Kids count – better early childhood education and care in australia
Book launch by
Human Rights and Equal Opportunity
12 November 2007
It gives me great pleasure to be here today to launch
“Kids Count – Better Early childhood education and care in
This book brings together a range of
leading academics to create the vision for a much needed universal, early
childhood education and care system. It follows a national workshop on
Childcare: A Better Policy Framework for Australia held in July
Child care and early education has been on the agenda for a
number of years now thanks largely to the efforts of many people in the room
today. It is an issue that is dear to every working parent’s heart.
However, it is also a very complex area of policy which I why I think it is
taking us so long to get it right. I know in my role as Sex Discrimination
Commissioner people often ask me about childcare. And having only had time to
scratch the surface, I give the standard response about the need for care to be
– affordable, accessible and high quality. It gives me great confidence
when I read the work of Elizabeth Hill, Barbara Pocock and Alison Elliott and
the many other contributors to this book that we have the research base, the
quality academics and importantly, a will to articulate what that system should
There has been much debate over the last few years as to
whether child care has a positive or negative impact on a child’s growth.
Many parents carry guilt about whether the care option they select is the best
option for their children. As a working mother of 2 small children it is an
issue that prior to the birth of my children I hadn’t really considered.
But as soon as the babies came, it became my major preoccupation. And it
continues to tease my brain as I wrestle with the issues of before and after
school care and vacation care and ...the rest.
Over the years I have worked with many working parents who
have each tried a range of different care and early education options and sworn
by their individual choice. So I think being able to choose what style of care
and early education suits your child is important. But there is one unifying
and over-riding theme –the quality of the options must be high. There is
a strong link between quality and positive outcomes for children. How we ensure
quality is an important topic for discussion which is picked up in this book.
That is not to say that affordability and accessibility are
not also vitally important but quality is paramount. I have yet to see a mother
who is happy in the workplace when she is very unhappy about the quality of care
for her children. Ensuring and maintaining quality is a complex issue and I was
delighted to see that the book addresses this question and sets out 10 policy
principles to deliver a better early childhood and care regime in Australia.
The other issues of course are accessibility and cost. I am
soon to embark on a nation wide listening tour to speak to women and men,
particularly those with caring responsibilities about how we can best support
people to balance work and family responsibilities over the life cycle. This
will include in remote, regional and metropolitan Australia, and one of the
recurring themes that I anticipate is the availability and affordability of
childcare. Or perhaps I should say, the lack of availability and
As more women have moved into the paid workforce the role of
informal and formal child care in assisting families to raise their children has
increased. For families, especially those in which parents are hoping to share
the unpaid responsibilities of family life and for sole parents, formal
childcare is critical to the capacity of women, and men, to participate in the
paid work force.
The workforce participation rate of women with two or more
children in Australia is mid to low by western standards- only 43% are in any
kind of paid work, including part time, compared with over eighty percent in
Scandinavian countries and well over sixty percent in the UK and the US. It is
often said that this reflects Australia’s greater prosperity and
commitment to family-life. However, not only are there not any noticeably
better family outcomes in Australia compared with other countries (there are
many who would argue that in fact our high divorce rate and record levels of
childhood obesity and diabetes might suggest no better at all) but it might just
be that this lower participation rate reflects a poor availability of child care
and an inability to balance work and family rather than an unwillingness to
A national study conducted by the New South Wales Equal
Opportunity Practitioners Association found that one in four workers with caring
responsibilities have reduced their hours of work due to the high cost of care.
Obviously this doesn’t include people who have dropped out of work
altogether, which is certainly likely to be at least as big a group. Certainly
single mothers will tell you that finding affordable, quality child care that
fits with part time or non-standard working hours is extremely
The high cost of quality childcare is always in the mind of
parents and has been something that has been emphasised to me in my short time
as Sex Discrimination Commissioner. Childcare fees in some areas can cost up to
one hundred dollars a day, but unlike many other measures of cost-of-living,
much of regional and even rural Australia is not far behind.
Widely available, affordable and quality childcare is a
critical plank in allowing parents, especially mothers to participate in the
paid work force.
But as this book points out, the overall guiding principle of
early childhood education and care should not be solely to facilitate the return
to work of parents but rather to promote the well being of all children. We
need to have in place a universal, high quality system of care and early
education that supports children’s development and educational needs.
What gives me confidence is that, as this book
demonstrates, there is a growing body of research underpinned by leading
academics, many of whom are here today, which can assist policy makers design a
system in Australia which enhances the well being of the next generation of
Australians and ultimately the well being of our society.
- Related Link - Kids count. Sydney University Press.