Lamentably, much of the discussion about ‘childcare’ fails to puts children’s interests first.
Early childhood education and care (ECEC) services are all too often seen as a form of babysitting that supports the rights of parents to engage in education or training and undertake or seek work. Of course, it is perfectly legitimate that ECEC services facilitate these goals. Both children and adults benefit when parents are working. What is missing in the debate is a focus on what is best for young children in terms of their protection, learning and development.
Early childhood, generally understood to be from birth to age 5, is when children experience the most rapid period of growth and change in the human lifespan. This is a time in which young bodies and minds expand at lightning pace, complemented by fast-maturing communication skills, mobility and intellectual capabilities.
The saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ recognises that there are many players who help optimise the healthy development of a child.
Parents and families are the bedrock of child development. The bonds between parents and children provide a child’s first experience of security as they learn and grow through iterative interactions. No matter what we find about brain development, the birth of a child and the burgeoning relationship with its parents is a magical time.
Even in the very early days, however, children are also exposed to others who affect their development – siblings, grandparents, uncles and aunts, the family dog or cat. The young child is starting to form relationships, including with other children, and through this, they learn to negotiate and co-ordinate shared activities, resolve conflicts and accept responsibility for others.
This is the period that sets the foundations of a child’s physical and mental health, cultural and personal identity and developing competencies. Given this, it is surprising that universal access to early education is not a key national policy priority for Australia.
If we were to truly put a child’s best interests first, as we have promised under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, we would naturally build a system of services and supports that promotes the best outcomes for children’s learning and development. There is a compelling body of international research showing that quality early-childhood services can have benefits for children, especially for those from more disadvantaged backgrounds and where the parents’ connection to work may be more tenuous.
Two landmark longitudinal US studies – the Perry Preschool Project, which began in 1962 and the Abecedarian Project, which began in 1972 – demonstrated that children who attended preschool consistently achieved better results into their school years and into adulthood, while those who did not were more likely to demonstrate poor behaviour at school and had lower educational achievement, poorer employment outcomes and lower incomes. They were also more likely to be involved in crime and be dependent on state assistance. Similar results have been found in later research, which also demonstrated that the converse is true – better education leads to better outcomes.
In 2014, PwC conducted a study measuring the flow-on economic effects of quality, universal investment in ECEC in Australia. The authors estimated that universal access to early childhood education would cumulatively deliver $6 billion in terms of the benefits of increased labour force participation of women, $10.3 billion in benefits to children receiving an ECEC program, and $13.3 billion in benefits through the participation of vulnerable children, to 2050.
Recent reforms to the ECEC system have brought a shift towards increasing the quality, availability and access to early childhood education and care services. The National Quality Agenda for Early Childhood Education and Care, now in place, delivers a nationally consistent set of education and care standards, a rating system, enhanced regulatory arrangements, and an early-years curriculum designed to ensure all children are school ready when the time comes. To support this agenda, higher qualifications, knowledge and skills are also required across early childhood settings.
Despite the evidence and the reforms, however, the system remains skewed towards the needs of working parents. Consequently, hundreds of thousands of children miss out on attending any early-childhood services at all. It is these children who are arguably the most vulnerable in our society, like the children of single parents, children who are living in poverty, children with care and protection needs, children exposed to domestic and family violence, and children with a disability.
In this context, early-childhood services have great untapped potential to connect parents who are struggling with parenting and other issues with services and other supports. For the children of these parents, attendance at an ECEC centre is a strong safeguarding measure. For their parents, it’s an opportunity to seek and receive help with challenges they might be facing. Through early-childhood education, children can also be engaged to understand their own rights and those of others and to establish a strong values base for tackling life’s challenges and making positive contributions.
Quality early-childhood education is one of the best investments we can make for our children. Any approach to early childhood that focuses solely on workforce participation fails to recognise children’s fundamental rights to education, survival and development and, further, fails to understand that our children are also future workers, citizens and parents.
Megan Mitchell is the national children’s commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission.Do you have an idea for a story?
Email [email protected]