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What happened to early learning?

26 May 2015

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Professor Sharon Bessell is Director of Gender Equity and Diversity and heads the Children’s Policy Centre and the Poverty and Inequality Research Centre at the Crawford School of Public Policy. Her research focuses on social policy for children and she currently teaches Global Social Policy (POGO8044) and Development Theories and Themes (POGO8072).

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Early learning, care and development must be at the centre of funding, policy and practice, writes Sharon Bessell.

The childcare package, leaked and widely discussed prior to the budget announcement, was presented as a centrepiece of the government’s commitment to families. Some families have been identified as winners in the budget, having gained funding to increase access to childcare and subsidies to support affordability. Parents unable to access childcare, or who work irregular hours, may not be so lucky, even with a pilot nanny program designed to support shift workers and others without access to mainstream childcare.

This funding for childcare is welcome; however, the way in which childcare is being represented is worrying.

The government’s representation of the childcare package focuses exclusively on freeing up parents, particularly mothers, to return to the workforce. Hockey lauded it as creating childcare that is “affordable, accessible, flexible”. An important word was conspicuously missing: quality. For both parents and children, affordability, accessibility and flexibility do not resolve the problems around existing childcare systems if quality is poor. Children’s education and experience must be at the heart of any form of childcare.

As childcare has become central to the productivity agenda, the early education agenda has been sidelined. Ideally, workforce participation (for women particularly) and high-quality early learning experiences should co-exist and be complementary. Yet in recent years, the language has changed from early childhood education to childcare and family packages.

When professor Deborah Brennan from the University of New South Wales proposed a single income-tested subsidy to replace the single Child Care Benefit and Child Care Rebate, she called it the Early Learning Subsidy.

The government has adopted elements of the proposal, which should streamline the approach. But the new package is called the Child Care Subsidy. The language matters because it signals both values and intent. The emphasis is on childcare that frees parents to enter the workforce, not on the educational agenda that is so critical to the care and development of young children. Children become objects of childcare – burdens from which parents should be freed – rather than young citizens whose experience and education matters.

Australia has made substantial inroads at improving the quality of early childhood education in recent years, acknowledging the international evidence that access to high-quality programs, with well-qualified teachers, makes a different to outcomes. Yet in this budget, the focus on education – and on educators – has been subsumed by the focus on childcare.

We seem to be forgetting the youngest members of our families. If childcare is to be more than babysitting, the trilogy of early learning, care and development must be at the centre of funding, policy and practice.

Written by Sharon Bessell, Associate Professor, Crawford School of Public Policy and Sue Dockett, Professor in early childhood studies, School of Education, Charles Sturt University.

This article was originally published on Early Learning Review.

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