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.

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.