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Workers forgotten in outrage over child care

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Drum Opinion
McNicholas, Liam
Publication Date: 
11 Jun 2012



Once again, we find early childhood education and care (ECEC) back on the front pages.

Fees have risen. Families are outraged. Private services demand reforms are scaled down, or thrown away altogether.

As someone who has worked in the early childhood sector (we don't call it childcare anymore) for over 10 years, all this news isn't exactly news.

ECEC in Australia has always sat somewhat uncomfortably in society. Its primary purpose was to increase workforce productivity by allowing new mothers to return to work, and indeed until recent history ECEC sat under an industry or productivity portfolio in government.

For a long time, it was viewed and often managed as essentially day-long babysitting. The workforce were "carers", and although outcomes for learning and development were observed, these were mostly of the checklist and school-readiness variety.

The sector, with varying degrees of government funding, continued in much this fashion for some time. The Howard government created major structural changes for the sector by directing funds to families, rather than centres.

The Childcare Rebate and Childcare Benefit, aimed at increasing productivity (and also possibly winning a vote or two in a close election), caused numbers of children accessing an ECEC service to sharply jump.

This significant increase in the number of Australia's young children accessing a centre also coincided with growing bodies of research highlighting that the greatest growth, change and learning in a child's brain occurs in the first five years of their life – before they start institutional education.

The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children also highlighted that negative impacts across a variety of indications such as social, emotional and physical could have exponentially detrimental impacts later on in life.

Conversely, focusing on positive learning strategies and building social and emotional skills in the first five years had a hugely positive impact down the track.

This confluence created higher expectations for ECEC services to provide a greater focus on education and learning. This culminated in the announcement of the National Quality Agenda for Early Childhood Education and Care, a reform agenda to raise quality standards and bring together a national approach to disparate state and territory regulations.

The National Quality Agenda is now in place, and requires higher standards of qualifications and lower educator-child ratios for children. It has been met with both support and criticism from a sector divided between community not-for-profit services, and private operators represented by the Australian Childcare Alliance.

No-one can argue that higher quality programs and lower ratios are a bad idea for Australia's children. But, as with most things in life, it all comes down to the money.

Despite the Child Care Rebate and Benefit, families are reportedly feeling the effect of a sharp increase in fees over the last year. The Gillard Government is investigating the issue while promoting the large increase in spending on the sector compared to the Howard government.

So, the wheel turns, and despite all the reforms we're still stuck in the same arguments about fees and waiting lists. Quality outcomes for children are usually put second to the workforce issues in any media report, and ECEC services are once again left to manage relationships with families and children.

I'm supportive of the Government's reforms to the sector. As a person who loves and believes in my work, I think we should be challenged to provide the best quality education and care to children we can. But the issue that is fundamentally ignored in these debates is the workforce issue – not the national workforce, but the ECEC workforce.

One of the fundamental and mind-boggling dichotomies of the ECEC sector is that it was primarily set up to give women choice and enable them to continue their careers while having a family - a choice that men never had to make.

And yet, according to the Productivity Commission Report into the Early Childhood Workforce, the sector is 97 per cent female and beset by incredibly poor wages, poor conditions and a lack of professional recognition.

The incredible situation is that as a society we created opportunities for women to overcome institutionalised sexism and maintain a career with a family,  but to do it we created a workforce "underclass" of women to continue it. It was, and arguably still is, seen as "women's work".

Ask any early childhood educator – the job is tough. It isn't babysitting, and it isn't sitting around playing with blocks. It's lots of paperwork, it's lots of reading in your spare time, and it's emotionally and physically demanding. $18/hour is not much of an incentive to join the sector.

United Voice, the ECEC union, have stated that 180 educators are leaving the sector every week. Plainly, the status quo can't continue. Both as an educator and as a father with a daughter accessing a wonderful ECEC service, it is no longer acceptable.

As roundtable talks loom in the distance, it's time to reframe the debate. It shouldn't just be about productivity and fees. We need to give the ECEC workforce the same opportunities that they give to the rest of Australia. We need to focus on the best quality outcomes for children.

I strongly urge the Prime Minister to support the Big Steps in early childhood education and care campaign and address the issue of wages and conditions for early childhood educators in any further reforms to the sector.

- reprinted from the Drum Opinion