The early years — getting it right, faster

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During my time as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs I supported the development of the National Agenda for Early Childhood.

The National Agenda argues for Australia to shift a greater proportion of its education, health, crime-prevention, and social-welfare spending ‘upstream’. This argument is based on the fact that each dollar spent on very young children and, through them, on parenting, delivers better long-term social outcomes than the same dollar spent ‘downstream’.

Perhaps my experiences in the policy-making context can help inform the debate on sensible targets for improvements in early childhood services.

A central contest

Experts in health, education, economics, and many other fields now agree that upstream spending on preventing problems is self-evidently fairer and more cost-effective than fixing problems after they arise. Just get on with it, they advise.

The reality for policy makers, however, is that many Australians seem to be concerned that greater upstream spending will somehow weaken traditional family structures and parenting responsibilities. Those Australians don’t seem to question the ends, but they appear nervous about the means.

That uncertainty is then compounded by the fact that many Australians don’t actually know what impact childcare has on child development.

Early childhood development and care — successful, because it is subtle

Childcare services are only one part of getting the early years right, but they can be an important part.

Australia has world-class childcare systems and services. Yet few Australians understand what childcare services offer to early child development and to parenting-development.

Childcare’s potential to help get the early years right has not been fully realised, firstly because some Australians are nervous that increased spending on childcare will somehow undermine families and weaken parental responsibility.

Secondly, many Australians misunderstand childcare as something needed only by working parents, rather than seeing its contribution to child development, the socialization of children, and early childhood learning.

Third, most Australians don’t understand that childcare services already blend care and early child development. Centres already deliver pre-school programs. Indeed, centres are legally obliged to deliver individual developmental programmes for all children in their care, not just in the year before school. And, importantly, they do it using play-based learning methods which both ‘hide’ the teaching inside the fun, at the same time as responding to established curriculum frameworks.

Re-imagining childcare

Childcare centres should be seen as parenting partners. High-quality services specialise in strengthening the relationship between child and parent.

Childcare centres exist mostly to advance the life-interests of children, but good operators understand that the most important way to help any child is to help build an effective relationship between that child and his or her parent.

Building that relationship often means helping the parent understand good parenting. This family-strengthening role works so well partly because it is, in a sense, invisible – embedded in the relationship between the parent customer and the service provider.

The existence and value of that hidden role are not sufficiently appreciated.

Childcare is Early Child-Development, embedded in family relationships

It is well-supported that families, not schools, provide the crucial developmental building blocks that determine a child’s willingness and ability to learn.

Governments, because of their very size, find it difficult to relate well to individual children, families, and communities.

Childcare services, by their very nature, relate to individual children and families, and are grounded in the local community. This is the case whether they are public or private.

All childcare services are already community networks. The challenge is not to rebuild those networks but to make more effective use of them and to make them more accessible.

To conclude

The benefits to children, families and society of spending a greater proportion of health and education funding on children under five years old are increasingly well-recognised in Australian public life. But we could take advantage of these benefits faster if all Australians appreciated the real value of high-quality early childhood services.

There is an ongoing need to balance quality and affordability, particularly through the design and implementation of sensible regulation frameworks. I agree with Nick Gruen’s comment (‘Re-imagining economic reform’, the Centre for Policy Development, 19 April 2006) that

regulation needs to be more responsive and more cost effectively tailored to achieving its social purpose. The recently announced moves to harmonise Commonwealth and State childcare regulation are important initiatives.

I believe policymakers should look at this issue through the prism of parenting, and talk to the general community in these terms. Parents are best placed to know their child’s needs. The federal government is correct, including in its May Budget, to help parents with the cost of access rather than helping suppliers with the cost of buildings. What government and the whole sector can do is provide better information to parents on quality.

Ultimately, it will be this country’s greatest asset — our children — who will benefit from this realization.

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