Premium early learning costs families a lot, but it may ultimately cost the sector even more

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It’s time to tackle a topic that has been an undercurrent of this blog for quite some time. Warning to regular readers – this entry will either absolutely infuriate you, or ring true.

The last week or so has seen a number of articles, primarily in Fairfax papers, on the rise of “premium” childcare.

Julia Davison, CEO of not-for-profit group Goodstart Early Learning, said:

…for-profit centres, faced with rising costs, were choosing to set up where they could charge more for ”premium” care.

‘There is much more incentive for for-profit operators to set up in those localities where you can charge a high fee and where you’re going to get a high occupancy than there is for them to set up in middle or lower economic suburbs,” she said.

This has been a steadily growing niche of the market for quite some time. They are in the business of offering “boutique” care for children of high-income families in well-heeled suburbs.

Extra services can include massage for infants, dance classes, yoga – all inclusive in a large fee.

It’s important at this point to be clear that these services are working exactly as the early childhood system in Australia allows them to. Deregulation of the sector throughout the 90s and early 2000s were designed to create exactly this kind of private model – the market has spoken.

The issue of “premium” centres, or indeed the very notion of for-profit early learning for children, is not an legal one, or an economic or financial one.

But is an ethical one.

For me, it comes down to a single question. Does every child in Australia have the right to quality, well-resourced early learning environments, or only those whose parents can afford it?

This is a question that the Australian early childhood sector will have to reflect on, and fast.

I’ve put my cards on the table a number of times, in a number of forums, but I’m happy to state my opinion clearly again now.

Profiting from early learning for Australia’s children is ethically and morally dubious.

There are undoubtedly excellent, passionate and highly-trained educators, managers and professionals working in for-profit spaces. Some of them may be reading this post, and be highly offended.

I regret that result, but I cannot swerve from the overriding position. Quality education is a human right for children, and profiting from that human right skews perspectives.

It is the reason there is a highly organised lobby organisation, the Australian Childcare Alliance, advocating for winding back of quality reforms. They eat into profit margins.

As soon as profit is a motive, it tends to become the dominant motive.

However, as I have already stated, this is the system that we work in. For a number of reasons, community not-for-profits cannot currently provide total coverage of Australia for early learning access.

That is a fact, and it also a fact that private operators meet that need for access.

(It is important at this point to say that there is no reason that these facts must be eternal. At a political level, advocacy must be directed towards appropriate funding of community not-for-profit models to meet that demand. A gargantuan task, but not impossible.)

But the new niche of premium childcare, is in altogether another league. The idea that you can access high-quality, almost “luxury” early learning for your child if you happen to live in a wealthy suburb and earn enough money should ring warning bells.

It strikes right at the heart of what early childhood education should be about – the human rights of the child.

Beyond the ultimate exclusion of children who will simply be unable to attend these services, it entrenches and actively accelerates social inequity and injustice already evident in Australia.

The Early Years Learning Framework has respect for diversity as a foundational principle. The premium model inherently excludes that. Only those from a certain “class” (let’s call this what it is) and wage bracket can attend.

Children only socialising with children who are the most fortunate, and the most well-off. Families doing the same with those families.

But possibly the most concerning of all – educators who only have to work with children from a certain background. My mind spins as I think about how that would affect someone.

Not having to navigate a wide range of diversity. Not having to form respectful and committed relationships to families experiencing hardship and disadvantage. Not putting in the weeks, months and years of effort to support children experiencing vulnerabilities.

That has the potential to skew how you view children and families at a basic level. The repercussions to early childhood practice are far-reaching.

There will be those that say I have put myself and my own practice on an ethical pedestal. It’s extremely easy to cast stones.

I accept the fact that the system is not perfect. I work for a not-for-profit organisation, but despite that there are still those who will not be able to access our services.

I acknowledge that, and commit myself to advocacy to change this inequitable system.

But to be part of an organisation that clearly and unambiguously states “these are the kind of children we want to work with” is mind-boggling to me.

The sector operates within limited funding parameters. Desperately needed funds to support all children are being invested in premium providers.

Premium early learning costs families a lot, but it may ultimately cost the sector even more.

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