What would Gough Whitlam have done about childcare? | Women's Agenda

What would Gough Whitlam have done about childcare?

Clive Palmer reckons it can “set women free” and is much more valuable than paid parental leave. At least three publicly listed companies, including one associated with

Liberal Party powerbroker Michael Kroger think it holds the key to untold wealth for their shareholders. Clubs think provision of it will enable them to keep a higher proportion of their poker machine income.

Mothers just want more of it. Childcare. It’s a hotly debated subject at the moment. And it is a topic that Gough Whitlam was way above the curve on in the ’70s and one that no doubt he would have as strong an opinion as Palmer does if Whitlam was alive and in power today.

Since Whitlam’s death we have been reminded how many elements of current Australian society he was the architect of. Our early education and care system is one of these. When Whitlam made his policy speech for the 1972 federal election, he called preschool the “greatest single aid in removing or modifying the inequalities of background, environment, family income or family nationality (in the case of migrant children) or race (in the case of Aborigines).”

He also promised a national childcare system because “a woman’s choice between making motherhood her sole career and following another career in conjunction with motherhood depends upon the availability of proper childcare facilities”. In government he provided the funding for our councils and community organisations to establish childcare centres.

That Whitlam saw preschool education and childcare as two separate entities is not a failing of his. Only since the establishment of Australia’s childcare and preschool systems has an explosion of knowledge from the field of neuroscience shown just how important the early years are in developing children’s brains.

It is in the years before school, from the moment a child is born, that their brains are wired for the rest of their life. And this is why we now refer to our preschools and our childcare centres as early education and care centres. In the play children do at these centres, they are learning.

This is why legally since the beginning of 2014 all education and care services need to have university-qualified early childhood teachers employed to guide children’s learning. And it is why every early education and care centre in Australia now follows the same curriculum for children in the years before school – the Early Years Learning Framework.

Our education and care services are the ones that can help make sure our kids, all of our kids, are all right. That they are travelling OK by the time they hit school, with the right brain architecture in place to progress to more formal learning.

But there is a danger that what’s good for our children will get lost in what everyone else wants out of childcare.

The one group that is silent on the topic of childcare, that doesn’t even have a clear advocacy group of its own, is childcare users. No, not parents, not mothers, but children themselves. And the more Australia talks about childcare the more we seem to forget about the children who use it.

Australians love and care for children. But all of this love seems to go out the door when we consider childcare. Collectively what we seem to want most from our childcare system is safety. We want safe storage of our children (and preferably low-cost safe storage) while we are off doing our jobs.

And this is a problem because, essentially, the kids are not all right. We know this because as a country we do a special census of children when they hit their first year of school.

The Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) has been conducted by the Australian Government every three years since 2009 – the next one is due in 2015. Teachers of children in their first year of school complete the census for every child in their class, completing a structured series of questions, to provide an insight into key areas of early childhood development.

The five areas that are assessed are physical health and wellbeing, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive skills, communication skills and general knowledge.

The 2012 census showed us that although many of our children are travelling well, many are not all right. In 2012 one in five Australian children were rated as developmentally vulnerable on one or more domains of the AEDC and 1 in 10 children were vulnerable on two or more.

Something is clearly going wrong if by the time children hit 5 or 6 years old, 20 per cent of them are behind in such basic areas as communication skills and social competence.

And this is where childcare, or as it is more correctly named now, early education and care comes in. It can make sure the gaps in vulnerability are reduced before children reach school age.

I somehow suspect that if Whitlam came to power now, he’d make our children – and the building of an early education and care system centred around their needs – a priority. He’d understand now, that separating out preschool education and care, is no longer good policy.

And above all he’d understand that early education and care is way too important to be controlled by clubs, profiteers and politicians of Palmer’s ilk.

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