As of August 1, children in Germany aged one to three have a legal right to a spot in a daycare center. Now authorities, hard-pressed for space, have been forced to come up with interim housing solutions.
Martin Reichwaldt is not amused. The community administrator in the small western German town of Weilerswist has been saddled with a vacation ban because he is responsible for 29 portable modular buildings that serve as daycare centers for young children.
Children in Germany previously had a legal right to a spot in a daycare center once they were at least three years old , but as of Thursday (01.08.2013), that right extends to children aged one to three.
Less than two weeks ago, provisional kindergarten modules were set up in an area the size of a soccer field in a new housing estate in Weilerswist.
Water connections, bathrooms and kitchens were installed, diaper changing tables, small tables, chairs and nap areas set up. Finally, toys were moved in. Gardeners planted grass and erected a fence just in time to meet the deadline. From now on, parents not offered a spot for their little ones can legally sue their city or town.
A shortage of space
Nationwide, last-minute arrangements were made to come as close as possible to fulfilling the legal claim. As early as 2007, the federal, state, and municipal authorities agreed to expand access to daycare spots. Years passed, however, before building sites were approved, companies authorized and personnel hired.
It proved impossible to predict how many parents would actually register for such daycare spots, but according to the Federal Statistics Office, authorities needed to create 780,000 new spots nationwide in order to grant a spot to four out of ten children in that age bracket. Two weeks before the deadline, Family Minister Kristina Schröder announced that 813,000 spots had been created - but critics doubted that figure.
Weilerswist Mayor Peter Schlösser expects 50 to 70 percent of the parents in his community to apply for the spots. But the small Rhineland town of 7,500 inhabitants boasts one of Germany's biggest increases in families, making the actual demand for daycare spots for under three-year-olds incalculable.
The town is situated near the A1 and A61 highway junction between Cologne and Euskirchen. New jobs are created daily in the adjacent industrial park, and 1,600 people from 62 nations work in the logistics center of a drug store chain there. Mayor Schlösser is pleased, and can even imagine daycare centers offering a multilingual education one day.
Cuban-born Suset Masson, who moved to the new housing estate with her family, speaks very good German. She plans to go back to work once her son Luis, who only spends the morning hours in the kindergarten, is granted a full-time daycare spot.
Masson wants her son to be with other children and to learn German, adding that child care is much less complicated in her native country. In Cuba, "you can send your child to kindergarten at three months of age, no problem." Masson fears there may not be enough spots to go around because of the influx of families into the district.
Susanne Möller lives in the same estate, but she is unsure whether her children will be granted a spot in the new kindergarten at all. Her children Lisa and Lars currently visit a nursery that is further away. The legal right to a daycare spot does not necessarily mean families can choose the facility. In cities in particular, parents are often forced to drive their offspring to other parts of town.
As a makeshift solution, a growing number of daycare centers are set up in portable modular structures. Meanwhile, Germany is also suffering from a lack of trained kindergarten teachers. Germany's Child Protection Agency (DKSB) estimates a nationwide shortfall of around 60,000 kindergarten teachers - and fears the shortage could affect child care.
But Heike Iven, head of the Weilerswist daycare center, does not have personnel problems. "The teacher training is good," she says, adding that she and her team have worked with younger children for the past five years. The teachers also received special training for the younger children, she says, so they are well-prepared for an onslaught of more one-to- three year-olds.
The Weilerswist kindergarten now offers eight new groups of up to ten children, each supervised by three teachers or nurses.
Schlösser says the portable structures are only an interim solution, and an expensive one to boot: the community pays 150,000 euros ($199,000) in rent. "Presumably it would have been less costly to pay compensation to parents who might have sued us, but we wanted to live up to our responsibility as a community," the mayor argues.
A new kindergarten building is currently under construction and expected to be finished by the beginning of next year, so another vacation ban may well be on the horizon for administrator Martin Reichwaldt.