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2014年5月 1日 (木)

「小1の壁」 解消へ学童保育拡充が急務だ

The Yomiuri Shimbun 7:05 pm, April 30, 2014
Better after-school childcare essential to breaking down ‘first-grade wall’
「小1の壁」 解消へ学童保育拡充が急務だ

When children enter primary school, parents are sometimes unable to find anyone to take care of them after school and they must quit their job as a result. There is a pressing need to address problems arising from this so-called first-grade wall.

There have been delays in creating and improving facilities tasked with providing adequate after-school care for children including primary school students from two-income families. This has made it difficult for some parents to continue working after their children enter primary school.

At after-school childcare centers, supervisors keep watch while children engage in such activities as doing their homework and having a snack. The care of children outside of school time is governed by the Child Welfare Law, and there are about 21,500 after-school childcare facilities nationwide, 80 percent of which are operated by local governments.

Such centers, and the number of children they look after, have continued to sharply increase, partly because of a decrease in children’s play areas. Today, about 890,000 primary school children—mainly those in their first to third years—spend their after-school time at these facilities.

However, demand for after-school childcare services is outpacing the provision of new facilities, particularly in urban areas. The government has said it will seek to increase the capacity of after-school childcare centers nationwide to a total of 1.11 million children by the end of the current fiscal year. However, the current capacity falls far short of that target.

About 8,700 primary school students are on waiting lists, meaning they have been denied access to such services despite their parents’ desire to have someone look after them outside of school.

The figure only covers children whose inability to use after-school services has been confirmed. If other children with a similar problem are included, the figure could reach several hundreds of thousands, according to observers.

It is also necessary to extend operating hours at after-school childcare centers. Many such facilities close at around 6 p.m., which does not suit the circumstances of parents who work full-time. This is evident in the large number of parents who have had to quit work or switch to a part-time job when their children enter primary school, despite having worked full-time while their children were at preschool age. They previously had their children looked after at day nurseries.

Utilize empty classrooms

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had good reason to issue instructions to study specific measures aimed at breaking down the first-grade wall, combined with efforts to create more day-care centers for children.

It is indispensable to utilize empty classrooms and other unused facilities, with a view to making progress in increasing the number of after-school childcare centers. Doing so would not only help achieve the goal at a lower cost, it would also be desirable when it comes to securing the safety of children.

However, a considerable number of school administrators are reluctant to open after-school childcare centers inside their facilities. This is likely because they could be held responsible for any accidents involving children at their buildings.

Necessary steps should be taken by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry—the organ charged with overseeing after-school childcare programs—in cooperation with the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry to implement measures, including laying down clearly defined rules on the establishment of childcare centers at unused classrooms.

Another important task is to improve the quality of after-school childcare programs. In its guidelines for such programs, the welfare ministry says the appropriate capacity of a facility is about 40 children. However, some facilities accommodate children greatly in excess of that figure.

Children cannot spend their time in a relaxed manner at overcrowded facilities, and supervisors will also find it difficult to keep a close watch on the children. All this will make facilities prone to trouble.

The government has incorporated after-school childcare services into the list of projects covered by a child-rearing support program scheduled to start in fiscal 2015, requiring city, town and villages governments nationwide to improve their after-school childcare programs in a manner that will meet the needs of their communities. Standards for personnel distribution and other matters will also be set up.

The national and local governments should unite efforts to address pertinent issues, a task essential for breaking down the first-grade wall.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, April 30, 2014)


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