How inclusive is your childcare?

Last week, while organising an event on Eventbrite, I stumbled across an event organised by Inclusion Support Queensland, a key architect of Australia’s childcare industry’s National Quality Framework and Standards. Targeted at early childhood teachers and titled ‘National Quality Standard: Inclusion in Practice’, the event promised to ‘explore how inclusion underpins the National Quality Standard.’

The term “inclusion” is problematic in the context of the childcare industry’s National Quality Standards, since it refers to both disability access and cultural inclusion. While there’s a general expectation that the industry complies with anti-discrimination law in ensuring accessibility and inclusiveness of all children regardless of their cultural background or disabilities, the “inclusion” imperative can become a multi-headed hydra, used to impose narrower and more ideologically driven cultural inclusion policies that many parents may find problematic.

Australia’s childcare system is regulated by National Quality Framework (NQF), introduced in 2010. The NQF comprises: The national law (Education and Care Services National Law Act 2010) and accompanying National Regulations; the National Quality Standard (NQS); an assessment and quality rating process, and national learning frameworks. The NQF is implemented by the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA), an independent national authority. Compliance with the NQF is enforced by the various state government regulators.

The childcare industry has undergone significant transformation since 2010. In compliance with with the NQF, staff-to-child ratios have decreased and the industry has rapidly embraced credentialism and professionalisation. According the Centre for Independent Studies submission to Parliament earlier this year, at present more than a quarter of childcare workers are undertaking training to earn Certificate III or Diploma qualifications in childcare. Over the same period, out-of-pocket expenses to parents have increased by 48.7%, while subsidies from the taxpayer have continued to increase to a whopping $8 billion in 2018-2019.  

With the reforms to the Federal Government’s childcare subsidy I was already researching the childcare industry. I was curious why an industry so heavily subsidised by the taxpayer still costs parents so much of their after tax income. How could an industry that’s notorious for the low pay of its workers receive so much public money and yet deliver such an expensive service? The money certainly isn’t being spent on the workers. Early this year childcare workers represented by the industry’s trade union United Voice walked off the job protesting the low pay in the industry. Yet, somehow an industry that can’t afford to pay its workers the average national salary somehow can afford diversity and cultural inclusion programs.

Sadly the childcare industry is rife with diversity and inclusion programs. A week doesn’t go by where the children aren’t celebrating NAIDOC Week or mourning Sorry Day or acknowledging some other culturally inclusive taxpayer funded celebration. One can only hope this madness doesn’t extend to World Hijab Day. The ACECQA own website lists acknowledgement of country on its ‘What we do page’ stating: ‘ACECQA acknowledges the traditional custodians of all lands across Australia. We recognise and celebrate the contributions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians, including their role in the education and care of children.’ In this context it’s hard to imagine Australia Day getting much of run without running the ire of the industry’s regulators. In 2017 the Australian reported that childcare centres across the country opted not to celebrate the national holiday. Nor is it easy to imagine childcare centres choosing not to embrace concepts such a acknowledgement of country since inclusion ‘underpins all of the standards.’ This in spite of the fact millions of Australians don’t feel the need or desire to acknowledge country and resent any attempt at being forced to do so.

Another favourite of the educrats who dictate the industry’s National Quality Framework and Standards is environmental sustainability. It’s not uncommon for childcare centres to ban plastic from the centre and force parents to choose more environmentally sustainable options. This seems just a bit hypocritical for an industry that uses several billion metric tonnes of plastic nappies. While I’m sure many parents would appreciate childcare facilities that provide education around environmental sustainability and indigenous culture, these sorts of things should be left to individual centres and not dictated by the National Quality Framework.  

In 2014 the ACECQA wrote on its blog, “Standard 3.3 of the National Quality Standard aims to encourage children to increase their understanding about their responsibility to care for the environment, day to day, and for long-term sustainability.” The blog then continued to outline ways in which childcare centres could incorporate environmental sustainability into their centres. While such things are not necessarily bad, it’s important to consider that these recommendations are being promoted by the same authority that assesses whether childcare centres are meeting national quality standards.

‘Physical Environment’, as Quality Area 3 of the National Standards, addresses the kinds of safety and quality control regulations one would expect a statutory authority to enforce, with Standard 3.1 regulating the design, upkeep of childcare centres and ensuring that they are fit for purpose. However, Standard 3.2 stipulates that childcare centres need be both inclusive and environmentally responsible. ACECQA’s webpage provides links to resources that educators can use to implement these standards; one page explains how educators can ‘take an active role in the environment and promoting a sustainable future.’

It’s morally reprehensible that quality standards that parents and taxpayers would have reason to believe are in place to ensure that the childcare industry provides high quality education in a safe environment are being used by educrats to push their own ideological agenda. While there is nothing inherently wrong with a childcare centres having a significant focus on inclusion or environmental sustainability, the imposition of such values as part of the national framework makes it impossible for parents to choose a values-driven childcare service as one option among others. Rather, parents in Australia have virtually no choice but to pay substantial fees for childcare services that dedicate enormous time and resources toward meeting quality standards that require a significant focus on cultural inclusion and environmental sustainability.

At the fringes of the profession an organisation named ‘social justice in early childhood’ advocates for social justice causes within the early childhood education industry. The organisation has a series of articles on social justice posted on its website, one such article is titled, ‘Challenging the rhetoric of inclusion: breaking the silence on sexuality in early childhood’. The organisation has close to 5000 members in its closed Facebook Group. While the group is not necessarily representative of the broader industry it does demonstrate the potential for regulatory capture by ideologues.

The childcare industry is a prime example of the growing power of statutory bodies and the administrative state in Australia. The term administrative state refers to growth of government agencies and statutory bodies that regulate the economy via rules and guidelines. Unlike laws created via Parliament, administrative law and rulings are inherently undemocratic and anti-liberal. Decisions are made by unelected bureaucrats and are enforced on the general population through regulation. The effect of the administrative state is remove choice from the market and results in a high regulatory burden that increases prices.

The ACECQA is able to enforce its guidelines via its assessment and rating system where it determines if a centre is exceeding, meeting, working towards or significant improvement required. Since an asymmetric information problem exists, parents rely on the authority to ensure the childcare centres they send their children to are safe and are educating their children.  Since parents have poor knowledge of the National Quality Framework, the rating system allows the authority to override the market in guiding the quality of childcare centres.

While the educrat obsession with sustainability and inclusion may be laughable, these policies are merely the tip of an over-regulation iceberg. Throughout the economy industries are being suffocated by regulation and consumers are being denied choice while being forced to pay for products and services they never wanted. In the classic children’s story Peter Pan, Tinkerbell tells Peter that ‘every time someone says they don’t believe in fairies, a fairy dies’. Similarly, every time someone in the administrative state makes a ruling, a freedom dies.

A version of this article was published at Quadrant Online.

Justin Campbell
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