There's something missing from the Prime Minister's Child Care Inquiry

Pre-election Tony Abbott at a child care centre in Brisbane.

Pre-election Tony Abbott at a child care centre in Brisbane. Photo: GLENN HUNT

Over the weekend the Prime Minister announced the Productivity Commission Inquiry into Child Care and Early Childhood Learning. The government wants to make child care more flexible, affordable and accessible. This all sounds good. There is a strong need for more child care solutions and it’s women who have overwhelmingly been penalised in the workforce because of the shortfall.

The scope of the government’s inquiry has been set to include some of the biggest child care challenges, like how to make child care fit the needs of parents who work shifts, who study, and who live in rural and remote areas. Also, the inquiry is to consider the needs of vulnerable children, children with disabilities and how to make children more school-ready through child care. Again, this all sounds good.

Read the very last line of the inquiry’s scope and you will see that the recommendations need to fit within existing funding parameters. This should be something of a warning to parents. 

So, what’s missing from the picture? Money. Read the very last line of the inquiry’s scope and you will see that the recommendations need to fit within existing funding parameters. This should be something of a warning to parents.

You may recall that in the final days of the 2013 election campaign Tony Abbott quietly retreated from requirements for childcare centres to improve their staff-to-child ratios and lift the qualification levels of staff. Now elected, the Abbott government wants to make child care more available to families but not necessarily better quality. Yet, research by Dr Robyn Seth-Purdie and Dr Nick Biddle shows data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children indicates worse development outcomes for kids in poorly regulated long day care. In other words, the quality of child care counts. The fact that increased funding is missing from the equation explains why the inquiry is not looking at raising the quality of child care as one of its goals, even though quality is closely associated with a range of outcomes, including school-readiness for children.

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That the quality of care can vary so greatly and have such impact doesn’t surprise me. When I was pregnant I was on a number of waiting lists and even though I lived inner city at the time, availability for children under two years old was scarce.

When it came time to return to work the centre that had a place available turned out to be the worst of the bunch. The facility was run down, the staff were miserable. I should have noticed this when I first put my name down but I was exhausted by pregnancy. On the day I came in with my eighteen month old baby to trial it I watched children fight undetected by staff, toddlers slip about in spilt drinks and babies cry incessantly.

The staff were trying but they seemed listless and overwhelmed. The sandpit was closed for renovation and the play rooms were empty but for a scattering of very broken, very grubby toys, where I counted only two books.

“Why do you not have more books?” I asked the Director, who then incautiously showed me a cupboard in the store room full of them.

“The children ruin the books when they play with them,” she explained.

So she kept the books locked in a store room until a government inspection was due and then she had the books brought out to the play rooms in pristine condition for official admiration.

I went home in tears. I can’t do this, I complained to my mother, how can I go to work knowing my child is there? She thought it would simply be a matter of choosing a better daycare centre and booking my child in. But it doesn’t work like that, I tried to tell her. You’re on waiting lists from the time you are pregnant and the lists are long and you wait hopefully for your turn. By now I knew of a care centre with a better reputation through my mother-friend network, but I wasn’t on their waiting list, I hadn’t realised there was such variation in quality when I had been pregnant.

My mother thought none of this should stop her and in the end it didn’t - she cajoled her way in and secured a place for my toddler in the better centre. That this centre, with its cheerful, well-paid staff, fully equipped rooms and education and play-orientated activities, might provide its charges with superior outcomes to that of the other care centre surprises me not at all. But one wonders why choices should vary so greatly, why it can come down to where you live and who you know and how resourceful you are about climbing your way up the waiting list. The government really should be committed to improving and standardising quality. 

The first years of a child’s life have been shown to be critical to lifetime outcomes - it would be money well spent.  

‘I just want any old place to dump my kid while I go to work’, said no parent ever. There’s a problem with getting and affording care, and God knows the options for children with serious disabilities are scarce to non-existent and desperately need addressing, but parents also care about the quality of that care. And we do so for a reason, because it’s very important for the emotional wellbeing of our children and also their development. While I continue to be optimistic about the potential recommendations from this inquiry in terms of improving the childcare experience in this country, I hope any solutions don’t involve sacrificing quality.  

12 comments

  • That's all well and good but the government already provides a 50% rebate on child care costs for most families. So I can understand why the decision has been made to review/implement reforms without additional injection of funding.

    Agree that shift workers or casual workers should have better options available (ditto families of kids with disabilities) but isn't the quality of care a different issue to the present review? Maybe I have missed something in the article, but just because there's a minimum standard required, it doesn't stop private operators from exceeding that standard in terms of staff ratios, qualification levels, floorspace, activities, size of rooms (number of kids), meals, communication with parents etc - many do, and accordingly have high demand for their centres.

    Commenter
    cj
    Date and time
    November 18, 2013, 1:32PM
    • Well if yge first year iz so important then stay home for it. Suddenly everyone has to pay for to raise your child for you while you pay for your overpriced house in some new suburb.

      Commenter
      belinda
      Date and time
      November 18, 2013, 2:17PM
      • I think the other thing that is missing from the enquiry is the amount of child care we should place upon our children.

        Why has equality become a proxy for both parent seeking out fulfilling careers with lots of commuting, long hours and travel?

        I accept that some families do need both parents to work. Others have both working because they both what 'fulfilling' careers or a load of stuff they don't really need.

        This is not to say that I think women shouldn't work. I believe in equality and think this is a decision for each family. Some times may be the man should forgoe is career for a period other times it may make sense for the woman to. Other times it may work out best if both parents work part time.

        What I don't understand is why both parents should both work 40, 50 or 60 hours a week and shove a child in child care because that's what's best for them.

        Life is a journey of choices, pluses and minus. Parenthood is no different. There is no such thing as having it all and there is always a cost, be it physical, emotional, financial or spirtual.

        Commenter
        GuasyJG
        Date and time
        November 18, 2013, 2:40PM
        • Good article Andie. If I was your editor I would omit the reference to God.

          Commenter
          LeisaofMelbounre
          Date and time
          November 18, 2013, 2:56PM
          • The Coalitions's election promises totally missed the point that extra money during maternity leave for working women (as incentive for them to return to work as productive tax payers) is useless if they can't then come back to work because they simply can't get appropriate child care. Instead of implementing that scheme, use the money to fund the recommendations out of this study!

            Unless, of course, it's part of Abbott's cunning plan to simultaneously win women's votes but keep them in the kitchen where he seem to think they belong.

            Commenter
            Tess
            Location
            Melbourne
            Date and time
            November 18, 2013, 6:50PM
            • there is no more study, especially not for single mums trying to better their situation, only the rich can go to uni now... oh and thats right, all the low paying jobs go to low pay visa holders. THATS whats missing, the need for childcare... there is no hope for a job... ANYMORE

              Commenter
              lm2
              Date and time
              November 18, 2013, 6:57PM
              • The first years of a child’s life have been shown to be critical to lifetime outcomes

                Exactly, and yet parents around the country still continue to put their children's futures in the hands of complete strangers.

                The best person for a child to be with in those formative years before school is their parents, Mum or Dad I don't care which.

                Commenter
                Ailie
                Date and time
                November 18, 2013, 7:33PM
                • Well I think you can fairly safely say there'll be no pay rises or improvements in conditions - which means that we'll always have a shortage of quality daycare workers. Finding a good centre and good workers comes down largely to luck of the draw, availability and the kids too. If you have a class full of kids that need more attention than the number of carers can give its not going to be running very effectively. It amazes me that as a country we are happy to leave our kids to be raised by people making peanuts. We're lucky really that there are any workers willing to do it for the love of the job.
                  I'm lucky where I live there are more centres than kids so theres no waiting to get in - in fact, its more like if you display interest you'll get numerous calls back asking if you're still keen.
                  I have heard the whispers in the media that perhaps the way of getting around the lack of funding would be to means test the child care rebate. I have to say, as long as the cut off is quite high, I can't see too many problems with this. Would go totally against Liberal thinking though.

                  Commenter
                  Murasaki
                  Date and time
                  November 18, 2013, 8:42PM
                  • The really big thing missing from any contemporary inquiry into childcare is consideration of whether child care should be promoted as the principle option for infants and young children at all. The Australian study found problems. But so have a all the best studies in the anglo saxon world and elsewhere. Children don't do better in childcare than in the care of their families. In fact poorer outcomes are strongly associated with both time in any institutionalized care and quality of care. Even the best care can't come close to loving parental care. Children are being placed in care in record numbers as a result of carefully constructed government policies and corporate pressures. The parental care of children is devalued and women in particular face enormous pressure to return to work before they want to. Yes,women should have the capacity to stay on track with careers but surely it is ultimately about the attitudes we bring to parents re-entering the workforce. Yes, we need high quality care options for families. But how will we get it when we insist on reducing a mother at home working in caring and facilitating her child's development as a slacker.

                    Commenter
                    angela
                    Date and time
                    November 19, 2013, 1:23AM
                    • My experience with child care was about intentional acts, reckless behaviour and negligence made to the authorities half dozen years ago. The response was to have a ratio. It was a stupid response. The correct response would have been to press charges against staff or profit demanding bosses. At that time kids were being assaulted. At the time police told me crimes are not committed at child care centres.
                      Then I read that women and men whom were being paid a pension could get a child care place subsidised by the taxpayer so they were getting psid just to do overnights and weekends. Parents,if you think child care will get your child school ready think again as they do not need that. Years ago I saw little kids risking getting their head slammed for wanting to go to the toilet other than the after lunch whizz. I offered to out the offenders st the time but the Victoria police command said I must give the evidence to child welfare together with the police a s it was the police policy.I refused to do this as I do not work with child welfare depts and those police did not therefore speak to me. And you thought they cared about your children.

                      Commenter
                      child advocate
                      Date and time
                      November 19, 2013, 4:51AM

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