Childcare policy is always fraught, because so many people want it to be better, but everyone has their own ideas about what is needed. Yarrow Andrew, who worked for 15 years in long day childcare as an educator, before beginning a research career investigating early childhood education gives us some ideas about how to reform the sector.
One big problem is that childcare performs many roles in modern society, enabling parents to get back into the workforce, educating children prior to school, supporting struggling families and children at risk, and as a significant employment sector in its own right. Yet these purposes are often in tension, and the system we have now is a result of historical decisions spanning from the 19th century to the last decade, which are often hard to reexamine. Most people working across the sector accept that childcare will have certain features, simply because these are common to almost all the services across Australia. But what if we could rebuild a system from scratch? What might it look like then?
From my perspective, it all begins with educators. if educators are highly skilled, and feel valued and respected, then they will be providing excellent care for children, in ways that make children happier, and that reassure parents. Yet for our system to remain 'affordable' it has relied on the systemic underpayment of those working in the field, who often earn little more than the minimum wage (and often less).
Key elements of a reimagined system, for me, would be;
Higher pay, and more paid time for administration and professional development
Respecting childcare work, through recognised career paths, and genuine acknowledgment (not lip service) that early childhood education impacts significantly on the learning of all children, and helps marginalised children even more.
Well-qualified educators, working non-hierarchically and with significant autonomy, to enable the best solutions for a particular community.
Smaller childcare settings, which support intimacy and close relationships, rather than institutionalisation. This is particularly significant for the youngest children.
Sustainability at the core, from sustainable relationships, to sustainable communities, to sustainable infrastructure, supporting the learning needed for meaningful climate action.
Lastly, and perhaps most controversially, childcare should become part of our public education system, rather than the expensive semi-privatised system we have now. Childcare 'competition' offers few benefits, except to shareholders, and community-based services on average have higher ratings under our national accreditation systems than for-profit services.
Isn't this all just 'pie in the sky'? How do we get from where we are now to the system I am suggesting is possible? This would not be easy, because it would require governments with vision, and widespread collaboration from unions, staff, and the public.
To give one example of the complex issues that might need agreement. Unions are understandably unwilling to bargain away the limited rights of educators under existing system, but many of these 'rights' are based on typical workplaces, which do not work as well in childcare settings. For example, in a factory, a tea break may be vital and valued. In childcare such breaks are administratively complex, unsettling for children, and often challenging for staff, who may feel they cannot rely on relief staff filling in for these periods. imagine if Unions took the initiative in trading off a 'traditional' teabreak for a less disruptive system, such as shorter days but the same pay rate, or administrative breaks which might fulfil those requirements differently. Such changes, which include rethinking how we group children, how communication with families is handled, or what administration is really necessary, all require careful reimagining of our existing childcare practices.
What troubles you about childcare? How might we fix it?
Yarrow has just written a book The Sociology of Early Childhood, co-authored by Jennifer Fane, for those wanting to find out more