Future of childcare: where have all the parents gone?
Close examination of the Rudd Government’s much-touted childcare reforms brings to mind the wonderful quote by Milton Friedman “the government solution to a problem is usually as bad as the problem”.
In this case, it may in fact be worse.
Labor’s proposals for more highly qualified staff in all childcare services, and lower child:staff ratios in the name of “quality care” are, on the face of it, very worthy. What self-respecting human being doesn’t want the very best for our children? How can an emphasis on “quality” be anything but laudable?
But there are obvious flaws in the way the Rudd Government is setting out to achieve its utopian childcare vision and a social undercurrent in Labor’s approach to this issue which is very disturbing.
The central problem with Labor’s Early Childhood and Childcare Agenda is undoubtedly the absence of parents.
There are academics, teachers, quality assessors, university qualified carers and a list of “stakeholders” a mile long all involved in developing this Agenda and pushing it through the behemoth that is COAG – but sadly, parents are often the last on the list and given just cursory consideration.
This is baffling when you consider that parents are actually still taking on the lions share of “early childhood education” in this country. The vast majority of children do not attend any form of formal childcare. Recent ABS data shows that only 22 per cent of children aged 0-12 attend any type of formal childcare - and only around 7 per cent of all children attending formal care did so full-time (35 hours or more).
So we’re talking about a fraction of less than 1 per cent of all children attending formal care full-time. Even in the peak age group of 0-4 year olds, 66 per cent of children were cared for informally by parents or relatives, rather than in formal childcare. When it comes to children under 1 year old, that figure rises to 91 per cent.
So when we talk about the vital area of Early Childhood development (now fashionably dubbed Early Childhood Education) surely it makes sense to involve and encourage parents as the primary carers and educators of their children?
If indeed there exists a problem with Early Childhood Education in this nation, surely our approach should extend well beyond creating a curriculum and another layer of red tape for formal childcare?
Surely we need to include more community resources, support and assistance for parents and grandparents who are taking on the majority of care?
But more fundamentally, we need to ask: exactly what is the problem that the Rudd Government is attempting to address? Labor made a big song and dance about childcare before the last election – it became a key platform. They relied heavily on the 2006 OECD Report “Starting Strong: Early Childhood Education and Care” that ranked Australia as one of the lowest countries in the world when it comes to public expenditure on Early Childhood Education and Care.
The OECD report, while including paid parental leave in the calculations for other countries, for some bizarre reasons did not include Australia’s generous system of family payments when looking at expenditure.
Yet a recent Productivity Commission Report found that Australia ranked very highly on overall spending on family policies as a percentage of GDP – only very marginally behind those top four nations in the OECD report. The OECD report also marks us down as a nation on “quality” because we have different regulatory systems in each state (not because those regulations are poor – but just because they vary!). So the OECD ranking needs to be examined closely, rather than held up as evidence that we have failed our children.
We really have to get back to basics and let parents make choices about what is best for their children. While every parent would agree that quality is important when it comes to the care of their children, the overwhelming majority of parents I meet also say they are happy with their child’s particular daycare centre or carer.
Parents should be defining what constitutes “quality” – not academics. The recent online survey for parents on the Government’s reforms fails to even list “safety and security” as a key concern when it comes to quality – yet this would be first on any parent’s list! And very few parents attended (or were even aware of) the recent round of community consultations on the Government reforms – in fact at a Sydney meeting of around 300 people, only one parent was there.
Even the Government’s own secret research apparently found that parents placed a higher importance on experience, rather than formal qualifications – yet the Government is pushing ahead with mandatory qualifications for all carers.
What parents need is a clear understanding of what services and level of care are being offered by any childcare service – underpinned by a simple quality control system that gives them peace of mind. But ultimately it’s important that we let parents make decisions about what is best for their children. That’s their responsibility – not the Government’s.
The Government ought to be directing its resources to helping the very small percentage of children at serious risk, and ensuring they get the intervention and support they need to achieve developmental milestones. The vast majority of parents are capable of making decisions about what they want for their children, and providing a high level of one-on-one interaction in the early years so that they are prepared for school.
Labor’s utopian vision – where the Government controls the early childhood agenda and sends a clear message that no less than a university education is required to care for young children (and let’s start that formal learning from birth!) – is a dangerous step towards the ultimate nanny state.
Early Childhood Development is a vitally important issue. Formal childcare must be supported – and so too should families and parents who do the majority of caring for kids. Let’s be sensible when it comes to defining quality (a politically correct curriculum for toddlers is laughable) and let’s be realistic about what working parents can afford when it comes to childcare costs.
Labor’s childcare vision is not only socially irresponsible – robbing parents of their rights and responsibilities - it also will inevitably increase the out-of-pocket expenses of the working parents. The Australian Childcare Alliance has predicted that the Government’s reforms will add so significantly to costs that they will drive low-income parents out of supervised childcare and lead to the rise of potentially dangerous “backyard” care. A solution worse than the problem, perhaps?
No matter which way you look at it, the Rudd Government’s childcare “vision” will result in a clear breech of their key election promise that they would make childcare more affordable. The Minister has admitted as much. It seems that parents come into Labor’s Childcare equation only when it’s time to pay.
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