Early learning & pre-school education needs a brand makeover – it’s so much more than ‘childcare’

This week, a historic pay case was lodged in Australia that will test the work of the child care educator against industry standards. A number of reasons for this have been cited in the media, including the rates of pay for equivalently qualified educators in the school sector and the fact that this industry has an overwhelmingly female workforce. The latter because industries that predominantly employ females have a notoriously bad reputation for lower pay rates.

I think there is another force at play here.There is a perception problem – we still generically call the sector child ‘care’, while of course these passionate educators actually do care, this word sends a different message to the community.

I spent a significant time in my career as a teacher in the early years of school, teaching Kindergarten and Year 1. The socio-economic status of the families of the children I taught meant that the vast majority of children went to a pre-school. For the few who didn’t it was evident in the social interactions, their readiness for literacy and numeracy acquisition and, for some, potential developmental problems had not been identified before they commenced school.

Progressive societies recognise the value of early childhood education as a significant factor in later life success. I am definitely not advocating fast tracking formal literacy and numeracy to three and four year-olds, I do believe that structured and concrete creative play activities, exposure to age-appropriate literature and navigating group interactions with other children provide valuable life foundations. The issue is that we continue to call this ‘child care’. It is so much more than that.

The Guardian science correspondent, Alok Jha, in an article about brain development wrote:

Scientists found that the more mental stimulation a child gets around the age of four, the more developed the parts of their brains dedicated to language and cognition will be in the decades ahead.

Neuroscientists have found that the environment and experiences of a child in the first few years of life has an impact on the way the brain develop later in life.

Over the past 30 years Finland has emerged to become an international leader in student achievement and with significant investment in the early years. The policy is sensibly called ‘Early Childhood Education and Care’ (ECEC) and in its foreword states:

There is a growing body of evidence that children starting strong in their learning and wellbeing will have better outcomes when they grow older. Such evidence has driven policy makers to design an early intervention and re-think their education spending patterns to gain “value for money”. At the same time, research emphasises that the benefits from early interventions are conditional on the level of “quality” of ECEC that children experience.

Intersecting with the need for quality pre-school education is a families need for safe and reliable child care, especially for families where both parents work outside the home. These dual needs create the somewhat messiness of the options and fuel the dilemmas many parents face. Then to this, add the layer of the for-profit elements of the industry, the need to maximise income and minimise costs, often at the expense of employing quality teachers.

As a society, we need to project a clearer differentiation between the two options available to parents, known as ‘pre-school’ and ‘childcare’, especially to make it clearer for parents who are making a highly personal decision. Then, if we truly believe that there is generational benefit in high quality early years education, the professional early childhood educator needs better recognition and the Government, and we the taxpayer, need to be prepared to put money behind it.


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