In ancient times (any time before the last decade) the only battles being fought over childcare were whether it was a one-way ticket to therapy as an adult; yet now childcare is the new frontier in the culture wars.
Each time the government has waved the magic regulatory wand over childcare, the closer we have moved towards a world where it is government—not families—who get to determine what sort of adults our children will become.
Once, evidence supported the notion that childcare was inferior to parental care for children’s development, particularly as regards emotional and behavioural development, so the narrative was deliberately changed. Now we learn ‘low quality’ childcare can be bad, but ‘high quality’ care not only does no harm, it is good for all children. So good, in fact, that it’s no longer called ‘childcare’, but ‘early childhood education and care’. Staff aren’t caregivers, they’re ‘educators’.
The new message is that young children will be worse off if they do not attend formal childcare. As the role of government in childcare has expanded, it has become more apparent that institutionalising early childhood is the correct way to raise young children. To do otherwise is to stunt Little Jaynie’s growth and development irreparably.
Reforms to the childcare sector have placed ‘quality’ (as defined by more strict regulations) at the centre of the institutional approach to early childhood. There are also accreditation standards and learning frameworks that tell us what quality looks like: ‘quality’ is best defined by government, academics and the unions.
Bruce Fuller, Margaret Bridges and Seeta Pai criticise the growing movement in the United States to institutionalise early childhood in their book Standardized Childhood: The Political and Cultural Struggle over Early Childhood. They write, ‘Who gets to decide what children should be learning, through what forms of social relations? And when the state gains authority to make these decisions, whose interests are being advanced?’
They rightly recognise that greater bureaucratic control over childcare services is not benign standardisation. The early childhood experience becomes uniform: it takes place in an environment where every detail is sanctioned by government and is, of course, inherently value-laden.
Australia is no different. Official government documents which accompanied the National Quality Agenda reforms shed light on the kinds of decisions being made. To nobody’s surprise, ‘quality’ and ‘learning’ look an awful lot like shoehorning left-wing, progressive values into the practice of caring for babies and toddlers.As value-free as finger-painting and playing in the sandpit may once have been, these simple activities do not necessarily remain so under the new regime.
The Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF), titled Belonging, Being and Becoming, forms the basis of what childcare services are expected to do to fulfil their educational role, which mostly consists of play-based learning.
One part of the EYLF is to see that ‘children become socially responsible and show respect for the environment’ and ‘develop an awareness of the impact of human activity on environments (aha!) and the interdependence of living things.’ To facilitate this, educators ‘embed sustainability in daily routines and practices’ as well as ‘provide children with access to resources about the environment.’
Another part explains that ‘children become aware of fairness’ when they ‘begin to understand and evaluate ways in which texts construct identities and create stereotypes.’ Educators should ‘engage children in discussions about respectful and equal relations such as when a child dominates in the use of resources.’ Perhaps it’s simply bureaucratese for ‘let someone else have a go now’, but if that’s the case, why incorporate it into a learning framework?
Education forms only one part of the seven areas of quality used in the National Quality Standard, the national accreditation measure. Others include environmental sustainability practices and relationship-building within the community – all part of the transmission of values which have a decidedly green and progressive tinge. Who decided that toddlers needed to be taught about texts, a term which has its origins in literary theory, and is defined in the EYLF as ‘things that we read, view and listen to and that we create in order to share meaning’?
Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with these values. There’s nothing wrong with teaching your children that stereotyping people isn’t fair, that sharing what you have can be a good thing, and that we should look after the environment. It is, however, a mistake to consider these values politically neutral and therefore appropriate to inculcate in young children as part of mandated national ‘quality’ measures.
Childcare has become a battlefield in the culture war because it is the site of the transmission of values. It is the mere act of transmission, rather than the content, that is contentious. It is a familiar story in our national institutions, in our curricula and in our public broadcasters.In this case, it’s an act of transmitting particular—one could hardly say ‘common’—values to the youngest children through a regulatory mechanism that ensures parents have little say in the matter.
With three levels of government regulation and billions of taxpayer dollars in funding, perhaps the price was that the daily lives of children would become subject to this sort of institutional creep.
None of this is likely to change any time soon. Regardless, those aspects of accreditation standards and learning frameworks that impose these kinds of values should be scrapped.
Ironically, the National Quality Standard encourages services and educators to ask themselves, ‘How do we make sure that experiences and routines are child-focused rather than adult-focused?’ At a time when childcare has become all about the adults, nobody is better placed to put kids back at the centre of debate than parents themselves. The sooner government stops treating parents as hapless amateurs, the sooner we can restore a real focus on children.
Trisha Jha is a Policy Analyst at The Centre for Independent Studies.
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