From January 1, 1996, children aged from three to six will have a legal guarantee of a place in a German kindergarten, following a decision taken by the Bundestag in 1993. But provision falls far short of the promise - at least in the western states of the Federal Republic.
Since that parliamentary pledge, Germany's municipal and rural district authorities responsible for pre-school provision have succeeded in creating an additional 300,000 kindergarten places, but are still 300,000 short of meeting the legal requirements by next year. "The will is there," according to Stephan Articus, of the Convention of Municipal Authorities, "but the timetable is simply too tight."
The shortage is greatest in bigger towns and cities. Cologne, for instance, set itself the task of boosting kindergarten vacancies by 1,000 a year - and that was in 1989, long before the Bundestag ruling. But even with the extra 5,000 places added since then, the city will still have a shortfall of around 3,000 by the January deadline.
"We're trying to cope with the quantity without loss of quality," says Franz-Josef Schulte, of Cologne's Youth Welfare department, who acknowledges that kindergarten groups will have to increase in size to meet the new legal requirement. While group sizes vary from state to state, standard kindergarten groups for three to six-year-olds in North Rhine-Westphalia - Germany's most populous state - are at present limited to 25 members, 15 for the under-threes.
The cost to parents also varies widely but is generally income-related. Taking North Rhine-Westphalia again, a morning kindergarten place is free to parents earning below Pounds 11,000 a year, costs Pounds 27.50 per month for those with incomes up to Pounds 33,000, and Pounds 133 per month for annual incomes up to Pounds 55,000.
Half-day, ie: morning, kindergartens tend to be the rule in the western states, whereas full-day provision is more common in the eastern states. In Leipzig, a full-day kindergarten place costs parents Pounds 70 per month, while full-day provision for under-threes costs Pounds 110. Full-day kindergarten in the West can cost anywhere between Pounds 230 and Pounds 460 per month.
"No one should be deprived of a place through lack of money," according to Dr Articus, but the trend for cash-strapped authorities to recover an ever greater share of the costs via parental contributions continues.
While 1996 spells shortfall for the western states, the former GDR has quite different problems. Leipzig, typically, has excess capacity of around 1, 000 kindergarten places. The sharp decline in the eastern German birthrate since the communist collapse, coupled with high unemployment - particularly for women - has meant that many day-care facilities have been closed over the past five years. Redundant kindergarten staff from the eastern states in fact frequently find employment in the expanding western sector.
In the patchwork of pre-school provision in Germany, however, the 1996 guarantee may be a misleading focus. The Single Parents' Association claims official figures give a very incomplete picture of either supply or demand.
"We're generally talking only about half-day kindergartens for the three to six-year-olds," complains Peggi Liebisch, the association's national director, "not the full-day provision most parents need and certainly not about day care for the under-threes or after-school care."
Finding adequate child care is a major headache for many working parents, she claims, in a culture in which the expectation that mothers should stay at home is still stronger than in most of Germany's neighbours.