Kids in the City: Intensive Care

Free public kindergartens serve children and parents, and rival private providers

Moving to a new city in a new country is often exhilarating for an independent professional. But for parents with small children it can be a nightmare, entailing an alien care system and the absence of the usual support from grandparents and trusted nannies. For children, the experience of lacking a common language with their peers can be isolating and discouraging.

Yet in Vienna, city authorities have sought to ease the transition for parents and young children. To notable effect: The Mercer Study, assessing the liveability of world cities for those facing an international job transfer, ranked Vienna first in 2009 and 2010. Among the ten categories evaluated by the study are schools and education, as well as public services.

Specifically, it is in the provision of public childcare that the city’s policies have been the most radical, and the most innovative: In 2009, the city introduced its Wiener Fördermodell 1+1 (“Support Plan 1+1”), offering free monitoring and advancing of pre-school children’s competencies, including language, speech and motor skills. Subsequently, Claudia Schmied, the Social Democratic Minister for Education, raised the federal spending on language skills in early childhood education ten fold, from €500,000 a year to €5m for every Austrian state, including Vienna. That same year, the city government made municipal childcare free of charge. Finally, 2010 saw the nationwide introduction of a compulsory pre-school year (Vorschule), aimed at enhancing the academic success of non-native German speaking children.

“It made a difference,” stated Elisabeth Fibich, a municipal kindergarten teacher in the 6th  District. “Those children who spoke no German and attended the compulsory twenty hours a week did finish the year with new language skills. Whether it is enough German to start school in September is another question.” Fibich felt that two years in kindergarten were necessary for children to be fluent enough for school.

Hence, Vienna’s free municipal day care encourages parents to introduce their children into a German-speaking learning environment at an early stage. Families with residency in Vienna pay only for meals during childcare, and this too is negotiable for low-income families.

An elementary education

Child day care in Austria is divided into three groups: Krippe (nursery, ages 0-3), Kindergarten (pre-school, ages 3-6) and Hort (after-school care, ages 6-10). In 2010, the city registered 84,000 children in pre-school day care, of which 43% was in municipal centres, and 5% was being looked after by parent-run co-ops (so-called Kindergruppen or Tageseltern).

While a surge of registrations for the free municipal day cares was expected, “the surprising result was the requests for Krippe places,” said Fibich. This reflects that, according to the Statistik Journal Wien (1/2010), 76% of Vienna’s women are working, and therefore reluctant to risk a lengthy career interruption after childbirth. Thus, “the Krippe is the largest expansion project,” highlighted Sabine Cizek from the MA10, the city agency responsible for child day care.

Indeed, the free municipal childcare is designed to support parents in full time employment, education or training: they are given priority in the allocation of spaces, and must present a record of their employment status – as well as their residency status – when applying at the MA10.

Moreover, Viennese day care centres support modern families with the longest opening hours and the least amount of closures of all Austrian states. In 2009/2010, 75% of Vienna’s day cares were open 51 weeks of the year and 90% of them were open at least nine hours a day, according to the Statistik Journal Wien. Municipal day care centres are open from 6:30am to 5:30pm and if necessary from 6am to 6pm.

Working parents with school age children may still struggle with a school day that traditionally ends at lunchtime, but the city provides 383 centres for after-school care, half of them municipal. The service costs nearly €200 a month including meals, with reductions for low-income families. Meanwhile, the City is attempting to increase the number of full day schools (Ganztagschulen).

Going public

Given their enhanced level of service, “the municipal day care centres are catching up with the offers of private ones,” commented Renate Gschlad, a former President of the Dachverband der Wiener Privatkindergärten und –horte, the association of private day care centres in Vienna. “Today it is simply a matter of taste, which system suits the family better, and not necessarily a question of private providers being better.”

The remaining forte of private day cares, however, is the range of specialties and denominations. Nearly every district offers a bilingual English group or an English course with a native speaker. Also, opting for private day care does not mean missing out on public support altogether, as parents who register with the MA10  receive €226 a month towards the fees.

Children with special needs have not been forgotten in the bustle of city life: 136 pre-school, and 122 after-school integration groups currently support one thousand children with special needs in the municipal system. Each group has an additional, special education teacher and an additional assistant, and is limited to twenty children, with four kids with special needs.

Beyond supporting working parents and children with special needs, the City has been innovative in extending its notion of day care. For instance, several centres offer German courses for parents as well, thus addressing the language deficits of immigrant families comprehensively. Further, Kinderbetreuung Daheim provides in-home care for sick children whose parents need to go to work, at an income dependent rate.

What these programmes seem to grasp to a degree rare even in Europe is the benefit of a well-designed child care system to the larger society. Beyond allowing a child to develop into a sociable and curious human being, public day care enables both parents to pursues their careers, and immigrant families to integrate into the wider culture.  With day care looked after, officials say, families moving to Vienna have a far better chance of making a success of their lives here.

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