Happy faces of babies and toddlers beam out from the pages of party manifestos.

Every political party has something to say about the childcare services they might provide to support young children's early learning and development, but what does "childcare" mean and how is it relevant to the Westminster elections?

Sometimes used specifically to describe care provided on behalf of working parents or for welfare purposes, differentiating these from early education services, childcare is also used by some generically to cover all Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) services. Its multiple meanings reflect our complex and fragmented system.

Our system remains split in a number of key areas, from a largely divided workforce with different pay and conditions to schools with nurseries which are only part-time. Moreover, although early years is seen as a Holyrood responsibility, the Westminster Parliament controls a number of areas, including tax and benefits, that have been used to help working parents pay for childcare.

Perhaps that is why some Scottish manifestos make limited pledges. Only the SNP calls for the tax and welfare powers which would bring together responsibilities for ECEC under one parliament. It reaffirms manifesto covers its existing commitments to expand universal free nursery education from 16 hours a week to 30 hours for all three and four year olds and eligible two year olds. Its focus is on progressive extension of free hours, of which schools remain the most extensive provider.

The Scottish Greens do not follow their partners in England and Wales in committing to build a free "universal early education and childcare service for all children from birth until compulsory education age, which we would raise to seven years, integrated into the local education service". Scottish Labour says it will "consult widely on ensuring the reality of an affordable, flexible and accessible system for working families in Scotland" but commits to upskilling the "childcare" workforce and breakfast clubs.

Does it matter that the Westminster and Holyrood parliaments share responsibility for ECEC policies? It would matter less if we had succeeded in developing a simpler, integrated system. But the Westminster manifestos confirm how far we are from this. Moreover, increasing use of tax and benefit measures such as the new "tax-free" childcare scheme for working parents, which the Scottish Liberal Democrats propose using for support to parents of children from nine months, will detract from the universal approach offered by free nursery hours. The Scottish Conservative manifesto proposes Childcare Credits to give families the choice between "public pre-schools and nurseries and approved private and voluntary sector providers" and the 30 hours free nursery offer in England is, it seems, only for working parents.

If we think that a consumer rather than community approach will resolve our problems we must think again. Forty years ago, Scotland had twice as many services as Norway. Today this is largely reversed. Ninety per cent of Norwegian children aged one to five attend kindergartens, predominantly on a full-time basis, compared with 57 per cent of children aged one to four in Scotland, who attend nurseries, crèches, childminders and playgroups, predominantly part-time and pay twice as much.

Far more Norwegian mothers are in paid employment. Nearly 86 per cent of mothers of one to five-year-olds, the majority full-time, compared with 61 per cent in Scotland, predominantly working part-time. Tax revenues from increased labour force participation and benefit savings make this sustainable and popular.

Central to Norway's success has been a simpler community based system in which childcare and education came together in one service and a single name: kindergarten. This reflected the emphasis they wished to see, as we do, on free and creative-level play. It has created a powerful partnership of Norway's mixed providers with schools, leading to changes in the school curriculum and hours, and a statutory requirement for school-age childcare.

So is it time our politicians stopped talking about "childcare" and made clear their commitment to an integrated, community-based ECEC system with the necessary levers here in Scotland? We can surely do better.

Bronwen J. Cohen is Honorary Professor of Social Policy at the University of Edinburgh and co-author of "Education in Norway and Scotland: Developing and Reforming the Systems" in Northern Neighbours. Scotland and Norway since 1800. (EUP, 2015)