The way the Prime Minister has pitched his childcare reforms underscores how it is now entrenched as a key economic issue. Photo: Peter Braig
Not so long ago childcare hardly rated a mention on the national agenda. But in coming weeks it will take centre stage in federal politics.
Tony Abbott says a revamp of the childcare system will be the focus of a “families package” he’s banking on to help revive the government’s fortunes.
The way the Prime Minister has pitched his childcare reforms underscores how it is now entrenched as a key economic issue.
It’s not the first time childcare has vaulted to the top of the policy agenda of course – ever since John Howard declared the balance between work and family a “barbecue stopper” more than a decade ago it’s been a political perennial.
“The focus really does have to be on childcare if we want higher participation and a stronger economy”: Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Photo: Andrew Meares
But the way the Prime Minister has pitched his childcare reforms underscores how it is now entrenched as a key economic issue.
When Abbott flagged the new policy at the National Press Club earlier this month he zeroed in on the role childcare plays in workforce participation.
“The focus really does have to be on childcare if we want higher participation and a stronger economy,” he said. “More parents in the workforce mean that more people will make a bigger economic contribution as well as a social contribution to our country,” he said.
Abbott described women as “our countries most under-utilised” source of skills and entrepreneurship. If female participation in Australia were 6 per cent higher – at Canada’s level – gross domestic product would be higher by $25 billion a year.
“So a better childcare policy is good economic policy as well as fairer family policy,” Abbott said.
There’s wide agreement the childcare system is due for a comprehensive overhaul.
A draft report by Productivity Commission on childcare in Australia, published last year, found that while there was a “lot that is good” about the system it was “designed to meet the needs of a different era” and that “there is much scope for improvement”.
Abbott says his policy will focus on making childcare more affordable and has hinted at less regulation.
“We want to see a less complex system, we want to see a more available system and, ultimately, we want to see a more affordable system,” he said earlier this month.
But the Prime Minister has not spoken about another crucial aspect of the childcare system – its role in preparing young children, especially those from low-income families, to participate in an increasingly knowledge-based economy.
Research by Nobel-prize winning economist, James Heckman, has shown there are huge economic gains to be had by investing in early childhood education and development. He argues it heavily influences health, economic and social outcomes for individuals and society at large. Heckman’s findings suggest high quality early childhood education is especially important for disadvantaged children who often miss out on many educational opportunities enjoyed by children from wealthy families. Separate research has shown that most children with professional parents hear tens of millions more words in their first four years of life than those with very low-income parents.
Heckman argues that early childhood education is more efficient than many other interventions later in life. One of his studies showed that early childhood interventions with disadvantaged children had much higher economic returns than interventions during primary school, in high school or in early adulthood through job training.
High-quality early childhood education and care is bound to become more important as knowledge-based industries grow in economic importance. Heckman’s research suggests that widespread access to good quality early childhood education will play an important role in helping to reduce economic inequality.
Australia has much to learn from Heckman’s research. The debate about childcare here tends to be dominated by the cost of childcare and its impact on family budgets. There’s much less attention on the role of education in our childcare system and whether low-income families can access high quality services.
Let’s hope Abbott can craft a system that reduces childcare costs, boosts participation and helps all kids get the start they need to one day participate in an increasingly sophisticated knowledge economy.
Source Article from http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/comment/childcare-is-crucial-to-the-knowledge-economy-20150213-13ehfx.html
Childcare is crucial to the knowledge economy
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