Community services for children or commercial economic services for GDP?

| September 15, 2014

The Government has asked the Productivity Commission for a public inquiry into future options for childcare and early childhood learning. Social and political researcher Eva Cox explains why she is critical of the recommendations in the draft report.

Why would the Federal Government spend around $5B a year to subsidise parental child care costs but not use their spending power to ensure that these services are available where and when needed? Surely accountability suggests that child care funding, like aged services funding, should ensure the accessibility or availability of such services.

Despite setting up an inquiry because of widespread complaints by parents who feel they have little, or sometimes no, choices of care services, the federal government does not question its hands off funding model. Therefore, access to affordable, appropriate care where and when needed is likely to continue to be left to the vagaries of the market with most access issues unresolved.

Why limit an inquiry into these services by a brief that assumes that market forces could meet the diverse needs of parents? Why is there no real examination of the effectiveness of the for profit motives rather than community based objectives? The result is a 900 page ideologically flawed draft report that tidies up a messy funding process but queries the costs of some of the quality settings. It therefore fails to recognise that many of the problems identified are not likely to be solved by continuing with the single market model. This approach of paying subsidies via parent fees has little or no effect on provisions for diverse and maybe uneconomic requirements of communities and parents.

Market models may effectively meet the profitable needs of 3+ children with regular earning parents, and additional subsidies may attract some investment in special needs groups but there are many other needs not met. Ensuring that services can meet needs for flexibility of hours, care for toddlers and babies and broader social care services requires funding that can be negotiated directly with suppliers of services.

This type of funding means services can adapt their programs to transcend the narrow economic assumptions that underpin the current model. The current block funding model for mainly Indigenous and isolated services shows a holistic service funding model can meet complex community needs. However, the report suggests this is an inferior interim model that should not be retained long term. This assumption reflects the ideological bias in the current funding approach which has never been seriously debated. The submissions and hearings show this group of services is still seen as primarily a community service, which enhance children’s social and developmental capacities, but not a commercially purchased economic service.

However, the concept of government and communities combining to provide socially relevant children’s services has dissipated as decisions to fund commercial child care services in the nineties meant no further centre based subsidies to not for profit services. This meant the loss of direct input or control over centres by their major funder.

The current stated policy focus is the government’s economic aim to put more mothers in paid jobs. There are no mentions of social well being or community goals, except remedial services for vulnerable children, which may include compulsion! These are expected to pay off when children will be more likely to hold jobs in the future. Therefore costs can be contained by reducing some aspects of quality staffing for toddlers and lack of places by abolishing subsidies for children whose primary carers has no employment related need for time away.

We need to lobby for the return of the more rational policies of Government with the final report recommending a bifurcated funding system that supports both parental subsidies and direct contracts of purchase of service for non marketable service needs. This means the block funding of specifically targeted services will continue and can be expanded alongside user pays models. This dual system will allow the Government and voters to set up the funding formulae that meet both social and economic needs of communities, families and children.

We also need to argue that ensuring public funding for children’s services is only justified if they deliver quality care. This means not reducing the qualifications for the under 3s and no funding for Certificate III nannies who work unsupervised and unsupported. These options in the draft report show the over focus on competitiveness and not enough on children’s needs!

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Eva Cox

Eva Cox is Professorial Fellow Jumbunna IHL at the University of Technology in Sydney. Eva is a public commentator, community change agent, feminist, Boyer Lecturer 1995 and active social and political researcher. She has taught policy, advocacy and research methods, run research consultancies, worked as a public servant, political adviser and consultant. Her professional expertise is policy and research issues. She has written widely on a range of political and social issues.