The Most Wonderful Time of the Year?

It’s hard to believe that Christmas has almost rolled around once again. All around the country early childhood services will be madly scrambling to finish portfolios and be dusting off the boxes of Christmas decorations that were unceremoniously shoved in the back of the shed in mid-January.

It’s also the time of the year when I start to question how we approach celebrations in Australian ECEC services, and get called “Grinch” a lot.

So, I’ll have to start this post off the same way I start off conversations I have with people in person.

I don’t hate Christmas. Actually, I like it! I loved it as a child, and we celebrate it at home with our two children.

I don’t think Christmas should be banned from centres. Outright bans on anything we do should always be critically questioned.

Suitably prepared, here comes the “but…”

(This is normally when the people I’m talking to tense up and clutch their tinsel and reindeer antlers protectively.)

Here are my problems with how I have seen Christmas (and a number of other celebrations) explored in children’s services.

  1. It’s by default. December 1st (or thereabouts) rolls around on the calendar, and we start doing “Christmas things”. The Early Years Learning Framework challenges us to be intentional and meaningful in our teaching. Transforming your service into Santa’s Grotto just because of a date is neither intentional nor necessarily meaningful.

    That is not to say that you cannot find intentional teaching opportunities in the themes, rituals and community connections of Christmas – but if we are truly honest with ourselves, is that why we are doing it? Or are we doing it because we’ve always done it, and everyone else is doing it?

  2. It’s limiting. Yes, Christmas is the dominant cultural celebration in our country. Ignoring it is not reflective of the lives of the children in our service. But it is not the only important event happening for children in December. By prioritising Christmas, what are we missing? As the EYLF asks, who is advantaged and disadvantaged when we work in certain ways?

    Christmas is everywhere – children will experience it regardless of what we do. But will every child learn about Ramadan, or Eid, or other significant events for other children around the world if we ignore it? What might that mean to the children and families in your community who do celebrate those events?

  3. It’s overwhelming. Christmas takes over everything. Decorations are out and activities usually start at the beginning of December and don’t stop until the end of the year. No other event on the calendar gets that focus. Imagine if NAIDOC Week was a month-long event for centres, with weeks of preparation leading up to it? What if centres took International Day of the Girl Child as seriously?

    Many will disagree with me, but I think both of those two examples are richer, more meaningful provocations for learning with children. (I’ll quickly note that there will undoubtedly be centres who are doing those things, but it is certainly not the norm.)Again, what are we missing out on by turning over our entire program to one event – that is celebrated in every other part of the community?

I know that even these three points will provoke fierce debate. I’m fully prepared to wear the Grinch label once again. But to say again – I am not calling for “bans on Christmas”. But I absolutely will say that for services that strive for high quality programs, ask questions about your celebrations.

What are children learning, and what are they not learning? Who is advantaged, who is disadvantaged? What could we do differently this year?

This article was originally posted on Early Childhood Australia’s blog The Spoke.

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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.

While for-profit advocates are singing doom and gloom about the NQF, the private sector is investing more and more

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Private childcare operator G8 Education has announced another large purchase of long day care centres. Business Spectator is also reporting that “management is likely to announce further acquisitions”.

G8 have been the big private players in early childhood education and care for the last two years, pursuing an aggressive growth strategy and buying out a number of small organisations and individual providers.

Here in the ACT, their presence has grown significantly.

It appears that G8’s success has spurred on other entrepreneurs in the sector. Affinity Education and Stirling Early Education are adopting similar strategies, and willing to invest significant capital in taking over other operations.

This is of course how the sector is supposed to operate. Since the Howard reforms of the late nineties, the market model is how things work.

ABC Learning pursued that strategy, and were hailed as a shining example of how childcare services could be delivered.

Until their spectacular implosion in 2007.

ABC’s collapse should have been the catalyst for a drastic overhaul of how the sector is funded and regulated. Instead the opportunity was missed, and it now appears likely that any lessons from that approach may be forgotten.

It’s tempting to refer to G8 as “The Next ABC”. Their sudden appearance on the scene and sharp rise could easily lead to that conclusion.

That analysis is probably premature however. G8 are certainly, at least at this stage, a much savvier operation than ABC ever were. ABC pursued a relentless and ruthless branding strategy that overwhelmed and hid the structural issues with its business model.

ABC also pursued international success in other markets, which failed almost immediately.

G8’s growth is significant, but it is certainly nowhere near as fast as ABC’s was. ABC benefited from the early stages of the rapid shift of focus from community not-for-profit to private providers. This initial stage was fertile ground for private organisations.

G8 (and their new competitors) do not have quite that advantage. G8 is also in many cases not pursuing a huge rebranding – most centres still operate under individual names. This could of course change at any time.

The overall context though is worth considering. The for-profit community, incorrectly claimed to be represented in their entirety by the Australian Childcare Alliance, have long opposed the National Quality Framework reforms as a direct attack on their profits.

G8’s position on it is unclear, as they have very little publicly available information on their positions on any issues in the sector.

It is telling though that at a time when for-profit advocates are singing doom and gloom about the NQF, and the Federal Government are happily joining the choir, the private sector is investing more and more in this space.

Either the requirements of the NQF are not as debilitating as is regularly claimed, or private investors are assuming there will be significant roll backs of the quality gains.

Rolling back quality to meet the needs of private providers could easily set up a second “boom” in private investment in ECEC.

G8 is still at a very early stage in its operations. Significant change could be ahead in how it does business. It may be premature to call them the next ABC, but in the current political climate the conditions could easily be created for them to become just that.

Can the US make much-needed changes to its ECE sector?

Laura Bornfreund and Conor Williams have examined President Obama’s second-term focus on early childhood education in The Atlantic.

While early education’s policy reality hasn’t lived up to the last five years’ rhetoric, there is some evidence of a silver lining. Think of it like a rail system: it’s as though we’ve spent half a decade designing and laying new high-speed rails linking sparkling, as-yet unused train stations. We’ve invested in shiny, state-of-the-art engines. But we haven’t yet bought fuel or enough cars to serve all of the system’s young “passengers.”

President Obama has another two years of office left, and is facing incredible political hurdles. It remains to be seen if anything more can be achieved on this issue – which is a shame, as it can and must be a vital part of addressing rising inequality in that country.

It stands in contrast to Australia, where in 2014 we could actually be moving backwards on higher standards and greater outcomes for children’s learning and wellbeing.