Childhood: the new frontier of economic rationalism (with some help from Twiggy)

by Mark Sawyer | Aug 10, 2022 | Government, Latest Posts

Governments are backing more preschool places even as the sector grapples with staff shortages and industrial unrest. The plan has been linked to the ambition for massive productivity gains. Are the under-fives of Australia the latest conscripts in our seemingly endless neoliberal push for higher productivity? Mark Sawyer examines the evidence.

It’s been touted as a radical revamp of the education systems of Australia’s two biggest states. From 2030, all children in NSW and Victoria will be able to access play-based learning for free in the year before they start kindergarten.

“It’s a game changer and it’s exciting and there is big money behind it because we have to do well for our kids,” NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell said when the program was announced in June.

The new federal Labor government is not far behind in its ambitions for young children. During the election campaign, Anthony Albanese made a big push for early childhood places. As Labor’s 2022 election policy for the sector states:

”We also know that improving our child care system is a fundamental economic reform that will boost workforce participation and drive productivity growth.”

Nipping at Labor’s heels, the Greens are pushing for free childcare, to be funded by cancelling the Stage 3 tax cuts and levying higher taxes on wealthy corporations and individuals with names such as Palmer and Rinehart.

But all of these grand ambitions may yet fall short. The sector is already at breaking point before it undertakes this giant expansion.

A nationwide, one-day strike by childcare workers has been called by the United Workers Union for September 7.

”Educators are leaving the sector in record numbers every week, due to burn-out, workload and low pay,” the union stated. ”Centres across the country are having to limit enrolments, close rooms and cancel staff leave. Children and families are suffering due to the strain.

After nearly a decade of inaction on early learning, educators have had enough!

There are more than 6000 staff vacancies in early childcare – an all-time high – and children are being turned away. The dropout rate among university and TAFE students of early childhood education is high.

This, while the nation grapples with a shortage of primary and high school teachers, with classes being merged and schools luring some teachers back from retirement. And if recruitment of primary and high school teachers is in trouble, things are likely to be much more difficult for the early childhood education sector.  ”We know you can get 30% more pay in the school system,” a childhood educator told the ABC when the strike was called.

That’s not stopping the politicians from talking up the sector, emphasising the economic benefits to the nation of allowing more parents (mainly mothers) to spend more time in the workforce.

The real question: are they (and by extension us), practising a giant deception in the hustling of children outside the home ever and ever earlier, in the interests of the great godheads of productivity and economic rationalism?

In June the premiers of NSW and Victoria hailed as a game changer a plan for free preschool five days a week from 2030, with trials to begin next year in some communities. Indeed, boasted the NSW and Victorian premiers in a joint statement, both states will “embark on the greatest transformation of early education in a generation”.

“Every child in Victoria and NSW will experience the benefits of a full year of play-based learning before their first year of school,” Dominic Perrottet and Daniel Andrews said. “At the same time, it will benefit hundreds of thousands of working families.”

NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell said the extra year of learning will “set children up for the best start in life” and “give every child the opportunity to have that five days of early learning at no cost to families”.

More than 18,000 prospective early childhood teachers and carers would be supported to enter the sector or boost their skills, and preschools will be constructed on primary school lands in a plan costed at $5.8 billion.

In the 2022-23 Budget the NSW government already announced it will spend $1.4 billion to subsidise preschool from next year, as well as $5 billion over a decade to create more childcare places.

“All up in NSW we are talking about more than $15 billion that we will be investing for families and the benefits will start flowing from as early as next year,” Mitchell said.

Labor: more than a handout for the rich

As the Covid pandemic took hold in 2020 and 2021, the Morrison government sought to save jobs by stimulating economic activity. It was soon being criticised on the grounds that the jobs were ”male” – hard hats, high-viz jackets, not ”female” – childcare, nursing and other ”caring professions”.

Fast forward to 2022 and Anthony Albanese’s Australia. It’s a different nation. The emphasis is on recalibrating the economy. The gender pay gap is under scrutiny like never before. And those high-viz jackets are becoming part of the story of gender equality after all. There is a push to get the number of women in construction jobs to 25%.

But for a long time there have been ringing declarations on the progressive side of politics about the purpose of free childcare being not a welfare benefit but an economic right and an economic good. During the 2022 election policy, federal Labor’s made that notion clearer than ever.

The party’s childcare policy drew the most attention with its scope. It boasted of making 96% of users better off and extended CCS (the childcare subsidy) to families earning up to $530,000. But what it said a lot about productivity was perhaps equally important.

”Only Labor has a plan to fix child care.

”We also know that improving our child care system is a fundamental economic reform that will boost workforce participation and drive productivity growth.

”Conservative estimates show a return on investment of $2 for every $1 invested, and economists have estimated a GDP boost of between $4-$11 billion per year.”

The policy didn’t say anything about children being at home before they begin those 12 gruelling years in what was once called the blackboard jungle. But yeah, subsidies for families pulling in half a mill?

Jay shows the way

An energetic proponent of early childhood education is Jay Weatherill, South Australian premier 2011-18. He enjoyed a long and distinguished career in state politics, although mixed success electorally. He led the ALP to a fourth straight victory in 2014, forming a minority government with only 47% of the two-party-preferred vote. Losing office in 2018, Weatherill is now director of an early-childhood development advocacy body called Thrive by Five.

According to its site:

Thrive by Five is an initiative of Minderoo Foundation that is campaigning to make our early learning childcare system high quality and universally accessible. We believe this to be the most significant educational, social and economic reform of our era.

The honour roll of its supporters is impressive. Leaving aside Weatherill himself, the first 10 listed are: Professor Fiona Stanley, Julie Bishop, Michele O’Neil, Professor Adrian Piccoli, Kate Carnell, John Hewson, Debby Blakey, Rosie Batty, Maggie Dent and Sir Gustav Nossal.

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The Minderoo Foundation is described on Weatherill’s Wikipedia page as ”Andrew Forrest’s Minderoo Foundation”, but Nicola Forrest gives her husband only a passing mention in the mission statement of Thrive By Five.

Weatherill plugs early childcare as a good for children, and therefore a public good. But there is no doubt about his economic focus. On August 2 he told ABC Radio National’s Patricia Karvelas:

The first workforce shortage you have to deal is in childcare, which then releases all of the capacity in the rest of the economy. So, we know that for every day that we are actually able to get onto childcare, early learning, we can release six days of work in the rest of the economy. So it’s the precondition to solving the economic challenges that the nation faces.

“It’s the governments [sic] job to improve the system”, Thrive By Five announces. Not exactly grammatical, but the intention is clear.

Males stay away

Anecdotally, parental comfort at entrusting their children to male preschool teachers and childhood educators remains low. No matter the reality – that the number of males offending against children is vanishingly low – the perception remains otherwise. It makes for uncomfortable discussions. The internet is full of laments for the low, indeed tiny, numbers of males in early childhood.

“If your child is lucky enough to have a male educator, they are in the minority when it comes to schooling in Australia,” says an article on the site First Five Years, a site of Goodstart Learning, which operates 671 early learning centres nationwide.

Male educators make up just two percent of the workforce in Australian early education, compared to 18 percent in primary schools and around 40 percent in high schools.

First Five Years quotes a study by Dr Kevin McGrath for Macquarie University that found the number of male primary school and high school teachers has fallen 10 per cent and 14 per cent respectively since 1977. ”Dr McGrath says part of the problem is that no government in Australia had a policy to encourage men to take up teaching,” says the article.

It’s a typical observation. Male early-childhood educators are not, at this stage, subject to any equivalent of the ”more women in the boardroom” push.

More people, mainly women, will be able to spend more time in the workforce when more people, mainly women, are trained as early childhood educators. That seems to be the pillar of the argument from governments Labor and conservative, business advocates, Australia’s high achievers, and unions.

On July 22, ACTU secretary Sally McManus spoke on the issue of working from home, warning against forcing a lack of choice and one-size-fits-all policies. She also told Karvelas:

You certainly don’t want to basically embed assumptions that say women will be the ones who have to work from home because of course they’re the ones who’ve got to look after children. We don’t want that situation because that’s going to embed all the inequalities we’ve currently got.

Unions were formed to advocate for workers’ wages and conditions. Individual choice is paramount. But the choice of some women to stay at home with their children would seem to be the wrong choice.

The hamster wheel

Kids out of the home a year earlier, being minded and taught – to the extent that occurs – by (mainly) younger, childless women. Mothers spending more time in the workforce. Feminists in the 1960s and 1970s imagined that women would hand over their kids to the state to be raised. The communist regimes of eastern Europe took big steps in that direction, and the result was workforce participation by women that put the capitalist West in the shade.

But as Forrest’s foundation illustrates, capitalism is catching up, in lockstep with government and our media tastemakers. Capitalism in every way, as people trying to break in to the overheated housing market can attest.

Perhaps author and MWM contributor Nathan Lynch puts that  aspect best in his new book, The Lucky Laundry – how the Aussie economy got hooked on the world’s dirtiest cash:

Families that are petrified of missing out have locked themselves into 30 years of dual-income wage servitude. Their mortgage contract has obliged them to sign up to a new social contract, one that requires them to outsource the raising of their children to government-subsidised daycare centres so they can maintain two high-paying, full-time jobs in the city. In return, young families in Sydney or Melbourne may be able to scrape together a deposit for an apartment in a decent area, close to their work. This national property addiction is pro-cyclical and self-reinforcing, driving the market ever upwards.

Lights out and blinds drawn on the Australian dream as black money fuels house prices

So are we sending our children out into the cruel world early to grease the wheels of the economy?  How much sense – how much rationalism – is there in a system where women (and men) send their children out of the home a year or more earlier so they (the parents) can work ever longer hours in paid work (which is taxed to help pay for their children being out of the home a year early)? Readers can make up their own minds.

But it sounds like another carrot and donkey trick in the interests of economic productivity.

Mark Sawyer is a journalist with extensive experience in print and digital media in Sydney, Melbourne and rural Australia.

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