Whilst there are many Australian centres offering world-class education and early childhood care (ECEC) programs, the access and affordability for these is highly variable. If our country is to achieve the educational and societal outcomes that a quality, equitable ECEC system offers, change is needed in the funding and policy settings. However, this change is proving difficult. ECEC was centre stage in the previous, ALP government’s policy platform and many necessary reforms were begun under a national agreement between the states and federal government during their term. However, thus far, during a federal Coalition government, many reforms have stalled. It seems the changes the current government announced prior to the election to improve access, flexibility and affordability of childcare for Australian families have become too difficult. For example, the Families Package (whether we like it or not) has now been put on the backburner until 2018.
The evidence that ECEC is important for individual children, the economy and our society is now compelling. For example, the countries that consistently perform at the top of many international comparisons of educational outcomes (e.g., PISA) have consistent ongoing investment in early childhood education.
What change is needed?
Political vision is necessary to ensure access to universal, integrated healthcare and early education as an unquestionable right rather than being exclusive to the privileged few. Bipartisan commitment at the federal level that looks beyond the next election, is essential to achieve long-term outcomes. Why is it that this bipartisan agreement and commitment has been achievable in the defence portfolio with an associated increase in spending, but seems impossible in an equally important aspect of national interest?
What might support this change?
We lag behind many OECD countries in prioritising the early years as a shared responsibility. For example, the most common response to any increase in costs associated with improving the quality of ECEC is that parents will bear the brunt via increased fees. This is one of the biggest issues in Australian early childhood care and education. In many OECD countries, the costs are not automatically passed on to families but are absorbed in shared funding arrangements with government.
Attitudinal change is also necessary. What will it take for the Australian public to recognise the value and importance of providing quality early childhood education and care from birth onwards? How much more research is needed to demonstrate that such provision not only contributes to the economy but also makes a valuable contribution to Australia as a democratic, pluralistic and interdependent country?
Early childhood education and care is increasingly constructed as a private affair rather than a public good. From this perspective, care and education are the responsibility of the individual family rather than a shared task between family, community and government. This position is not uncommon in Australia, for beneath the surface of our national psyche lies the idea that the best place for young children is at home, preferably with mother. To illustrate this point, I draw on some of the public comments from “The Conversation”:
“The back story on this is that little kids ideally need to be with mum (and dad) as much as possible up to school age – it is tragic that our culture has gone down the path of allowing our nation’s economics to virtually dictate that ‘childcare’ is the norm. All things being equal, we have seen that kids with the ‘luxury’ of an involved, at-home mum (instead of childcare), are far more settled and secure once they do get to school.”
“If you don’t want to raise children – don’t have them. If you don’t want to pay to raise your children, please have a vasectomy, and please don’t ask ME to pay to raise your unwanted children.”
Australian families continue to balance budgets, time and commitments in contemporary times as they seek out the best for their children. The responsibility for our youngest children in contemporary Australia is seen to rest firmly on the shoulders of families.
Furthermore, in our consumer society, childhood is seen as an investment and the contemporary Australian (and American) family is constructed as a “competitive economic unit not only distinct from, but actively in conflict with, the larger society”, as they seek a competitive advantage for their children, wrote Megan Erickson in 2015.
The access to quality early education programs such as childcare underpins the welfare of many families. In this environment, we seem to have lost sight of the fact that it takes a village to raise a child.
It is my hope that somehow, as a nation, we can regain some sense of a societal commitment and shared responsibility for our youngest citizens.
Associate professor Susan Krieg is the early childhood program co-ordinator at Flinders University.
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