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Quality childcare an investment in the future


Father and son

Childhood looks different for each generation. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are lining toy shelves all over again, yet the daily patterns of life look very different for today’s children than they did for their parents. 

While the majority of children growing up in the 1980s were cared for full-time by a parent, those eighties children who are parents today are likely to be combining paid employment and parenting demands.

The majority of children under the age of twelve in Australia now participate in some type of regular childcare. A large swathe of formal early education and care has become commercialised, generating about $10 billion annually.

The workforce has changed and so has family life, but funding and policies relating to childcare have some catching up to do. Parents in urban centres are putting their unborn children down on dozens of waiting lists in the hope that space will be available in a childcare facility months or years later when it is needed. The system is undoubtedly in need of improvement, and the Productivity Commission has been tasked with identifying how that could be done.

The Productivity Commission’s Inquiry has been asked to achieve twin goals that tend to tug in opposite directions. On one hand there is a desire to make childcare and early learning services as affordable and flexible as possible. Where children are seen as a barrier to workforce participation, childcare is presumed to be a solution to that obstacle. If workforce participation is your goal, it makes sense to keep costs low and remove barriers, to incentivise paid employment.

But the other priority, which is perhaps easier to ignore, has to do with the quality of care and learning offered. The Commission has been asked to address not only parents’ needs in relation to their participation in the paid workforce, but also the learning and development needs of children. In a tug of war between these competing goals, it is the needs of children that should be given priority. The early years of a child’s life set their course for the decades that follow.

Childcare centres may have begun as a pragmatic solution to a labour market problem, but they are more than a babysitting service. They are now one of the primary contexts in which our children are growing up. We need to ensure the services are the best they can be.

In recent years, the National Quality Framework and National Quality Standards have been developed to set a consistent benchmark across the country for what is an acceptable level of care for children. This has resulted in a step change for many services who have improved their quality. 

Yet unfortunately, one of the recommendations in the Productivity Commission’s Draft Report is to erode that benchmark for children under the age of three. Under the Productivity Commission’s proposal, the level of qualifications needed for educators working with this age group would drop and Early Childhood Teachers—professionals with degree level qualifications—would not be required at all for this age group. 

The brains of children between the age of zero and three grow rapidly if the conditions are right. The relationships and interactions that children have during their early years are critical for the rate, level and structure of their brain development.

If children are not in a nurturing environment their development will be impeded. For our most vulnerable children, participating in quality childcare and early education is incredibly significant, helping them make significant gains academically and socially, and enabling them to transition to school on a much better footing. Early childhood education and care then becomes a cost-effective intervention that can prevent other challenges later in life. But critical to all of this is the quality of the care and learning provided.

A couple of years ago, a study was conducted in the United States by Li and others, which looked at the impact of the quality of care provided in early childhood education and care settings. They found that infants and toddlers who had received high-quality care had better memory skills and higher cognitive development than children who had been in low-quality care. What made care ‘high quality’? Low child-to-adult ratios and substantial investment being made in skilled caregivers. 

Given that Australia’s achievement results in mathematics, reading and science are falling compared to those of other countries in the OECD, we would be wise to invest more in these early stages of education.

The idea that qualifications are needed to look after children can seem counterintuitive.  After all, parents don’t receive qualifications before giving birth. But while a parent may not need special training to look after their own child, asking a stranger to daily care for numerous children with whom they share no familial bond is a different request. Looking after a number of children with diverse backgrounds, some with special needs, is a challenging task that requires training and experience. Why wouldn’t we give our children the best we can deliver?

Australia’s childcare system needs to change and the Productivity Commission has many good ideas for how to do this, but cutting quality would be a short-sighted mistake. We should be actively pursuing higher quality care rather than eroding recent gains. 

As our grandparents knew, caring for young children has always been costly—even when it wasn’t monetised. Investing in children is one of the most important things we can do. We should not be short-changing the future.

Lin Hatfield DoddsLin Hatfield Dodds is National Director of UnitingCare Australia. 

Father and son image by Shutterstock.

Topic tags: Lin Hatfield Dodds, childcare, Productivity Commission, early learning



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Existing comments

It seems, whatever is one's view of childcare, at least for many, it is here to stay. There are differing views about the quality of childcare. Despite the American tendency to treat them as little adults
children need their childhood in order to develop well, Their natural motivation is 'having fun'. Only later will this be complemented with a sense of purpose. The age of reason was customarily said to be 7 years. Before this children seem to be more like sponges, able to absorb a lot but not able to organise much of it. It would seem a good time for them to learn acceptable social behaviour, names of things, and languages. The use of reasoning can wait until they are better able to appreciate and apply it.

Robert Liddy | 17 October 2014  

A well trained early childhood educator would be aware how to give a child the experiences that will stimulate interest in exploring their world. The children, and often their parents will think they are just having fun as children ought. Knowing what not to do is just as important in educating as knowing what to do. The work child carers do is NOT UNSKILLED WORK. Parents often learn the hard way.

Margaret McDonald | 17 October 2014  

I truly agree with the article. I've just subscribed and looking forward to reading more articles from you.

Thanks for sharing


Soph Homoli | 18 October 2014  

hmm, no wonder literacy and maths rates are falling - there is significant amounts of research showing time and again that children do better with outdoor play, free play and being home with siblings and a loving family - why governments (I am from NZ and we are no different) choose to ignore the overwhelming evidence, even when the 'results' of childcare are now showing up is beyond me. We should be looking to countries such as Norway and Sweden that have high academic results and don't begin formal education until 7 yrs of age - their results speak for themselves and are well in line with the current research..

Angela | 21 October 2014  

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