Advocacy Quality

Bought and sold: Early education in Australia

A couple of things happened in the early education sector recently. Neither of them are huge deals on their own, but they both represent trends in the sector that tell us a lot about where we are at right now.

One of Australia’s largest early education organisations ditched the “Early Learning” in their name for “Childcare and Education”. Some blokes in suits, with no early education qualifications whatsoever, did it to grab a few more clicks from families on Google they could convert into revenue.

And an AFL team has decided that a “childcare centre” near their stadium shaped like an enormous football would be pretty cute. It’s called Kool Kids, of course. More blokes, more suits, same amount of early education qualifications (zero).

What matters about these announcements isn’t that they’ve happened. It’s that they’ve happened and no-one cares. Reached for comment, Australia’s early education sector said: shrug emoji.

In 2008, ABC Learning collapsed. It was one of the biggest corporate failures in Australia’s history, and the only possible lesson that could reasonably be taken from it was that profit-making enterprises don’t belong anywhere near children’s learning, development and wellbeing.

But everyone’s been slowly convinced us over the last eleven years that that wasn’t the lesson at all. The lesson was, somehow, that profit-making enterprises should be the dominant model for a child’s critical early years. That’s how we get footy-shaped centres. That’s how we get backwards steps in professional language. That’s how we get developers saying outdoor space doesn’t matter for children.

In 2018 the early education sector was 47% for-profit – essentially half. But the centres themselves aren’t the real issue. There are fantastic services out there operating under a for-profit model. All the professionals in those services could continue to do amazing work in a sector that doesn’t allow shareholders to make a profit from it.

The real issue is that the very idea that early education shouldn’t be in a market-based model is barely discussed in the sector. No major advocacy group has a commitment to making the sector not-for-profit. The Greens are the only major political party even committed to taking a look at this issue.

How is that possible? In today’s commercialised, packaged, innovated and marketed public sphere, how is the concept that we at least keep children’s early development away from shareholders revolutionary? Unreasonable? Ridiculous?

Over the last few years major early organisations and groups have come together for a range of joint advocacy coalitions. Surely that’s a good thing?

The trouble is we’ve arrived at a point where no-one seems to care that these coalitions include organisations arguing against Fair Work cases to pay educators and teachers more. Who’ve argued against regulatory requirements of the National Quality Framework. Again, shrug emoji.

Despite the fact it directly links a child’s access to education to their parents’ payslips and rosters, and locks out a quarter of Australia’s most vulnerable children, no major advocacy group is calling for the abolition of the Work Activity Test. Too extreme, apparently.

We even let the Federal Department of Education call us childcare workers and childcare providers without batting an eyelid.

The affect of a market-based model is insidious. It affects everything. The idea that early education is about qualified, professional educators working with families to give children a strong start in life is now quaint, old-fashioned, nostalgic.

Now, it’s about how innovative your (expensive) program is. How the app you use to communicate is cutting-edge. How big the returns are on the land your centre sits.

Every week a new centre opens that’s “premium”, “luxury”, has “on-site baristas” or a “concierge” service.

Every day my work inbox fills up with marketing from a new consultant, who’ll revolutionise practice. A new waiting list service that will leverage maximum occupancy. A new app that will transform centre operations.

I had this strange notion that we’d already had some revolutionary, transformational and innovative ideas in the sector. Things like the National Quality Framework. Like the Early Years Learning Framework.

It’s bizarre, but neither of them mention anything about how much cash you can make out of the sector.

Day by day, week by week, as each new attempt to monetise the work we do and turn it into a product appears, we become more and more desensitised. More and more people think this is the way it is. The way it’s always been. Less people stand up for what is right.

Let’s be truly innovative. Let’s be truly revolutionary. Let’s truly ‘add value’ to children’s early years.

Let’s see a future without a market model. Let’s talk about it. Then let’s fight for it.

By Liam McNicholas

I am an experienced early childhood teacher, writer and advocate. As well as managing community not-for-profit early childhood operations in a variety of roles, I have advocated for children's human rights; the need for investment in early childhood education; and for professional recognition and wages for those working in early childhood education and care.

I am available to be commissioned for freelance writing, editing, event speaking and consulting work.

2 replies on “Bought and sold: Early education in Australia”

Great piece Liam. Seems as if this ship is now too big to turn around but we must keep trying. Susan

Well said Liam. There are advocacy groups and not for profit providers
speaking up but we are now in the minority…

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