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In China, a majority of families come up with their own solutions for the provision of care for infants and young children. The common practice is to rely on the children's grandparents.

Although social services that are committed to early childhood care are on the rise, and the government is committed to universalized access to daycare services for infants and young children, there is still room to bolster the availability, affordability, and convenience of institutional care for children, especially for infants under the age of 3.

The outline of China's 14th Five Year Plan (2021-25) and long-range objectives through 2035 has included the nursery capacity for children aged 3 or younger per 1,000 people as one of its 20 major indicators of economic and social development, which sets the target of increasing that capacity from 1.8 in 2020 to 4.5 in 2025. This means that by 2025, there will be 6 million childcare positions for children under the age of 3. But currently there is still a gap of 4 million.

As China's population undergoes tremendous structural changes, it is increasingly important to improve the population services system centering on elderly people and children. It is a necessity that the childcare service system be fully developed in the next five to 10 years.

First, it is important to establish an inclusive childcare service system. Given the public benefits of investment in infant health and education, the nation should strengthen public service provision for childcare.

There is a clear imbalance between different groups, urban and rural areas, and different communities in the access to childcare services. The expanding of market-oriented services has exacerbated the imbalance, while low-income groups and those with little education require such services most. Our survey shows in neighborhoods with people of lower-income, families generally have higher demands for childcare services. But the supply and quality of services are generally at a lower level. The providing of inclusive childcare services can enhance the availability and affordability of services for disadvantaged groups and reduce their burdens.

If the trend of differentiation in childcare services is strengthened, it will intensify social inequality and bring about social differentiation in the early stage of human development, which might cause more severe social divisions in the long run.

Second, the quality of childcare services in private institutions must be improved. It is the major expectation from families to improve the quality of care facilities, teachers, nursery services and the management of nursery institutions. At present, some families do not send their children to childcare service providers mainly because the quality of those services is not good enough.

Professionalism is the key element to improving the quality of nursery and kindergarten services. The development of the childcare service system requires a large number of professional babysitters, which requires professional vocational training, qualification assessment and clear professional standards on childcare service practices. Government departments on health, education, work safety, market supervision and others should evaluate, inspect, supervise and guide the operation of service providers to prevent various risks and achieve operational order of the sector. The government can also entrust independent social organizations and industry associations to carry out evaluation and inspection. With the development of information technology, it is already possible to use big data to provide targeted services in childcare and to strengthen the interaction between home and school so that childcare services can better meet the needs of families and children.

Third, childcare service providers should cater to people's specific needs and offer more diversified service models. For example, some cities have used a central service organization to support sporadic childcare services facilities, and some companies have set up nurseries in labor unions. Such explorations of childcare services will better meet people's needs.

Families will remain the basic provider of childcare services for now and the foreseeable future, given the strong emotional attachment and economic ties between young children and their families. But family life is changing with the transition of society, and families are increasingly incapable of caring for young children the way they used to. It is necessary to empower families through the development of childcare social services, and to allow society to share the families' responsibilities in their childcare and parenting.

It is important to not only increase government investment to develop government-built childcare projects, but also actively mobilize social and market forces to invest in childcare services, including encouraging the establishment of public-welfare childcare funds at the community level and promoting the development of childcare sector. Childcare services can adopt various flexible public-private partnerships and models of collaboration, to enable more resources to go to the childcare sector.

The author is a professor at the Institute of Population Studies at Fudan University. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

Contact the editor at editor@chinawatch.cn