Universal ECEC is not “Boys Vs. Girls”

An interesting article from Lucy Powell in The Guardian UK on the failure of the UK Government to invest in their childcare sector. It makes some good points, particularly the evidence that the huge investment required to truly have universal access for all children would be of long-term benefit to the country.

It’s time for government to stop tinkering and take childcare seriously. We see business case after business case for boys’ toys like planes and trains – high-speed rail and airport expansion. Government should develop the case for childcare as a key economic driver to get women – and it is still mainly women – back into work and earning their full potential to benefit not only families but also the country.

The case for free universal childcare should be seriously explored. The IPPR has shown that universal childcare – 25 hours of free childcare for children from one to four – would pay a return to the Exchequer of £20,050 over four years in terms of tax revenue minus the cost of childcare for every woman who returns to work full time after a year of maternity leave. Childcare investment would not only get our economy moving, it would also help the development of young children and begin to level the playing field between poorer children and their peers when they start school.

Powell does unfortunately couch the article primarily in terms of economic outcomes – the needs of children are only lightly touched on. I also question the reducing of traditional infrastructure investment as “boy’s toys” – quality infrastructure is also vital in lifting families out of vulnerable circumstances.

It serves no-one to reduce the argument to “Boys Vs. Girls”, or infrastructure vs. childcare. Investment is needed in both, and universal access to early education and care would significantly redress the gender imbalances in families that Powell rightly points out still exists.

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Sloan’s bizarre rant exposes broader conservative disdain for ECEC

What began as a short, strange and fairly callous blog post by Judith Sloan on “dim-witted” educators from “second-rate universities” has reached national attention thanks to the author’s appearance on ABC’s Q&A.

It hardly seems worth going into Sloan’s lack of apology, or indeed evidence for her assertion. The point of the article, assuming it had one, was surely to generate publicity for Sloan herself – wholly successfully.

I posted a fairly light-hearted and “snarky” response to the blog on Friday night, which was written less out of frustration with her view of my work than by confusion as to the frankly bizarre content.

But it’s worth taking a slightly more serious look at her published thoughts, as they showcase the fairly common conservative or right-wing perspective on early childhood education.

Sloan’s inclusion of the term “Stalinist straight jacket” is telling. The notion of universal access early childhood education (ECE) for all children is a direct attack on conservative “family values”.

The conservative argument is essentially that the best place for a child, any child, is in a stable home with Mum and Dad (certainly not two Dads, or two Mums, but we’ll save that for another entry).

Anything outside of that, particularly when it is run or funded by Government, is a left-wing form of social engineering, designed to produce Little Leftists. Coincidentally, the “second-rate Universities” Sloan casually mentions are also often accused of being Socialist-factories.

Now the view that children are better off with a loving Mother and Father (and more usually the Mother) is a deceptively simple one, and any arguments for and against are usually run with high emotions on both sides.

Proponents of universal access to ECE argue that it provides a level playing field for all children, regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds. These two viewpoints represent the nerve that Sloan hit on (with no regard to subtlety).

Those who argue, like myself, for universal access to high-quality ECE programs with highly qualified teachers and educators are usually hit back with the same arguments.

“So you’re saying that you can only be a good parent if you have a degree?” “So you’re saying if I don’t send my child to childcare I’m making them stupid?”.

To be clear, as I so often have to be, I am certainly not saying either of those things. Do I believe that high-quality ECE can be of benefit in the long-term to children? Yes.

But I never attended childcare when I was a young child. I still did well in school, have a University degree (admittedly not from one that would meet with Judith Sloan’s approval) and have a great job in a sector I love.

My parents had no degrees in early childhood education, but helped set my brother and I up to work hard in our studies (primary, secondary and tertiary) and in our work.

However, I was extremely fortunate to have two well-educated, stable and loving parents with no mental health issues or disabilities. I was given every chance to be successful.

But we are part of a society where not every child has those same opportunities. Some children will grow up in challenging and disruptive environments, where their parents are suffering immense challenges of their own.

Advocating for universal access to ECE is about ensuring that any child, no matter the circumstances of their home life, can be given the same head start I was given.

Such a system would mean that any child could even have the opportunity to attend a first-rate, Judith Sloane-approved University!

Individually-focused learning through fun and play, targeted work on social skills and developing a love of learning can be of immeasurable benefit to young children. These are the focuses of the “Stalinist” National Quality Framework (NQF) for Early Childhood Education and Care.

The main document we use to support children’s learning, the Early Years Learning Framework, actually encourages children’s learning to be unique, individual and contextual to each child and their community. It asks educators to consider diverse perspectives when supporting children’s learning.

About as far away you can get from teaching every child to think and act the same. It almost makes me wonder whether Sloan bothered to check it out all.

The NQF is also there to ensure children’s health and safety – surely a reasonable ask when you consider that the latest figures show that over a million children are now in some form of ECE program.

Ireland’s loose system of regulation and minimal oversight has resulted in terrible outcomes for children, and is rightly coming under increased scrutiny.

Considering that we have a similar system of lowly-paid, overworked and as evidenced so clearly by Sloan also a disrespected workforce of educators and teachers, tight regulatory controls are an absolute necessity to ensure children are safe.

ECE is not about replacing parents. It’s about recognising that supporting young children to reach their potential can have significant benefits to society as a whole, including lifting families out of generational disadvantage.

These arguments will never convince conservatives like Sloan, who instinctually see any Government work with children as the worst form of socialism.

But for people like myself, dim-witted or not, our work with children is vitally important. All children deserve the best possible start in life, and I will continue to advocate for the work do.

This article was originally published on the New Matilda website.