private sphere. Governance is split between establishing and enforcing rules for the granting of operating licenses for centers. That is to say, a set of quality standards is needed that defines the conditions under which these services can operate.
Then, there’s the periodic verification and quality improvement system, which requires transparent and credible inspection, control and sanction processes. Hand in hand with verification is the support provided to centers in order to identify critical areas that require investment and improvement. It’s worth highlighting the interesting developments made by Jamaica’s Early Childhood Commission on issues of standards and monitoring.
Finally, an additional component of the quality system is the accreditation process. This process allows centers to demonstrate an exceptional commitment to stringent quality criteria, and it informs parents in their decision to select a child care provider. Accreditation is a process that is usually undertaken by an external, independent entity.
But let’s return to the initial argument: the coverage of child care services is growing, and its delivery model is changing. We find ourselves in a situation where the management skills of those who lead this process of change will be key to achieving good results, in an efficient manner, in terms of the quality of service provided and, thus, the development of the children served. Urgent: good managers wanted!