Fears grow on child care reform (Nov.25)
Noriko Sakakibara and Yoshiko Kosaka / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writers
The government’s plan to integrate kindergartens and child day care centers in fiscal 2013 is fiercely opposed by parents and officials of such facilities, who fear a lowering of standards and a prioritization of profits.
Parents are also uneasy about the plan to establish so-called preschool centers, since funding and other key details have not been clarified.
Amendments to the project–which featured in the Democratic Party of Japan’s election pledges–will likely be required before the government submits a related bill to the ordinary Diet session next year.
On Nov. 17, about 2,000 people with ties to private kindergartens across the nation met in a hall in Tokyo. Although the event was a regular annual gathering for parents and directors of private kindergartens, talk focused on the plan to integrate kindergartens and day care centers.
Participants made urgent appeals for action against the plan, saying they could not accept the mooted mergers.
The previous day, in an attempt to calm rising criticism, the government presented three alternative proposals to a working team of a panel studying the integration plan.
One was the option of establishing new preschool kids centers, while allowing existing kindergartens and day care centers to continue operating as they are.
However, this has done nothing to quell unrest over the proposed changes.
A director of a kindergarten in Kyoto said: “Some parents have asked us if the kindergarten is going to disappear in the near future. We don’t know what to tell them, even though November is when we usually accept enrollments for the next year.”
Hiromasa Hojo, vice chairman of the AllJapan Private Kindergarten Federation, said it was outrageous of the government to suggest such drastic changes in such a short period of time.
Currently, different sets of standards are applied to kindergartens and day care centers. Under the government’s integration plan, less-demanding standards will be applied to all facilities, Hojo complained.
“That will make us unable to maintain the current standards for play yards and quality of education in kindergartens,” he said.
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Differing ideals
The difference between the roles played by kindergartens and day care centers is essential context for the debate.
Kindergartens believe they not only look after children but also serve as educational institutions. Day care centers, meanwhile, see themselves as caring for children as well as acting as a social welfare service that helps working parents.
In early November, a meeting of parents was held at a ward-run day care center in Tokyo. A brochure that read “Caring for young children will become a profit-oriented business” was circulated.
A staff member who spoke at the meeting said public day care centers were in crisis. Disparities in the quality of child care services between municipalities would increase if the new system was adopted, she said.
“The new system will allow private companies to enter the field. The government’s criteria for the minimum size of rooms in child care facilities and the staff-to-children ratio will probably change,” she said.
A mother in the audience said, “I don’t want to see the quality of child care drop.”
On Nov. 14, staff from various kindergarten and day care facilities, along with parents and their children, took part in a public demonstration in central Tokyo to protest the plan to integrate facilities.
“Child care should be the responsibility of the state,” the demonstrators shouted.
A senior member of the National Council of Child care, which represents private and public kindergartens and day care centers, said some member facilities acknowledge changes to the current system–under which waiting lists for day care centers are getting longer, and a series of cases of child abuse have occurred–are needed.
“However, child care workers feel uneasy [about the integration plan] as it has no philosophy regarding the creation of high-quality facilities for children,” he said.
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Long-standing problems
Kindergartens and child day care centers are subject to different operating standards, and many complications would arise if all such facilities were to become subject to a single set of criteria.
For example, kindergartens would be required to have a kitchen on the premises if they began accepting children younger than 3 years, which could cost tens of millions of yen to install. If kindergartens were to operate year-round, rather than only during school terms, it would be difficult for staff to take long vacations.
On the other hand, if day care centers had to offer educational curriculums of the same standard currently required of kindergartens, they would have to hire and train teachers and secure an outdoor play area, among other problems.
Taeko Matsuda, director of nonprofit organization Kosodatehiroba Zenkoku Renraku Kyogikai, has participated in the government’s working team as a representative of parents. She said parents were worried by the lack of available information on the plan, but expressed support in principle for changes to the system.
“I think this is a rare opportunity to improve the child care environment by solving long-standing problems in child care and infant education. I think the government should create a new system that reflects the opinions of parents and the people in charge of these facilities,” she said.
(Nov. 25, 2010 Yomiuri Shimbun)

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Kindergartens, day care centers may merge (Japan Times Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2010 )

When it comes to finding a place to park the kiddies for the day, working parents generally have two options: kindergartens and day care facilities. Kindergartens take in children from age 3 and are open for about four hours. Day care centers provide up to 11 hours of care for kids ranging in age from newborns to elementary school age. These institutions have been kept separate, but kindergarten enrollment is declining due to the falling birthrate, whereas there aren’t enough day care facilities to meet the needs of working parents and hence many kids are on waiting lists.

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FYI PRESCHOOL INTEGRATION Kindergartens, day care centers may merge (Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2010 Japan Times)
By KANAKO TAKAHARAStaff writer

When it comes to finding a place to park the kiddies for the day, working parents generally have two options: kindergartens and day care facilities.

Kindergartens take in children from age 3 and are open for about four hours. Day care centers provide up to 11 hours of care for kids ranging in age from newborns to elementary school age.
These institutions have been kept separate, but kindergarten enrollment is declining due to the falling birthrate, whereas there aren’t enough day care facilities to meet the needs of working parents and hence many kids are on waiting lists.
This has prompted the government to ponder ways to put both groups together under one roof.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan has pledged to submit bills to the Diet early next year to effect such an integration. But many hurdles would have to be overcome, including questions over hours of operation and added facilities.
Following are questions and answers on the integration of kindergartens and day care facilities:
Why is integration considered necessary?
Perhaps the main reason is that so many children of working parents are on waiting lists for day care.
The anemic economy is leading to more households with two working parents, and in a lot of urban areas day care facilities are few and far between.
In many cases, mothers are forced to quit work because no places are available to look after their children.
As of April 1, 26,275 children, a large portion aged 2 or younger, were on the waiting list for government-subsidized day care centers nationwide, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.
Kindergartens, meanwhile, are finding enrollment shortfalls. As of May 2009, only 69 percent of the nation’s kindergartens had a full complement of children, figures from the education ministry show.
The government believes that consolidating day care operations with kindergartens would be an effective way of rectifying both problems.
At the end of fiscal 2009, there were about 14,000 kindergartens and 23,000 day care centers operated through government subsidies. These institutions would be the targets of the consolidation.
What would the combined facility be like?
The merged facility would be known as a “kodomo-en” (children’s facility).
Working parents would be able to place toddlers in the kodomo-en, and they would also take in kids of nonworking moms when they turn 3.
Thus children between 3 and elementary school age would attend a kodomo-en instead of a regular kindergarten.
The government hopes to start the integration process in 2013 and complete it in 10 years.
The plan calls for a new ministry to be set up to deal with child care and other support measures.
What are the hurdles of combining the functions of the two types of facilities?
The main problem will be how to narrow the differences between kindergartens and day care centers, which operate under separate ministries.
The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry oversees kindergartens, while the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry is in charge of day care centers.
A key difference is their hours of operation. Kindergartens are usually open for four hours; day care centers oversee kids for 11 hours or more.
In addition, kindergartens have summer, winter and spring breaks, while day care centers are open throughout the year except for some holidays.
Kindergartens and day care centers have played separate roles.
Kindergartens, as stipulated in the School Education Law, are preschools aimed at nurturing the basis of education with an emphasis on learning and usually involve a screening process before a child is accepted.
Day care centers, on the other hand, are set up under the Child Welfare Law. They are intended as child welfare facilities aimed at taking care of children whose parents are unable to provide care due to work, illness or other reasons. Admission is determined by local governments based on necessity. The emphasis is more on care than on education.
Observers say there is not much difference nowadays between what kids learn at kindergartens and at day care centers. But some kindergarten operators fear the quality of education may deteriorate if they operate for longer hours, which would give teachers less time to prepare for and review their classes.
Kindergartens are also allowed to set their own tuition, while fees for government-subsidized day care centers are decided based on parent income.
The highest annual fee for a private kindergarten is \1.2 million, but the average is \250,000.
Didn’t the previous Liberal Democratic Party-led administration try to integrate child care centers and kindergartens?
Yes, but with limited success. Influential lawmakers who have vested interests in both the health and education ministries were strongly opposed to the move, including the late Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori.
In 2006, the government started integrating kindergartens and day care centers, calling the new facilities Nintei Kodomo-en (authorized children’s facility). As of April, there were 532 Nintei Kodomo-en nationwide.
But because both ministries continued to oversee the facilities, the result was an explosion of paperwork.
To secure subsidies, Nintei Kodomo-en officials need to apply separately to the education and health ministries based on the number of their children registered as either kindergartners or day care attendees. Tuition for Kodomo-en also varies depending on how the children are registered.
Are there opponents to the merger?
Opposition is strong, especially among kindergarten operators.
Kiyoharu Nakamura, head of Kiyose Kindergarten in Kiyose, Tokyo, said that though he supports the idea, integration would impose a heavier burden and give little benefit to kindergartens.
“Accepting children at the age of 2 and younger means longer working hours for teachers and requires closer attention and care for children,” said Nakamura, who also runs a day care and a Nintei Kodomo-en.
Kindergartens would also need to install kitchens so they can offer meals, but it is still unclear how much the government would provide in the way of subsidies for such investments, Nakamura said.
Is integration a good idea for children’s education and care?
Experts say it is.
“By integrating the two, children will be able to enjoy a consistent early childhood education that will ensure a smooth transition to primary school,” said Takashi Muto, a professor of child education at Shiraume Gakuen University.
The importance of early child education has gained a place in the spotlight in the past decade, especially in Britain during the Tony Blair government, when the education of immigrants became a problem, Muto said.
In Japan, Muto said, the differences between each child’s abilities is a problem as child care and education vary in each household depending on the economic and educational background of the parents.
Are there any other countries integrating kindergartens and day care centers?
Yes. According to a survey conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development last year, seven countries out of 19 respondents said they have integrated day care centers and kindergartens.
They are Chile, Finland, Norway, Slovenia, Sweden, Scotland and New Zealand. Among their stated reasons are the benefit of consolidating administrative work and creating a better transition to primary education.
What would happen to preschools and kindergartens at international schools in Japan?
So far, the government has made no mention of how the change would impact them. But it is unlikely there would be any dramatic changes.
“International preschools and kindergartens are basically not eligible for subsidies, so we are not normally affected too much by what goes on in the Japanese education system,” said Christopher Holland, president of the Tokyo Association of International Preschools.
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