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Living in the moment

Is Finnish supremacy in the international literacy league due to a major investment in childcare? Diane Hofkins visited daycare centres to find out

Each child aged 10 months to six years who attends daycare in the city of Espoo, Finland, has an "individual care, upbringing and education plan".

This document, agreed between the centre and the parents, has a house on the cover. The roof is labelled "child's well-being" and one of the upstairs windows is "the child as hisher own precious self".

Twee? Or spot on? "We are all different," says Jaana VenAlAinen, kindergarten teacher at FriisilA Day Care Centre. "I can do one thing, and you can do another." The centre's brochure says: "In our daycare centre we value unique childhood. Together with the children we experience childhood's pleasure and grief. All feelings are permitted for us."

Although parents often just want their children to be happy, it is important for them to be allowed a range of emotions, says Jaana.

This helps to illustrate one of the Office for Standards in Education's findings when inspectors visited classes for six-year-olds in Finland, Denmark and England: in Scandinavia, young children's development as people was more important than their academic attainments.

If Finland's daycare system is among the best in the world, the provision in Espoo, a prosperous city of some 220,000 near Helsinki, is the creme de la cr me.

FriisilA is fairly typical, say those who work there. Its spacious, airy rooms, with plenty of facilities for art and craft, drama and dressing up, cooking (there's a kitchen with thigh-high appliances) and napping (a row of bunk beds) would make any early-years worker here green with envy.

A great deal of time is spent outdoors, and each group of FriisilA children has its own little forest. The children's activity schedule for an average week includes arts, woods, skating and skiing, music and brain gym. Formal school in Finland begins at seven; six-year-olds are in a transition year, spending half a day in pre-school lessons (see below), with daycare available until 6pm if their parents wish. Most pre-school classes are in the daycare centres, although a few are in schools.

Pre-school teachers are highly educated. Like all teachers in Finland, they have a masters degree, which prepares them to teach altruism, self-esteem, learning how to learn, interest in literature, maths by way of experience, creative problem-solving, respecting others' views of life and convictions, nature conservation and respect, personal well-being, movement, and expressing oneself musically.

In a recent survey, nearly all pre-school teachers in Helsinki felt they successfully taught "the joy of doing and learning". Finland has the best literacy in the world, consistently coming top of international surveys of reading at 15. One reason for this is surely the nation's willingness to spend a great deal of money on young children and their families.

Parents get 10 months maternity leave, with the right to stay at home and collect 100 (pound;69) a month until the child is three, and then return to their job. Daycare costs about E200 a month, but there is a sliding scale, so some parents pay nothing.

For those who need it, 24-hour daycare is free, because, says Kaarina Salonen, daycare co-ordinator for Espoo, it would simply be too expensive for anyone to afford. Espoo's Kuutamo (Moonlight) centre offers 24-hour care, and has been made cosy and homely to provide a sense of permanence and stability, especially for those children whose lives lack these qualities, she explains. Some children stay there until 9pm and a small number sleep there, for instance, when their parents are on night shift, tended by five all-night staff, even at Christmas.

It is the one place we saw where children looked unhappy - not the fault of the caring staff and pleasant surroundings, but of the social problems which even this well-organised and self-confident society cannot avoid.

Finland's daycare service recognises parents as children's first educators, but tries to provide whatever support is needed if they are having trouble with this job. Some think it is too much of a nanny state, absolving the feckless of their responsibilities. Others think that children should not have to pay for their parents' problems.

Espoo's contract with parents clarifies the partnership that is expected.

It also sets out a clear view of childhood learning. "The child is appreciated and respected; the child is a thinking and active doer and a person with influence; play itself is valuable for the child; playing is an essential tool for learning; play is a tool for pedagogical activities."

Some Finns think the pre-school transition year for six-year-olds, introduced in 1996, is too school-like. But others want to push the statutory starting age down to six, in line with most of Europe. Due to the late start and the five-year degree, many Finns are about 24 before they join the workforce, and industry is worried about a future labour shortage.

"They want more people in the workforce, and ask 'do we have the money for children to be children longer?'" says Kari Ilmonen of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health. Early education funding has also suffered cuts, so that the present standard may become harder to maintain.

Parents, however, are very happy with the service they receive, and sympathise with FriisilA daycare centre's philosophy that "most important is to remember to live in the here and now and value the qualities of childhood, for the child is the child only for a little moment".

Next week more reasons Finland has the best literacy in the world Any thoughts? Write to

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