Compulsory childcare in socially marginalised areas in Denmark

In Denmark, according to a law passed in December 2018, parents who live in certain designated areas (dubbed 'ghettos') have to send their children from the age of one to nursery. The initiative is part of an effort to increase integration and illustrates several important aspects of a Nordic, state-run nursery system and Nordic society generally. Different cultural perceptions of how young children should be raised play a role, which are influenced in the Nordics by the dual-income family model, as does how individuals interact with the state.

Black and white photo of several women holding a banner reading "vores hjem" (our home). The photo is from a demonstration against the so called 'ghetto list', Copenhagen September 2018.
Several women holding a banner reading "vores hjem" (our home) at a demonstration against the so called 'ghetto list', Copenhagen September 2018. Photo: Nicola Witcombe.

Parents who live in socially marginalised areas (a sub-category of which are dubbed ‘ghettos’) have to send their children to attend nursery for 25 hours per week from the age of one up until school age. Parents who have the requisite Danish skills do not have to do so if they choose to take responsibility for council-set targets for their child’s Danish and social skills at home. The intention is that the child’s Danish language development will be supported and that, through play, the child can be introduced to Danish traditions, celebrations, standards and values. Should the parents refuse, they risk losing the social support they receive in child benefit.

The initiative was part of the Danish coalition government’s 2018 strategy A Denmark without parallel societies – No ghettos by 2030 (Ét Danmark uden parallelsamfund - Ingen ghettoer i 2030) and came into force at the end of July 2019. The coalition government at the time consisted of Venstre (The Danish Liberal Party), The Liberal Alliance (Liberal Alliance) and the Conservative People's Party (Det Konservative Folkeparti), and was often referred to as the 'VLAK' government.

Criteria for socially marginalised areas

Requiring parents to send their small children to nursery to learn Danish and Danish culture is compulsory in areas where there is considered to be a high level of social exclusion. A socially marginalised area was defined in March 2018 as:

“an area where there must be at least 1000 inhabitants in a joint physical area that fulfill two of the following criteria:

1)      The proportion of immigrants and ethnic minorities from non-western countries is over 50%.

2)      The proportion of people in the age group 18-64 years who do not have a job or are not in some form of education or training is over 40%.

3)      The number of criminal convictions set out in particular legislation is over 2.7% of the number of inhabitants.

4)      The proportion of people in the age group 30-59 years who have been at school only to the age of 15 years is over 60%.

5)      The average net income in the age group 15-64 years (excluding those who apply for a place in educational institutions) is less than 55% of the average net income for the same group in the same region.“

(Note: If the area has over 60% immigrants and ethnic minorities from non-western countries, or if it fills criteria 1-3, then the area will also be put on a particular ‘ghetto list’ where there are particular, more intensive initiatives.)

('s translation).

Critical discussion and analysis of the use of the term ‘ghetto’ significantly predates 2010 when it first became widely used in a Danish context. Unequal distribution of wealth and opportunity is often responsible for causing urban social groupings. This has led some social scientists to point out that inequality is likely to be a more significant factor in explaining why people live in the same area than people of particular ethnicities actively seeking a parallel existence. It has also been claimed that the use of the term ‘ghetto’ or similar, and the instigation of a plan to assist such areas can work against improvement through stigmatization. This perspective advances the view that ghettoization happens ‘top-down’ (is imposed on an area by the state) rather than bottom-up (the fault of particular groups of people).

Nordic perspectives on caring for young children

Some parents, particularly those from cultures where it is expected that family members (mothers?) look after small children, will consider it unacceptable to hand their one-year-old baby over to others to look after. However, the Danish - and Nordic - context goes some way to explaining how it is possible for a law to enforce childcare (or ‘offer of learning’ as it is termed by the government).

After a fairly extensive shared maternity/paternity leave (usually up to one year, but it can extend to up to even 480 days in Sweden), it is common for both parents to continue to work full-time after having children in the Nordic region. This practice is often an economic necessity, but has also grown out of it being culturally acceptable that someone other than a parent cares for small children from babyhood - usually professional nursery nurses.

Additionally, the concept of socialising the child is considered important, namely, that from an early age they learn to be independent, learn to solve conflicts as much as possible, and have the feeling that they are part of a collective group. A focus on community, rather than the individual, is often considered to be prevalent throughout Danish educational and cultural life. This approach may be at odds with some perceptions of what is the best start for pre-school children, often characterised by a closeness with the child’s natural parents and family and a sense of security in the home as opposed to an institution.

State control in the private sphere

It is arguably more ideologically acceptable for the state to control aspects of the private sphere in the Nordic region than in other societies, such as the UK and the United States of America. In Denmark, whilst private services do exist, the nursery system is overseen and organised by local councils and heavily subsidised by state funding. Danish municipalities have to offer parents a full-time nursery place from when their child is around one year old. Whilst councils try to allow parents the right to choose the nursery as far as possible, as they do with health care for example, this is not always possible. In this respect, the functioning of the system (and community as a whole) can be said to be more important than the individual’s right to choose.

Already rules from age three

Even before this law to enforce childcare from age one was passed, there were rules concerning three year-olds who require Danish language support. If they do not already attend a nursery, they are obliged to do so for 30 hours per week. Danish municipalities must ensure that a language assessment is carried out on children at the age of three, or in some cases at two if nursery staff believe there is a need for it, or if the child does not go to nursery at all. If the parents do not agree with either the child being tested or attending nursery, then child benefit can be stopped.

Women’s rights cited to support wider ‘ghetto-plan’

The issue of enforced childcare (or ‘offer of learning’) within the Danish ‘ghetto-package’ is closely related to wider debates in the Nordics about women’s rights and the inequalities of employment opportunity between women of different ethnic backgrounds.

Female emancipation of ethnic minority women in socially marginalised areas is cited as a key reason for supporting the Danish ‘ghetto-package’ as a whole. Critics argue that the protection of gender equality is a political tool for policies that are racially divisive, that is, that they create a false or exaggerated ‘us’ and ‘them’ approach to the issue.

It remains an overriding cultural assumption that both men and women continue to go out to work after they have had children. This tendency has developed to the extent that it has been – and to a large extent still is - taboo to stay at home. Some parents of course care for their children themselves, but this remains the minority.

This is more complicated when it comes to parents who are from minority ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Issues include whether women would in fact like to work, but cannot due to particular cultural expectations within their religious or social group. It can also have something to do with the potentially greater decision-making power held by male members of the family who are against women working per se, or women with young children working. There are commentators who support women’s right to choose different cultural norms than the mainstream including, for example, choosing to wear a particular type of religious clothing and prioritising home and children. Others see such choices as an imposition of a male-dominated religion and society, and criticise cultural relativists for turning a blind-eye to blatant discrimination.

Regardless of which perspective is taken, social policy with respect to the so called ‘ghetto-package’ in general and the early-age ‘offer of learning’ touches on a host of relevant contemporary issues in the Nordics, and undoubtedly elsewhere.

Further reading:

  • Bodil Formark, Heta Mulari, Myry Voipio, Nordic Girlhoods: New Perspectives and Outlooks. (Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).
  • Kristina Bakkær Simonsen, ‘Ghetto–Society–Problem: A Discourse Analysis of Nationalist Othering’, Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, 16, 1 (2016), pp. 83-99
  • Tom Slater, Ntsiki Anderson, ‘The reputational ghetto: territorial stigmatisation in St Paul’s, Bristol’. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 37, (2011) pp. 530-546.