by Sarah Alexander (2005)
The Government is keen to help more mothers into paid work but will it be children who pay the greatest price because of problems with the policy focus?
Although expressing different views on the purpose of childcare or early childhood education, Prime Minister Helen Clark and Education Minister Trevor Mallard seem to agree that little children can do just as well, if not better, outside of the family.
To appeal to the business community concerned about labour supply, Clark has floated the idea of possible State paid dawn-to-dusk care for school-aged children. She also said that to get more childcare for under-fives available more quickly the government is looking at how to increase the number of women who will care for other people’s children in their own homes.
Mallard has promoted centre-based early childhood education as a public good. Omitting unwelcome evidence of risks to children and costs to society further down the track of producing a latch-key generation, he argues the need for ever more early childhood education to improve children’s outcomes.
The funding that goes into the early childhood sector, into childcare subsidies, and into the administration of the sector has grown phenomenally in the past few years. Low income families can access a Childcare Subsidy for nine hours a week, regardless of their need for childcare support. Many more families are entitled to receive a Childcare Subsidy for up to 50 hours a week if they are in work or can claim special circumstances.
From 2007, all parents of 3 to 5 year-olds, whether in work or not, are promised access to no-cost childcare of 20 hours a week in community-owned centres staffed by teachers. The government is planning to do more to expand the provision and reduce the cost of early childhood education.
The Government should be prepared to face two problems. The first is how people who choose not to have children and how parents who do not want to use the government’s choice of quality childcare services will react to paying more for the choices of other people.
The second problem is that it is not simply the cost or a lack of affordable childcare that limits parents’ participation in paid work. Participation is affected by a number of factors, such as the number of children and spread in ages, children’s needs, parents’ values and goals for their children, travel distances, and support with household work and meeting children’s needs.
The Government seems unlikely to take a long-term view of addressing the interrelated issues of birth rate, promoting parenting and creating true choices for parents.
Given where all the policy papers and work is focused, it would be a wise government that gave time for public discussion and debate on the purpose of early childhood education, where and with whom young children do best and in what circumstances.
The entrenched sexism in the recruitment and employment of early childhood teachers should be tackled, because this reinforces children’s learning of traditional gender roles and does not reflect social movement toward fathers being more actively involved with their children. Fathers’ involvement is so vital if working mums are to ever get a bit of time to themselves.
If the purpose of early childhood education is to give women the choice to work, policy should focus on providing incentives for employers to provide work-based childcare, increasing personal income tax rebates for the employment of nannies or home-based educators, and funding a pool of child health professionals to provide emergency childcare and support.
If the purpose of early childhood education is to enrich children’s learning, the policy should focus on deinstitutionalising early childhood education and bridging the divide between parents and professional teachers, and centre and home settings.
The extent to which government policy is successful in enabling more women to work, the more likely that parents who currently have a choice not to work will cease to have this choice. What road do we want to go down as a society?