Ask any parent of an under-five what they spend their money on and you’re highly likely to get this response:
And while it’s always nice to get hard numbers, like those from the Centre for Independent Studies who report a 48 per cent increase in fees over the past five years, the conversation then usually heads down two wildly divergent routes.
Reading the Centre for Independent Studies report will give you a fair idea of one of those routes; fees are high because of staff to child ratios, requirements around staff qualifications and regulation around early learning and care quality. The Centre for Independent Studies report argues that the best way to slow fee growth in early learning and care is to relax requirements around quality – more children to less staff, less qualified staff and lower quality standards.
And, that’s an interesting approach if you’re purely driven by cost in early learning and care.
The problem with that though is that parents, the second most important stakeholder in early learning and care – the most important is the kids, just to be clear – are not driven by just wholly by cost.
Parents will complain about the cost, and so they should. It’s really bloody expensive, but when it comes to attitudes around early learning and care, parents are also concerned about making sure that their kids are safe, happy and getting the opportunities they need to learn.
Research conducted by the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA) in 2017 finds that parents base their decision about long day care centres for their children on factors like location, reputation of the service, the general feel of the service and highly skilled educators, the latter three factors being both formal and informal measures of quality.
Importantly, the ACECQA research finds that, “the importance of a ‘high quality early learning program’ and ‘highly skilled educators’ ranked more highly for families who were aware of the quality rating system and who knew the quality rating of the service(s) they were using or considering using.”
In other words, when parents know that long day care centres are assessed against a National Quality Framework, they quickly become very interested in how their centre is performing.
This is even acknowledged by providers. Earlier this week in an investor report, the nation’s second largest childcare provider G8 Education described a parent “flight to quality” as a dynamic across the early learning and care sector.
Of course, the other route a conversation about early learning and care costs will take places children at the heart of what parents, educators and hopefully governments, are doing.
Yes, fees have gone up, and yes, this is in part driven by stricter regulations around quality. But this is not an argument against quality. In fact, it’s an argument for greater government investment in early learning and care.
After all, what we’re talking about is very young children.
Nurturing and teaching this group of little Australians is a privilege and a great responsibility. Quality in early learning and care is how we keep kids safe and how we make sure they get every opportunity for the best start in life.
Arguing for policy that makes for worse early childhood education is reprehensible at best. We must always push for policy settings that places the needs of children at the heart of early learning and care.
Alys Gagnon is the Executive Director of The Parenthood.