Risa Kato and Yuko Ohiro / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WritersThe shortage of child care centers, which take care of children after school, has become a serious problem nationwide.

School facilities, including vacant classrooms, must be utilized to open more after-school child care centers in urban areas. However, little progress has been made due to a lack of coordination between the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, which has jurisdiction over after-school child care centers, and the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, which supervises local education boards.

 

Record No. of enrolled students

At a primary school in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, about 40 students play cards and other games in a classroom or play in the schoolyard until evening during summer vacation. This is a private after-school child care center operated by a group of parents and that receives subsidies from the city and the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. During the school year, a classroom is available for children after school hours on weekdays as well as on Saturday.

According to a survey compiled earlier this month by a national liaison council for after-school child care centers, there are currently about 21,635 after-school child care facilities nationwide and 888,753 students are enrolled in them, both record highs. The council is operated by staff at child care centers and parents.

The survey found 6,944 students were on waiting lists for enrollment in after-school child care centers, but it is difficult to know the exact number because applications for the centers are not handled solely by local governments. “There are potentially a lot more students waiting,” a council official said.

Local governments in urban areas have been establishing day care centers for preschool children at a rapid pace. Therefore, there is expected to be a more serious shortage of after-school centers that take care of older children after they enter primary school.

 

The government has set a goal of making it possible for 40 percent of first- to third-grade primary school students to be enrolled at after-school child care centers in the 2017 school year. However, only 23 percent of first- to third-graders were using such facilities last school year.

“The quickest way to increase the number of after-school child care centers in urban areas, where procuring land is difficult, is to utilize existing school facilities,” said Yutaka Sanada, deputy director of the liaison council’s secretariat. “It’s cheaper to use school facilities, and parents also feel safe,” said a staff member of an after-school child care center in Yokosuka.

According to a survey conducted by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry last fiscal year, 30 percent of after-school child care centers use vacant classrooms and 20 percent use facilities built in schoolyards. Over the last five years, the number of after-school child care centers that use vacant classrooms increased by 1,100, but their percentage of all after-school child care centers remained almost unchanged.

 

Responsibility left vague

One difficulty in utilizing school facilities is reluctance on the part of schools. Schools need to secure a vacant classroom, and who bears responsibility for the children is unclear.

Eighty percent of after-school child care centers are run by cities, towns and villages, and those municipalities’ welfare sections are in charge of after-school child care. Child care center staffs are hired separately from school staff.

“After-school hours are supposed to be used by teachers to prepare for classes,” said the principal of a primary school in Kanagawa Prefecture. “I felt anxious because there were students at school I couldn’t keep an eye on.”

“We had difficulty arranging for cleanup and the replacement of various items when children in the child care centers used a classroom and restroom,” said an official of a ward education board in Tokyo.

The education board of Setagaya Ward, Tokyo, sets aside special classrooms at all primary schools in the ward for use by after-school child care centers, even if the number of students at a school increases and the school itself needs the room. Also, when school buildings are rebuilt, an extra room to be exclusively used for after-school child care is constructed, the education board said. However, not many education boards in the country are taking these measures.

According to a survey conducted by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, among 31 cities nationwide where many students are on waiting lists for enrollment at after-school child care centers, 27 cities said there were problems securing locations for those centers. The main reason was difficulty winning the understanding of education boards and schools for utilizing vacant classrooms.

In late June, the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry advised the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry and the education ministry to promote coordination between municipalities’ sections in charge of after-school child care and education boards to use vacant classrooms. The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry and the education ministry will implement measures by the end of this year.

“It’s necessary to allay schools’ concerns by clarifying rules on the use of school facilities and enabling them to closely communicate with [local government] sections in charge of after-school child care,” said Reiho Kashiwame, a professor at Shukutoku University.

Under the Child Welfare Law, after-school child care centers are used by children whose parents both work and are considered “a place for appropriate play and activity” after school hours. They are intended to be used by first- to third-graders in principle, but students up to the sixth grade are expected to be allowed to use them from the next school year.

The three laws related to support for children and child raising, which were enacted in August last year, call for improvement of after-school child care