‘Child care’, like car parks

Watching a segment on ABC’s 7:30 Report on Tuesday night (September 30), I waited in vain to hear someone talk about the importance and cost of quality. The messages were only about the shortage and cost of ‘child care’ places as impediments to women re-entering the workforce and the damaging effect on the nation’s economy.

The closest thing to a comment about quality was Minister Ley saying that subsidised in-home care (that is, nannies) would be subject to regulations that would not allow things like emptying the dishwasher.

There was no allusion to child care as the place where many children spend a substantial part of their childhoods. Jim Greenman’s most quoted line after he spoke at the 1991 ECA conference was that children may spend up to 12,000 hours in child care before they start school. I recall doing the calculations and thinking that was a conservative estimate.

Current political discourse identifies children as obstacles to workforce participation. Like cars, they need to be parked somewhere so that their parents can work. The criteria for a good car park are that it’s conveniently located, there’s always a space for your car, it’s open when you need it, it’s affordable, and when you pick up your car it will be in the same condition as when you left it. Child care services, car parks – two similar essential services for workforce participation. Park cars, park children.

The use of the term child care in the segment jarred. Increasing use of the term early education and care services signifies appreciation that education and care are inseparable in practice and in labelling service types. The Early Years Learning Framework and the National Quality Framework, through their content, intended audience and implementation, have moved the sector forward and reduced the artificial distinctions that have existed traditionally.

Absent from the segment was recognition of children as citizens with rights, enthusiastic learners who take advantage of every opportunity and experience offered them. It appears that politicians have even moved away from traditional rhetoric about children as ‘Australia’s most precious asset’, ‘our greatest resource’ and therefore ‘worth the investment’. At least with hard-nosed people who are persuaded only by financial or economic arguments for providing high quality early education and care services, we could make a strong case for providing high quality services that give children the best start possible. We know about the payoffs to the community of providing good quality and the costs of not doing so.

We’ve made many steps forward, but now we seem to be taking many steps back.

Cost and shortage of spaces are important concerns – but not at the expense of the quality of children’s experiences.

Activity: Use a centre-based or family day care service that you know. Calculate children’s average starting age, number of hours attending per week, weeks of attendance per year and number of years. What’s the total? It’s likely to be a strong argument for good quality!

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Anne Stonehouse

Anne Stonehouse AM lives in Victoria and works as a consultant, writer and facilitator of professional learning in early childhood. She has published many books, articles and other resources for educators and parents. Her main professional interests are the nature of good quality curriculum for babies and toddlers and family-educator relationships in early learning settings. She was a member of the writing team in the Charles Sturt University-based consortium that developed the national Early Years Learning Framework. She is currently engaged in a number of projects related to the national and Victorian Frameworks.

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