‘Universal child care to age 5’
Michelle Grattan, Misha Schubert and Katharine Murphy Canberra
The Age, April 17, 2008
“ALL Australian parents would have access to low-cost child care and welfare services under a proposal Kevin Rudd will take to his 2020 ideas summit. Days before the summit begins, the Prime Minister has outlined a vision for universal access to a network of "one stop" child-care centres. The centres would provide a broad mix of maternal and child health services, including feeding advice and vaccinations, long day care, preschool education and support for parents. Addressing the Sydney Institute last night, Mr Rudd said his plan would need partnerships between various levels of government, as well as private and community service providers. Access to the centres would be universal but not compulsory, and they would be underpinned by strengthened national quality standards, Mr Rudd said.”
Well, let me start by saying I am a happy little vegemite! I have researched the strong correlation between poor education and poverty, as well as the correlation between early intervention and increased educational attainment. So the push for policy on universal and colocated children’s services pre prep…warms my heart! Why? Well here’s some information I prepared earlier for you…
To date, the traditional welfare-state has been the ultimate antidote to social risk in Australia. When the market could not supply the needs of its citizens, a foundation of protection and safety net was available. It made the capitalist system a little less cruel and a little more acceptable. However, as the bulldozer of globalization continues to level the world, we see a transformation of ideology emerge and in turn a welfare support system with a little less ‘helping hand’ and more ‘firm push’. It is a push into the labor-market, a place filled with high skilled jobs requiring all manner of education. Risk is now less about losing employment and more about whether you are likely to gain initial access. Naturally those with the highest level of risk are those with the lowest level of skill, traditionally those in disadvantaged areas. The problem of social exclusion is mounting and with the situation only likely to worsen, the government is left with a task of intervention and prevention.
In this new labor-market, education becomes vital not just to the success of an individual’s career, but to the sustainability of an individual’s livelihood and welfare. In this case the risk is that children, denied proper educational opportunities, will be unable to access the market effectively causing a dangerous risk of long-term poverty or wider social exclusion. The current statistics are already disconcerting with a suggestion that those with a minimum level of education are about two and a half times more likely to be unemployed and nearly five times more likely to be in long term poverty compared with those who have attended university (Taylor-Gooby, 2005:4). And what’s worse, the correlation between poverty and low levels of education is not one-way in direction. It is not simply that poor levels of education create poverty stricken individuals. While this appears to be true, the more concerning finding is that poverty appears to prevent individuals from attaining a higher level of education. This breeds a cyclical problem which is not limited to unemployment and poverty.
In relation to risk theory, it is important to note that governments want to prevent a society of low-skilled poor communities that are denied access to the wider market. There is recognition that investment in early years is the only way to secure its future. In one UK report it noted “children who are turning five this year are going to have to carry the burden of caring for the baby-boom generation who will be leaving the workforce in droves when these five year olds enter the workforce. They will have to be exceptionally fit, healthy and productive to cover the cost of the health and social services that the ageing “me generation” will demand” (Hart et al, 2003:4). The risk here is that many of these children will not be equipped for such a task which is not a happy prospect for the current generation of policy makers.
So what do these policy makers do?
Well, striking disparities in what children know and can do are evident well before they enter their first year of school, and these differences are strongly associated with social and economic circumstances and they are predictive of subsequent academic performance (Bohan-Baker, 2004:4). In essence, we know that socially excluded children are less likely to attain the same level of education as other children, and thus policy that attempts to rectify the problem must start before the individual turns five, and not start at eighteen. The government must alter the structures to allow socially excluded children under five to develop properly.
Why do children from poor areas know less? And is starting them in school earlier the solution?
The Centre for Community Child Health reports that;
“Children at risk for the worst developmental outcomes are those who have a
combination of biological and environmental risk factors; these risk factors operate in a cumulative fashion, so that the more risk factors present the greater the likelihood of a poor developmental outcome. Children exposed to six indices of family adversity had 20 times the risk of adverse behavioral or cognitive outcomes compared to children exposed to one or none of the same risk factors” (The Centre for Community Child Health, 2000:10).
The problem occurs because the brain is literally damaged by negative factors. Stress develops toxins in the brain which are generally relieved through a process of positive nurturing experiences. However when children don’t have nurturing relationships to protect them, stress hormone levels remain persistently elevated, which have a toxic effect on the developing brain (Families and Work Institute, 2006:7).
M.Ramphele, Managing Director of the World Bank states;
“The first few years of a child’s life have multiplier effect. Young children who are well nurtured tend to do better in school and are more likely to develop the skills they will need to compete in a global economy. Investing in young children is an essential investment in human and economic development.” (Hart et al 2003:10)
So what do we know? (gross generalizations!)
Kids under five need to learn, or they will be forever disadvantaged
Kids under five from poor areas are often not being mentally stimulated
This results in a lower IQ and poor ability to learn once at school
Kids under five need social and welfare support to negate negative formative experiences
What do we need?
The idea of having a one-stop-shop of welfare service is not new, and while I applaud Rudd, the idea was borrowed from the UK SureStart program. The idea is to create a holistic approach to problem solving from the perspective of service delivery whilst catering for families as they fulfill all of their child’s need from just one service point. Issues of transport, finance, dead-end referrals, disjointed case management and service delivery could all be overcome through the use of one single building. The concept is sound in principal and practice. Rather than independently funding a range of discrete services, each addressing a narrowly defined ‘problem’ for a specific population subgroup, they argue for funding a system of broad banded early childhood services (Breaking Cycles, Building Futures:26). The result will be a collection of free or cheap services that children and families can access to improve their health and education, ensuring they are well prepared for primary school without any significant disadvantage. The objective: Let’s get ‘all’ five year olds on the same level and even the playing field from the outset.
What are the drawbacks? It sounds too good to be true! Is this another pro-Labor pitch from Gen?
Well yes it is, but I will acknowledge that there are definitely drawbacks. A holistic service could rapidly become a bland and incompetent bureaucracy that parents do not want to access, or a ‘big brother’ factor could evolve not dissimilar to the sentiment of Centrelink. Having funding poured into this one source means little funding would be available for alternative subsidized services in the area resulting in a major crisis if parents did not want to attend the mega-center. And of course, for the conservatives among the readership, I acknowledge that it may appear that the State is taking on too strong a role in the lives of family.
To wrap it up…
The research connecting deprivation and cognitive impairment is strong and the government knows it must intervene if it wants to see a generation of children equipped to enter the labor-market. The Government’s focus on inclusion and support comes with a notion that a joined up approach will best achieve these goals. This is positive for children, as a joined up effort is essential for addressing the structural issues associated with social exclusion. The journey has begun, however the next phase is to create practical policies that will address the real and everyday needs of socially excluded people. This battle will not be won through ideology or well-intentioned frameworks, rather with an outright war on the structures that keep the poor excluded. With an agenda of high-skilled employment as the ultimate goal, rather than emancipation for humanitarian purposes, it is unlikely that the government will rock the foundations too hard. However the policies could free quite a few children, and that is better than none at all.