Is the care–education dichotomy behind us? Should it be?

University of New England

For over a decade we have talked about the care–education dichotomy as being false and irrelevant given that care is considered to be a part of education, not separate from it. A generation of early childhood professionals have grown up in services where care is seen as part of education. As a nation, Australia is now pursuing professionalisation of early childhood through the education discourse. As with any decision, there are positive and negative consequences.

In order to understand the unintentional consequences of pursuing an educational pathway towards professionalisation, we need to keep the issues relating to care in the front of our minds.

As far back as 1988, the care–education dichotomy was presented in the literature as false (Petrie, 1988) but it continued to exist in reality as it ‘reflects the public’s perception of the service and defines child care in relation to the education profession’ (Klein, 1992, p. 13). Kindergartens were perceived as providing education while child care provided custodial care (Sims, 1994; Smith, 1988). In an early study I undertook (Sims & Hutchins, 1996) this perception was reinforced.

Research exploring early childhood professionals’ perspectives of the care shows that 77 per cent of parents surveyed preferred to send their child to pre-primary because of its educational focus, rather than to child care. In the same study, 90 per cent of child carers saw their key role as providing a safe, consistent and stable environment for young children—characteristics closely related to a welfare perception of child care. There are long-term consequences arising from this position.

Smith (1988, p. 31) argues: ‘Unfortunately when these perceptions of child care as a ‘necessary evil’ filter down to caregivers and parents they may be more likely to accept mediocrity and fail to provide or insist on a good experience for children’.

It is only in recent times that early childhood has become an important issue and that the mediocrity identified by Smith which has been experienced for so long was challenged. The timing of this challenge varied across different nations in Australasia. New Zealand led the way with the creation of the early childhood framework, Te Wha-riki (Ministry of Education, 1993, 1996). Australia began with its childcare accreditation in 1994 and made significant strides following the COAG reform agenda of 2008. This later resulted in a range of significant early childhood initiatives culminating in the development of a national early years framework (DEEWR, 2009) followed several years later by a national quality standard (COAG, 2009).

These documents ignore the care–education dichotomy, assuming that care is part of education. Such joint positioning of care and education is similar to that in curriculum and standards documents from other countries. For example in the UK the ‘Birth to Three Matters’ curriculum positioned the care and education of infants and toddlers as a public rather than a private responsibility for the first time (the state as a corporate parent) (Abbott & Langston, 2005). This near-universal positioning of care and education together has now created a generation of early childhood workers who cannot think of them as separate entities—an outcome that one might perceive as desirable and healthy.

However, ignoring the fact that care and education not only have different antecedents, but have different underpinning ideologies arising from those different histories (Bennett, 2003; Sims, 1994) can be problematic. Different antecedents bring with them different values which influence the ‘power’ attached to them today. Care arose from a welfare perspective, particularly focused on getting the children of poor families off the street while their parents were working, and providing a form of education necessary for them to fulfil their places in society: generally places associated with manual labour and/or service. Thus care was, in its early days, associated with rescue, poverty/disadvantage and low status. While in recent years neurobiological research has elevated perceptions of care through the provision of ‘scientific’ evidence of its importance (Sims, 2013), care retains its lower status. Childcare workers are still paid much less than teachers, their conditions are poorer and the level of education required to begin pre-service training is much lower than that required of teachers. Care services are chronically underfunded across the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in comparison to education services (Bennett, 2003).

Early education, on the other hand, was based on the assumption that mothers would be at home looking after their children, and could thus bring their children along to a sessional, part-day kindergarten program (Sims, 1994). Only families from upper middle and upper classes could afford stay-at-home mothers, thus from its very beginnings, kindergarten was positioned for the privileged—an optional extra aimed at giving children an educational advantage (Brennan, 1994). Kindergarten teachers themselves were generally from the upper middle classes, many of whom were able to afford to travel internationally to attend the latest training in early education (for example the early Montessori teachers who trained in Europe and brought the latest knowledge and practices back to Australia; Feez, 2013).

As far back as 1992, Klein (1992) argued that we need to articulate a new discourse to be able to combine care and education effectively, and, at the same time, not lose other aspects important in early childhood education (aspects, I argued in 1996 included child care’s role in the development of cultural capital, a role still overlooked today; Sims & Hutchins, 1996). It is even more important we have this debate today as we move towards professionalisation of early childhood. How we define our profession, its boundaries, who is in and who is outside of the profession, what standards we want, and what we value, are all dependent on our shared vision of early childhood.

However, I am not sure that we all share the same vision of early childhood. And if we do not share the same vision, whose vision will influence the definition of our profession? Which discourse is privileged? Will our new profession truly create a space where we can all grow and develop, or will it create a space that privileges some but excludes others? What is it that we want to create?

“I am not sure that we all share the same vision of early childhood. And if we do not share the same vision, whose vision will influence the definition of our profession?”

Research demonstrates that many early childhood professionals in Australia see their work as combining care and education. Some argue that the education discourse already recognises care as integral. Others argue that while we in early childhood see the two intertwined, this is not necessarily the understanding of those outside of early childhood, and that our role must be to do whatever is necessary to change the discourse so that it fits our work more closely. While a number of people see no risks in this process, others are concerned that early childhood may need to modify its own discourse to fit more neatly with the education discourse and that will mean changing elements of our work that we currently value. In particular the position of care, the imposition of ‘push-down’ curriculum and the role of documentation in accountability are identified as issues where early childhood may need to make changes.

To read Margaret Sim’s full research article on what early childhood professionals think about the role of the education discourse in the professionalisation of early childhood, and what this means to them and the implications of this for their practice, click here.

Click here to purchase this issue of the Australasian Journal of Early Childhood.

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Abbott, L., & Langston, A. (2005). Birth to three matters: a framework to support children in their earliest years. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 13(1), 129–143.

Bennett, J. (2003). Starting Strong: The persistent division between care and education. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 1(1), 21–48. doi: 10.1177/1476718X030011006

Brennan, D. (1994). The politics of Australian child care: from philanthropy to feminism. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR). (2009). Belonging, being and becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia. Canberra, ACT: Commonwealth of Australia.

Feez, S. (2013). Montessori: the Australian story. Sydney: UNSW Press/NewSouth Publishing.

Glaser, B. (1965). The constant comparative method of qualitative data analysis. Social Problems, 12(4), 436–445.

Klein, A. (1992). The debate over child care 1969–1990. A sociohistorical analysis. Albany New York: State University of New York Press.

Ministry of Education. (1993). Te Wha-riki. Draft Guidelines for Developmentally Appropriate Programmes in Early Childhood Services. Wellington, NZ: Ministry of Education.

Ministry of Education. (1996). Te Whàriki. He Whàriki Màtauranga mò ngà Mokopuna o Aotearoa. Early Childhood Curriculum. Wellington: Learning Media.

Sims, M. (1994). Care and education: Revisiting the dichotomy. Early Child Development and Care, 103, 15–26.

Sims, M. (2013). The importance of early years education. In D. Pendergast & S. Garvis (Eds.), Teaching early years: Curriculum, pedagogy and assessment (pp. 20–32). Crows Nest, NSW: Allen and Unwin.

Sims, M., & Hutchins, T. (1996). The many faces of child care: roles and functions. Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 21(1), 21–26.

Smith, A. (1988). Education and care components in New Zealand Child Care Centres and Kindergartens. Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 15(4), 16–23.


Professor Margaret Sims

Margaret Sims is Professor of Early Childhood at the University of New England. Margaret’s research interests focus around quality community-based services for young children and their families and she has published extensively in this area.

3 thoughts on “Is the care–education dichotomy behind us? Should it be?”

    Anne Kennedy says:

    I see education and care as two sides of the one coin. We ‘educate’ children and families through the way we care for them as experts in their own learning and we ‘care’ for others through the way we educate. Education and care involves complex human encounters and relationships. Early kindergartens in Australia were established for both care and education of children as they were located in inner city slums for from the early 1900s until the the 1950s before they were built in ‘new suburbs.’

    Yes I agree they SHOULD be sides of the same coin and would like to think that in our practice this is the case. However it is clear from literature around the world, and from our recent Productivity Commission Report that they are NOT being positioned as such and there is a growing distinction between education (for children over 3) and care (for children under 3). I am really concerned that if we continue to refuse to acknowledge the dichotomy (because we KNOW that it should not exist), then we are in great danger of not addressing the crucial issues that arise when politicians continue to emphasise the differences they see between care and education.

    Kerry Boland says:

    Working as a ec teacher in childcare, my primary focus has always been education and learning for 0-8 years in a sector whose historical and (current from visiting early childhood officers) focus is care and development for 27 years. Not to undervalue care for children at any age. That is just the vital but basic foundation of provision as Maslow pointed out. Research tells us that learning happens prior to birth and the greatest neurological changes occur in the first 1000 days. I would like to comment that in spite of the research demonstrating the importance of early childhood education, having coag national quality standards and learning (not caring) frameworks, I am disheartened to not see a dete shift away from care and compliance. Come on ECO’s be resource people not the police, lets have conversations about pedagogy and learning, rather then who cleans the toilets. I don’t know and I don’t care as long as they are clean. If concerned about a ‘push down’ threat to ecec’s, look into age-appropriate pedagogies for schools. Bring us in on the discourse, as I would say rather it’s a ‘push up’ as already well embedded in our philosophy and practice. Funnily enough we don’t get invited to the dept training on AAP’s only the schools even though it aligns with ec philosophy. Would not seamless transitions be built on both sectors having a shared understanding, knowledge, language and respect for the work of each other.

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