Investing in the early years

Last week, The Centre for Policy Development offered a couple of policy insights into early childhood and childcare. Since then, Australia’s media has gone gangbusters on the debate. Opinion pieces have surfaced in the Sydney Morning Herald, SBS’s Insight programme has hosted a debate on the subject, and a lead editorial in The Age on Monday has placed early childhood and childcare back in the spotlight. And when you include the reports from Department of Family and Community Services citing unannounced ‘spot-checks’ on childcare providers that have unearthed system rorts involving whole families being listed as children to claim extra government dollars, it has been a very big week. But for those interested in ideas about how we can reform our systems and institutions to better serve the needs of children, the debate has been mostly underwhelming.

The mantra citing the importance of ‘government investment in the early years’ has simultaneously disempowered parents, and reinforced our out-dated images of childhood. These images of innocence, vulnerability and incapacity maintain the existing adult/child power structures, and limit our capacity to respect children and therefore provide a truly child-centred policy approach.

This is why I sigh when Eva Cox proposes universal public funding for childcare. Ultimately, this proposal buys into a model that only further reinforces our society’s high expectations around the need to participate in paid work, and fuel economic growth. Early childhood policy solutions don’t show real respect to children when they are made in isolation from the complex interaction of work, family, children and overall happiness.

Cox could have pushed the policy boundaries and suggested that childcare centres be restructured as ‘early childhood development centres’. She might have asked that all ‘early years’ workers be tertiary qualified, or considered a weekly cap of 30 hours on children’s time in centre-based care. Cox could have offered up a model of ‘childhood development centres’ that incorporate a wide range of child, family and community services, or discussed whether we should research the cost benefits of compulsory paid maternity/paternity leave paid by employers through government subsidies for up to two years versus the cost of real quality care for children under the age of two.

Instead, she chose to limit her proposals merely to funding models. While this may resolve the issue of increased private service provision leading to poor quality care, it fails to address the potential of providing an integrated service system where centre-based childcare is one of a variety of services supporting children, families and communities.

We need comprehensive reform: not just to childcare, but also to a wholesale consideration of what children and families really need, and what services could provide them.

Australia needs new images of childhood and youth: images that support an attitude of respect towards children. We need to end the over-regulation of childhood and the desire to pit institutional care against parental care. Why can’t children have the best of both worlds?

We must develop more sophisticated ideas about how we think about children, families and the systems that govern their lives. And this won’t be achieved with the current obsession over ‘evidence-based policy’.

Evidenced-based policy is a valuable tool in policy making, but it is not the only tool. The early childhood sector must remember this. Marston and Watts have noted that “[t]here is a risk that ‘evidence-based policy’ will become a means for policy elites to increase their strategic control over what constitutes knowledge about social problems in a way that devalues tacit forms of knowledge, practice-based wisdom, professional judgment, and the voices of ordinary citizens.” ( Marston and Watts, 2003 )

It is what Anne Manne refers to in her book Motherhood as ‘groupthink’. She argues that in the pursuit and defence of quality childcare, the ‘experts’ are ignoring a broader policy agenda because they are only concerned with defending each other’s research and opinions, and this justifies only a very narrow band of early childhood policy ideas. These ‘experts’ distort the representation of evidence, using tactics that exploit the images of innocent and vulnerable children to argue their point. It is a dangerous model where the policy elites silence critics, restrict debate and undermine parental concerns.

Many parents and families don’t consider centre-based childcare the ultimate solution for their situation. They want policy that empowers them. They want less parental guilt. They don’t both want to work full-time. They want real flexibility, not rhetoric. And real flexibility means more than just the option of centre-based childcare, or not.

So, the relationship between qualitative evidence base-driven economists and early years advocates has been a raging success. Early childhood is no longer too far from the government agenda. And the economic and social benefits of increased investment and improved services are now established as fact. We need to start looking beyond the given facts from the evidence, and towards shaping the desired future. We need to consider a wide range of conflicting issues, such as:

– Across the Western world, birthrates continue to decline. Should we invest in future child-specific physical infrastructures when in 20 years’ time, it will be under-utilised?

– The misinterpretation of early childhood advocacy messages and the role of the ‘expert’ in the lives of our children are supporting risk-adverse childhood policies. Do we want to continue shielding our children from developmental opportunities because of over-stated risks?

– Our growing obsession over childhood is producing a paradox between government talk of supporting children, and the idolisation and exploitation of children through marketing and media. Are we prepared to have child-centred services, but a child-exploiting marketplace?

– Can we find resolution between greater economic investment in improving the quality of early childhood development services, and economic imperatives to keep costs of childcare low? If we really accept the importance of the early years, government policy (and budgets) will require significant shifts to allow the necessary changes in workforce participation and the valuing of parenthood.

We may have already hit the iceberg that Graham Vimpani last week urged us to avoid. In the current focus of evidence-based research and economic analysis, we have failed to consider the complexities beneath the surface. In his under-acknowledged thesis War Over Work: The Future of Work and Family, Don Edgar married the wide range of issues regarding children, work, family and community. His book deals with the complexities of our changing demographics, our expectations and the capacity of governments and communities to meet them. If we develop policies that shift our ideas of childhood, we have the capacity to impact not just on government investment, but also the investment we all make in the lives of the children in our community.

Policy Recommendations for respecting children and parenthood

Reform the early childhood support services system.
– Amalgamate childcare and pre-school systems into ‘early childhood development centres’ for children from 18 months to 6 years of age.
– Set limitations on children’s attendance at these centres.
– Adopt the recommendation made by the Victorian Premier’s Advisory Committee on Children’s Services to develop community-managed Children’s Resource Zones, nation-wide.
– Continue to develop integrated children’s and family service hubs.
– Mandatory paid maternity/paternity leave for at least 18 months.
– Build child-inclusive infrastructure, rather than child-specific infrastructure.

Develop new social systems that support a transition into adulthood.
– Encourage early parenting through reforming the tertiary education system to focus on paid work and vocational education immediately after high school.
– Offer incentives for parents under the age of 25, like free support services and tax breaks.

Deconstruct the power structures between adults and children.
– Allow children aged 12 and above to vote in all elections through appropriately developed systems that support them in their decision-making.
– Provide simplified information systems about government decisions and social issues to children.
– Invest in building children’s social and family responsibilities appropriate to their age.
– Provide children with regular space in our national newspapers and ABC radio to comment on issues.

Support the development of intergenerational and community relationships.
– Facilitate combined early childhood and aged care support services.
– State governments focus policy on a platform of ‘a society for all ages’ rather than ‘children first’.
– Tax incentives for families choosing to live in extended family households.

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