Where is the child in the debate over free childcare?

This blog brings a practitioner view from the frontline. MEL ANGEL, an Adelaide-based teacher, learner and researcher working in the field of early childhood education writes about what she has seen and what she thinks since ‘free child care’ launched itself on an unsuspecting early childhood education and care sector.

Twelve July, 2020 has come and gone— as has free childcare. Having been thrust into the spotlight as frontline workers during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, can we as early childhood professionals use this time to enter the political debate about the purpose of our childcare system? Who does it serve and what are the politics behind the decision making?

Although ‘free’ childcare was problematic for many services, the government intervention package was a lifeline for many families. Parents who retained their employment either in frontline services or were working from home were able to do this because childcare services remained available. What’s more, there is evidence families who previously had not been utilising services began to do so.

‘We’re at a time where we’ve never valued educators so much’ – Bridget Brennan, ABC Insiders.

And yet….

Educators financial support through the JobKeeper scheme ended on 20 July, the first sector to lose this payment. Commentary around the politics of gender has been rife; it has not gone unnoticed that the sector that has been singled out, is comprised almost entirely of women. On the other hand, the construction industry, mainly comprised of men, has been given a financial boost (Bryant, L 2020).

In all of these reports and debates we must remember that when governments and media talk about the early childhood care and education sector they are talking about the workforce and the economy. But we know that so much more goes on in early childhood education and care. It is not just about the workforce, whether we are talking about those of us who are employed by the sector or those of us who need care in order to work in other areas of employment. We are talking  about the care and education of our children.

And yet…this part of the discussion is rarely on the agenda for public discussion.

Journalist Bridget Brennan recently brought this debate to the fore on ABC Insiders, making the point that: ‘this is not just about sending parents back to work. I think we need to have a discussion about the benefits of childcare…..’(Brennan, B, 2020). Significantly she reported that statements from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sector demonstrated an increase in enrolments, significant in that it is a Closing the Gap target to ensure four-year-olds participate in an early learning program. Her view was that ‘it was fantastic to see so many kids in need going to childcare for the first time.’

To have this evidence brought to the political stage is exciting. And this brings us to consider another political debate that is currently raging in Australia and around the world. The Black Lives Matter movement has stirred a passionate response in many Australians. If we are serious about making a difference to the lives of Indigenous Australian children, can we not advocate for the benefits of continuing free childcare?

In 2012-2013 Professor Carla Rinaldi, President of Reggio Children was Thinker in Residence in South Australia. In her final report, Re Imagining Childhood, she made the point that Indigenous children were disadvantaged by the fact that they were not participating in childcare services at the same rate as non-Indigenous children. She also gave us this provocation about the way our services are constructed to benefit the adult workforce over the benefits for children: 

It must be possible for early childhood services to be places where the educational quality and the rights of children rather than the needs of workforce participation of their parents and families, are at the centre of attention. This is a truth that needs to be faced—with the families and the community, but also and above all, from the social and political point of view (Rinaldi, 2013, p40).

The time is right for us to ignite and participate in discussions that will lead to action to support the rights of all children to accessible early years care and education.


Mel Angel

Mel Angel is an Adelaide-based teacher, learner and researcher working in the field of early childhood education. One of her key areas of interest is the impact of contemporary social, cultural and political activity on the lives of our youngest citizens, their families and educators. She has presented and written for both ECA and the Reggio Emilia Australia Information Exchange.

2 thoughts on “Where is the child in the debate over free childcare?”

    Sue Gilbey says:

    Thank you for this article Mel Angel. It is so important. Aristotle knew it.

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful blog. It has some very crucial points which can help in the understanding the basics of childcare.

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