Childcare in Switzerland is traditionally a private concern. In the 20thcentury, society and policy were guided by the middle-class family model, with the husband sole breadwinner and the wife mother and housewife. The scope of extra-familial, mostly privately managed childcare facilities, is limited. It has only been since the 1970s that political pressure has increased to find solutions that work to make women’s careers and family life compatible.
Daycare centers as a stopgap measure for working mothers
The creation of extra-familial support structures was closely connected to the development of women’s gainful employment. Around 1900, the middle-class family model envisaged a clear allocation of roles, with the wife responsible for the household and childcare, and the family income the husband’s responsibility. For broad segments of the population, however, this model was economically unworkable. Around 1870, more than half the married women were gainfully employed, most of whom belonged to the underclass or working class.
Schools were one option for the extra-familial care of children. The notion of having schools for toddlers and kindergartens gained currency during the first half of the 19th century. These institutions were mass enterprises in which as many as 150 children were looked after by a single person. In 1844, 127 such schools for children between ages 3 and 5 existed in Switzerland. In Ticino, the concept of all-day care for small children found support in an asilo infantile, or nursery school, first established in 1844. Primary school attendance was made mandatory in Switzerland in 1874, though the educational system was not standardized, and cantons were not required to establish public schools for all children. Consequently, actual school attendance varied greatly. Year-round schools were the exception, particularly in agricultural or industrial communities.
The first supplementary private childcare options arose in the second half of the 19th century. In various Swiss cities and towns during these decades, private individuals with philanthropic interests founded daycare centers and after-school care centers, most of them in working-class neighborhoods. The daycare centers looked after preschool children, while the after-school centers provided daytime supervision for school-age children outside school hours and during school vacations. These centers were generally charitable projects sponsored by middle-class associations. They were founded and operated as private initiatives by women’s associations, philanthropic and religious groups, physicians, and pastors. In addition, employer interest groups established daycare centers in certain working-class neighborhoods. The first such center was founded in 1870 in Basel, and, based on German and French models, was joined by others over the next ten years in Lausanne, Geneva, Neuchatel, Vevey, Bern, Schaffhausen, and La Chaux-de-Fonds. Additional centers were established in those cities and other towns in the ensuing decades.
The offerings were designed to appeal to working-class families in which, to make ends meet, both parents had to work. Demand was intense, and many children had to be turned away from these centers for lack of space. Conditions for admission did not depend solely on intake capacity, however. The centers subscribed to the ideal of the middle-class family and set moral standards for the applicant families, with many daycare centers, for example, refusing to take in the children of unwed mothers. Furthermore, children had to be toilet-trained. In the daycare centers themselves, the focus was on hygiene and caregiving. As charitable institutions, the centers were meant to protect the children of working mothers from ostensible neglect and inadequate hygiene. In their early existence, daycare centers served only these purposes and had no pedagogical responsibilities.
Such limited tasks were linked to the primary function of the daycare center at the time: a temporary solution for working mothers to help bridge a specific phase of life. The middle-class benefactors hoped that at some point, all mothers would no longer need to work. Daycare centers were thus viewed as a way to offer needed daytime supervision.
In the 19th century, government subsidies played only a minor part in financing the daycare centers as most were funded through donations. Employers tied their support to conditions such as aligning a center’s hours of operation with the working hours of nearby factories. The families, too, had to pay fees not linked to income, making the costs for some women factory workers simply too high. This meant that in their early existence in Zurich, for example, those cared for at these centers were mainly the children of craftsmen.
Middle-class families generally employed nursemaids or nannies who undertook a great part of the work of looking after children. In urban middle-class households, nannies were responsible for the child’s everyday care and concerns. Close relationships often formed as a result; for these children, the nanny was often like a second mother. Servant girls from the rural or urban underclass also performed various tasks in the household. Around 1910, 88,000 servant girls were employed in upper class homes, and the lady of the house concerned herself with organizing the household and representational occasions.
The family as a private concern and the absence of childcare arrangements outside the family
The housewife ideal prevalent at the end of the 19th century assigned the domestic sphere of housework and childcare to women. As a result, from the end of the First World War until the 1940s, women’s labor force participation rate decreased continually. The middle-class family ideal, with the wife as mother and housewife and the husband as sole provider, became the way of life for an expanding middle class, and also served as an example to follow for working-class families in which mothers were gainfully employed outside the home.
The transfer of responsibility for children and the household to mothers greatly slowed the provision, and development, of extra-familial childcare possibilities. The decline in gainful employment among women during economic recessions had an additional effect on the daycare system. In 1941, the statistical measure of paid work among women reached a historical low of 35 percent; women employed in family businesses or on a part-time basis were often excluded from these statistics. Consequently, the number of children in childcare declined markedly during the economic crisis of the 1930s. The supply of extra-familial childcare facilities was not a concern in politics either, and the issue was largely absent from discussions of family policy in the 1930s and 1940s. The constitutional amendment adopted in 1945 to protect the family, the family protection article, called for supplements to family income and for maternity insurance, but not for the creation of institutions such as day nurseriesor all-day schools that could have helped make gainful employment and motherhood more compatible.
By international standards, the range of extra-familial childcare offerings in Switzerland was meager. Surveys in the late 1950s and early 1960s revealed that only a very small proportion of the children of working mothers could take advantage of childcare opportunities outside the family. The offerings varied widely, and depended on location. In some communities, there were no possibilities at all; the supply of childcare facilities was largest in cities and communities with major industries. In view of this lack, most families sought childcare solutions within the family. Grandmothers in particular played a major role in providing care for the children of working mothers. Many children, especially those of school age, were also left unattended for certain periods of time. In some cases, the children of families in unstable economic circumstances were removed and placed in foster care.
However, communities did provide an option not available to fathers, and that was if the mother fell ill. Communities and private associations arranged for home aides to fill in for those mothers who could not perform their duties at home due to illness or childbirth. Such aides looked after the children, cooked, did the laundry, and took care of the mother.
Labor migration and the creation of asili
In the 1960, many new childcare centers were established, in particular to look after the children of foreign female workers. In the early postwar period, and in the textile industry, recruitment had focused heavily on attracting female foreign workers, and for them, extra-familial care possibilities for their children had to be available.
Given the existing supply and location of facilities, the children of foreign workers began to comprise a growing percentage of the children in daycare centers. In 1964, for example, in the childcare centers run by the Zurich Women’s Association, two-thirds to four-fifths of the children were from foreign families. Another factor was the decision of the Italian Catholic Mission (Missione Cattolica Italiana) to set up so-called asili, operated by Italian nuns or kindergarten teachers. Their goal was to provide care for the children of Italian workers’ families. The facilities were open on weekdays, and the language used there was Italian, to encourage the children to retain their connection to Italy. Generally the asili were daycare centers for younger children, but children up to the age of 12 were also taken care of.
In this period, the supply of daycare centers increased: the Swiss Childcare Association (Schweizerischer Krippenverband) had 62 members in 1946, by 1961 it had grown to 90, and by 1978, to 170.
In-home daycare provider movement and new pedagogical concepts
From the 1970s onward, there was a change in the range of extra-familial possibilities for childcare. In part, this was due to the increase in the number of women, particularly mothers, in the workforce. But in part, it was also because the women’s movement demanded more childcare possibilities. Many of the new options, organized by women’s associations, embraced new pedagogical concepts and opposed daycare centers that had as their goal the mere supervision of children.
Beginning in 1973, a new concept – the in-home daycare model using ‘childminders’ – became more popular. The founding of childminders’ associations was part of an effort to expand the meager range of care options. Childminder associations criticized daycare centers as institutions of middle-class indoctrination, and wider segments of the population regarded them as “mass operations” whose personnel lacked training. Childminders, as in-home providers, were supposed to make a more individualized range of childcare possible, with an opportunity for input by the parents. It was parents and prospective childminders, women’s organizations, or social services that established childminders’ associations, largely in urban commuter belt areas. The number of childminder organizations increased rapidly after 1973, and 74 such organizations existed by 1988.
Efforts during the 1970s to try to nationally standardize the age at which children began attending primary school, as well as the total number of years they remained in school, made it increasingly possible for mothers to pursue gainful employment. Demands made by women’s movements, however, were aimed at a larger-scale change in the education system. All-day schools were an opportunity to increase comprehensive extra-familial childcare. Various cantons launched pilot projects, though that required teaching staff and parental involvement. In Basel, Bern, and Zürich, all-day school associations came into being in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1982, in a nationally-commissioned report on Swiss family policy, a working group even recommended expanding extra-familial institutions, with a concomitant reform of school organization, but this proposal was not pursued politically.
Under the influence of demands coming from the women’s movements, school reforms, and discussions of new pedagogical concepts, ideas about the function of daycare centers also changed. If until then, daycare centers had been thought of primarily as a temporary solution for mothers who had to work, the centers now were increasingly viewed as a pedagogically sensible complement to the family. The pedagogical training of daycare staff, mostly women, became more highly valued. To an increasing extent, kindergarten teachers and childcare workers were now being hired as staff. The daycare centers were transformed from babysitting services into professionally maintained locations for education and play. The change in the perception of the centers was also reflected in renaming them as Kindertagesstätten (Kita), or nursery schools.
Government responsibility and Kitasas professional service providers
Despite expanding, such facilities remained in short supply. In 1988, there were around 22,000 spaces in care centers in the entire country, hence a capacity for only about 10 percent of all infants, toddlers, and young children. Swiss policymakers did not react until after 1990, when the birthrate declined; it was clear that political measures were needed in order to promote the compatibility of family and women’s career. Various cantons then passed laws to promote the establishment of daycare centers.
The existing extra-familial care facilities were thereupon professionalized or are in the process of becoming more professional. Many private associations were taken over by cities and municipalities. In 2000, for example, the government took on the responsibility for the Italophone asili. In 2000, the need for care facilities gained nationwide recognition through a successful parliamentary initiative allocating 200 million Swiss francs as start-up capital for measures to increase access to supplementary childcare. The financing targeted three types of facilities: day nurseries, in-home childcare providers, and facilities available outside school hours. The law took effect in 2003, and by 2018 had supported the creation of 57,400 additional places in daycare and childcare facilities. Statistical surveys from 2017 indicate that around 33 percent of all families in Switzerland utilize such facilities or draw on the services of an in-home provider.
In 2007, German-speaking Switzerland had 81 day schools. In many cantons, supplementary childcare facilities have been expanded in recent years to provide all-day service. Beginning in the late 1990s, French-speaking Switzerland has created its own childcare concept called accueils pour enfants en milieu scolaire (APEMS), all-day childcare centers located within or near schools.
Despite these efforts to expand what is offered, a shortage of extra-familial childcare options remains. A parent survey conducted in 2017 indicated that about 20 percent of the children of preschool and school age cannot receive extra-familial childcare in the manner or extent desired. As a result, most mothers continue to work part-time, often the only way to combine career and family life. And as before, mothers continue to assume far more of the responsibilities of childcare than fathers.
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