The Oct. 1 start of a government program making preschool education free of charge has raised concerns about a possible increase in children waiting to be accepted into nurseries.

The program covers children age 3 to 5 as well as those up to 2 years old from low-income families. It is “a centerpiece of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s policies,” a government source said.

The government needs to lessen the financial burden on people hoping to have children, Abe has said, brushing aside suggestions that the first priority should be to secure more day care workers.

Shigeki Matsuda, a Chukyo University professor and expert on family policies, said he thinks the program will have a major positive impact. It provides timely support to child-rearing households considering having more children, he said.

The number of children on day care waiting lists has been on a downward trend recently but remains high, standing at some 17,000 across the country as of April. It seems unlikely the government will achieve its goal of reducing the number to zero by the end of fiscal 2020.

A senior Cabinet Office official argued that there will be only a limited impact from the free preschool education program on demand for nursery services nationwide.

This is because the coverage of the program for children aged up to 2, who account for 90 percent of those on day care waiting lists, is limited to low-income households exempted from paying resident taxes, the official said.

But that view has drawn sharp criticism.

“This is an armchair plan. Administrative bodies have no sense of danger,” said the head of a social welfare corporation operating day care centers in the Tokyo area.

“It would be natural for parents to think, ‘Preschool education for children aged 3 to 5 is free, so why don’t we have our children enroll in schools earlier and save money?'” the social welfare corporation head said.

The launch of the free preschool education program is expected to make parents more aware of the quality of nursery services.

For example, fees for school meals had been folded into the nursery fees, but each day care center is starting to collect meal charges individually.

“Parents will become more aware of their monthly payments,” a nursery teacher said, anticipating that more schools will pay more attention to the quality of the food they provide.

Demand for day care on Sundays and for long services, exceeding 12 hours a day, for children up to 1 year old are also expected to increase.

A woman who heads a nursery school that can handle children from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. expressed concern over children’s mental and physical health.

“When the children go back home and take a bath, they won’t get to bed until 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. Is this really good for children?” she asked.

But she also pointed to an urgent need for support for double-income child-rearing households. She urged the government to adopt policies encouraging people to take years of child care leave.

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