The public conversation around Australia’s need to pursue universal access to high-quality early learning and care has grown exponentially in 2020. It’s been a rare bright spot in a terribly bleak year. The federal government’s decision in early April to make childcare free for parents for three months as the nation grappled with Covid-19 thrust the possibility of radical change into the spotlight.

As an educator and feminist who has been arguing for quality early childhood education and care for more than 40 years, witnessing the momentum gathering around this reform is heartening.

Unsurprisingly it has attracted a few familiar arguments. The Australian Financial Review and the Sydney Morning Herald published op-eds in October arguing that childcare deregulation would help bring down costs and facilitate women returning to work.
The idea that parents want to work so badly that they would be prepared to settle for an open market of care for their children, with no quality frameworks in place, is spurious. And requires a short history lesson.
Affordable, quality care for children has been at the heart of the feminist agenda since the sixties. Feminists understood that the relationship between employment for women and quality care was crucial, and many of us deferred our working lives because of the absence of quality care. We wanted our children to have the best start in life.

It has been a long journey persuading our society that while work is central to our lives, it cannot be at the cost of our motherhood. The battle for maternity leave, won in court in 1978, was a part of protecting our unique mothering role. As feminists we cared deeply about having time off after birth and returning to work with the security of knowing our children were well cared for.

However, settling for safe and happy care is not good enough. As a society we settled for that for years and it is a limited aspiration. Why? There is now a solid body of research showing that more than 90% of a child’s brain development occurs before they start school, and access to quality early learning sets a child up for lifelong learning.
We know children who attend one year or more of pre-primary school education show better test results in literacy and numeracy in year 4, according to international research. Equally, research by Coag found children’s literacy and numeracy rises accordingly when they have one, two and three years of pre-primary education. One year is better than none, two is better than one, and children with three years of pre-primary education had the highest levels of literacy and numeracy.

The opposition to increasing the qualifications of those who work in early learning and care is analogous to the arguments I listened to when nurse education left the wards and became a university degree. Why would we not encourage the predominantly female workforce in this sector to gain higher qualifications, and thus increase their income, skills and value?

Quality childcare arises from the interaction between the educators and the child. The evidence tells us qualifications have a major influence on the quality of that interaction. For those who argue against high standards, I wonder whose children they think should be in the lower-quality childcare centres? Every parent wants the best for their child and every child deserves quality.
There are sound economic reasons for investing in quality early learning and supporting the National Quality Framework (NQF). Australia needs to catch up to the rest of the world when it comes to educating our children, our future workforce.
As it stands, 22% of Australian children start primary school developmentally vulnerable. A Unicef report published last month revealed that Australia has fallen to be ranked 32nd of 40 OECD countries on child wellbeing.

Back in 2012, the Economist noted that Australia ranked poorly in delivering universal access to quality early learning. Its Starting Well index ranked Australia 28 out of 45 countries on pre-school provision, behind the UK, Ireland, France, South Korea and New Zealand.

Countries that lead the world in educational achievement do not buy arguments that skimping on early education is a gender equity measure.

As we progress towards universal access to early education and care we must not turn back the clock on the quality framework. I recall when the National Childcare Accreditation Agency was set up in the early nineties, there was similar fuss about “red tape” but no one was quite sure which parts they would like to unravel. It is in these moments that I find it useful to remind those who object to agreed quality standards that we accredit and regulate dog kennels and racing stables.

It does not seem to be much of a stretch to ensure children have properly regulated care in their early vulnerable years.

Conceding on quality is a foolish choice.

The real question for Australia is not whether we can afford to have quality early childhood education, but whether we can afford not to.

• Wendy McCarthy AO is a mentor, speaker, social activist, company adviser and patron of The Parenthood

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