The word “parenting” hasn’t been around for long, according to a report on childhood in the magazine The Economist. Only since the mid-1970s, says the report, has raising a child been called “parenting” – where the parent takes full responsibility for ensuring good behaviour, successful schooling, athletic prowess, musical accomplishment, social confidence, and on and on.
But since the 1970s we’ve moved from plain parenting to “helicopter parenting”, says The Economist.
Parents are expected to fill a child’s day “with round-the-clock activities, from music to sports to sleepovers; going to great lengths to get him or her into the right schools; and strictly supervising homework.” “The parents may not like it,” says the article, “but they feel they have no choice because all their friends are doing the same thing.”
As kids return to school, the media is awash with parenting news and advice, shaming parents to do more to give their child any sort of advantage.
As The Economist’s headline says, “It’s a never-ending task.”
But what works in this race to get ahead, the article asks?
The answer: focus on the infants. What happens in the early childhood years matters most, say scientists. This is when the human brain is most “plastic”, when it is building capacity for the years ahead.
Yet Australian studies show, consistently, that, while Australian parents are working as long and hard at parenting as anywhere else in the world, Australian governments lack commitment to the provision of education services in the early childhood years. Embarrassingly, Australia is fifth from the bottom of the 36 OECD nations – the richest nations in the world – in its spending on early childhood education.
Unfortunately, NSW is typical of the poor state of preschool education across the nation. Experts say children should have 600 hours of preschooling in their backpacks prior to entry to formal schooling, the equivalent of 15 hours per week over a year. Yet, the proportion of three-year-olds in Australia with preschooling is below the OECD average, at a meagre 70 per cent.
We do better for four-year-olds, with 85 per cent attendance, but this is still below the OECD average.
Australia has never fully developed an early childhood education sector. A Productivity Commission report finds that, for NSW, government takes direct responsibility for barely 10 per cent of all preschools. Sure, private and community preschool providers receive direct government funding, as do parents via the childcare rebate. But this handover to non-government providers ducks responsibility for many things in this most-important of education sectors.
The answer: focus on the infants. What happens in the early childhood years matters most.
One neglect concerns qualifications and employment conditions. The Productivity Commission says for NSW, only 15 per cent of contact staff in childcare centres and preschools have bachelor degrees. Would this low ratio be tolerated in schools or universities? A consequence of poor qualifications is that pay rates in the early childhood sector are dismal. Often, graduates can’t get appointments as graduates and don’t stay long in the lowly-paid jobs on offer. These are filled readily by women eager to get a job locally, such is the location pattern of childcare centres and preschools. A consequence is more than 90 per cent of the sector’s workers are women. Once again, when working conditions are driven down by inadequate regulation and poor government support, women pick up the jobs.
Then there is the problem of access to preschooling by the kids who need early childhood education the most. The Productivity Commission tells us that three out of every 10 kids classified as ‘vulnerable or disadvantaged’ in NSW arrive at school without any preschool experience. The problem is acute in the poorer suburbs of our cities and in the regions, including many parts of the Hunter.
Yet if we were serious about giving people a fair go in Australia, we would be providing more than the average level of early childhood services to disadvantaged and vulnerable kids, not less.
If it is the early childhood years that make the difference, why is it those who need preschooling the most are the ones who are missing out?
Years ago, I asked a retiring music teacher what sort of education disadvantaged children should be given? The same as what is served up to rich kids, she said. I’m sure she’d give the same answer today.