Babies are pretty useless really. Human ones, that is. Compared with animal counterparts, they just don't rate. It takes a few weeks for our babies to even manage their own heads without assistance. A few more months to sit up unaided. They don't get the whole being a biped thing till they are around one. They can't string a few words together into a sentence for another year after that.
Because they're so helpless, being nurtured in those first few years is pretty important. We know from unintentional experiments in Romanian orphanages that without loving interactions with adults, babies grow but don't exactly thrive. We know from just as shameful experiments in the US caused by the huge income divide that babies from less well-off, stressed out parents don't hear as many words as ones with middle-class parents. This means they speak almost 1000 fewer words than their peers by the time they are three. From another study, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, we know the effects that bad parenting can have.
However, the Productivity Commission, in their search for answers to Australia's childcare mess, have ignored everything that we know about babies. They seem to have forgotten that 85 per cent of what humans learn (including that walking and talking stuff) happens in these vital first years of life. They have ignored the neuroscience that says unless the architecture of the brain is built right in these first few years, everything that comes later is built on shaky foundations (again – Honey Boo Boo). They have ignored the fact that babyhood matters and is a vital part of early education.
Why would the Productivity Commission do such a thing? Well, money really. And, like, productivity. They were tasked by Treasurer Joe Hockey to work out how to ensure we could get more parents (read mothers) back to work.
The Productivity Commission has decided that there is not enough evidence that the type of care provided while parents are working matters greatly, as long as children are safe.
Parents know that babies are learning all the time. They see their children develop from blobs to almost functioning human beings. This is why the quality of care and early education they receive in the first five years matter so much. This is why our governments unanimously decided that the ratio of educators to babies in our childcare centres should drop to one educator to four babies. They also decided that educators needed to be more qualified. That some should even be (shock horror) university educated. These reforms were ground-breaking. They recognise that children learn from birth. That we don't just need to care for babies and very young children, but we also need to kick-start their education in the years their brains are hardwired to learn.
The commission acknowledged this in its report when it said: "The cumulative effect of experiences and environment in early childhood makes further skill acquisition possible later in life."
But, unfortunately, providing qualified educators (and more of them) costs money. And the commission has decided that herein lays the problem. Disappointingly, it has come up with just one key solution to ensuring families can access the childcare they need – encouraging investment by making the game more profitable.
Why do we need to remove the need for qualifications to make childcare more profitable? Because of the big childcare secret. That the childcare business is a mug's game. No matter what the Eddy Groves/ABC Learning era led us to believe, it is hard to run a childcare centre and make a profit. According to market analysts, IBISWorld, profit margins in Australia for childcare services are about 2 per cent to 3 per cent. This is just too low to encourage services to meet the huge unmet demand.
The commission figures that changing the focus from learning to care for under three year olds can cut costs and increase profits. Because if all staff are providing is care, they don't need an education either. This recommendation to remove mandatory higher qualifications has been met by childcare experts with horror. Businesses could set up childcare centres that employ only teenagers with a basic certificate they could obtain while at school to prove they could look after children.
The commission has given a small out for some. They have said that centres that wish to retain higher-qualified staff for babies would be able to and "differentially price their services accordingly".
In other words, children from already advantaged families (i.e. those with more money) would get access to the good stuff of early education while already disadvantaged children (those from poorer families) miss out.
Lisa Bryant is a consultant in the early education and care sector and is the NSW convener of Australian Community Children's Services.