Flexible childcare isn't just a 'women's issue'

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Andie Fox

The Productivity Commission just released its much anticipated final report on childcare and early childhood learning.

The Productivity Commission just released its much anticipated final report on childcare and early childhood learning. Photo: Stocksy

The Productivity Commission just released its much anticipated final report on childcare and early childhood learning. It will be tabled in Parliament this week and soon after that we will see the Coalition government's new childcare policy in response. There's likely to be some good news but not the overhaul you were looking for.

The report recommends multiple childcare payments be combined into a single subsidy and that the subsidy be means tested so poorer families get more help. It also recommends that childcare possibilities be maximised for 'at risk' kids who do better developmentally for it, and that federal funding be available to help families pay for more flexible options, like nannies and aux pairs. This is something I personally support, considering just how inflexible childcare centres are in terms of operating hours, ages of children, capacity to cater to disability and waiting lists. 

Nannies aren't, by any stretch of the imagination, affordable for a low income family but they're not exactly an elitist option for a middle class family factoring in multiple children requiring pick-ups from school and kindergarten with maybe also a baby in the mix. Add to that, parents working shifts or extended hours and maybe a child with a disability who flat out can't get after school care in their local area and suddenly nannies look very reasonable. You'd hardly subsidise these care options at the expense of subsidies for, say, unemployed parents but otherwise my own exposure indicated that they were an option chosen by many middle of the road income families. And there isn't the quite the same cause for concern over potential exploitation of domestic workers here as there is in other countries with higher immigration rates and lower industrial protections.   

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As long as childcare accessibility is such a big problem for women getting to work it's difficult to justify ruling any options out.  

This review of childcare is the largest of its kind since the 1990s. And for it, the Productivity Commission was given the task of designing new models of early childhood education and care. Sounds innovative. Except the financial constraints imposed by the government meant the Commission really only had the option of tweaking the existing approach. The Commission admits as much in the report.

The Productivity Commission isn't exactly rejecting of the false idea that children are private goods either, bestowing gratification only upon their parents. Because of this, it's difficult to mount much of an argument for greater public support. An outcome that is wholly consistent with the Coalition government's austerity-like direction.

There's huge interest in early childhood at the moment in economic circles. We have the sense there is untapped potential here, both in terms of educational attainment - harder, faster, younger; but also in terms of correcting earlier the trajectory of disadvantage vulnerable children veer away from their peers on. Governments are keen to consider new ways of unlocking economic growth. But it seems, to do so cheaply and without trying anything too new. Genuine innovation means taking risks, but there's little appetite for that in policy these days.

If we were really talking how childcare and early childhood learning could be re-imagined in this country, and I know we aren't, but if we were there's an area of early childhood we largely miss. Attachment. Designing childcare around the attachment needs of babies and small children, and not just educational needs, would likely get a very different model to the one we have today. And given how key attachment is to developing human capabilities - qualities necessary for healthy relationships, resilience and building communities - we might find it a more worthwhile long term goal than simply maximising gross domestic product. This is particularly the case when you consider that Australia performs poorly against other OECD countries in rankings of quality in early education and childcare. And that the Labor government, when last in power, made a substantial investment in the sector that risks being now undermined.

I am no opponent of childcare, I have been using it since my firstborn turned a year old and I returned to work. She's almost ten now, and together with her brother, attends after-school care a couple of days a week. She's part of a generation of Australian children for whom almost all have participated in some form of early education and childcare. This is not my childhood, we're a long way from Kansas now, Toto.

Paid care has pretty much always been a feature of her life. The routine of putting your bag on the shelves, being patient about the noise of forty other kids getting as tired and stroppy as you are, of watching dark fall before you get home, is her vision of the school week. It's as familiar to her as it was for me seeing my mother at the school gates to collect me right after the bell. But familiarity has not bred fondness. If you asked my daughter what she thinks of childcare she would tell you she hates it. Her complaints reflect some childish stubbornness on her part, but also some wider issues around quality that stem from the funding crunch the childcare system faces. There's always been a lot of goodwill from childcare staff, but something is still amiss with our approach.

I don't regret being a work-outside-the-home mother. There are many advantages to having parents in the workforce - higher family income and social capital opportunities, to name a couple. And as a, now, single mother I can attest to the benefits of staying attached to the workforce in terms of the longer term security it provides me. (Which is why it can make economic sense to work during the early years of motherhood even when part-time work and childcare costs mean you may not lodge a profit. Think of it as an insurance policy). But if we're going to encourage higher participation rates for women, and quite frankly our economy now depends on such, then we need to think about how we incorporate care into economic systems rather than segregating it outside the system. We must recognise that love and reciprocity are drives as fundamental to us as self-interest.

File all of this with notions like a guaranteed universal basic income and other economic possibilities for happiness that might actually be a real option if we were ready to consider them. Because, we are not talking some stagnant old debate here between capitalism and communism. We're talking about ways of better organising our economy and care. And it starts with framing the debate around the understanding that children are in many ways a public good and warrant public support accordingly. We might not accept all the alternatives around market socialism and democratic governance that progressive economics is exploring, but it is time to at least have the debate.

If only, when the Productivity Commission was directed to thoroughly review childcare, the government had actually meant that.