Arguments for the public funding of child care rest on the claim that it is a public good: that it provides benefits for the individual and for society, and that investment' in child care will reap social and economic pay-offs. Perhaps the most abiding and persuasive claim is that good child care is beneficial to all children.
However, a more careful reading of the research reveals that the evidence base of many claims about child care does not support their weight.
There is a loud chorus of advocates calling for increased public funding so that all children can attend "high-quality" child care.
The main parties have largely acquiesced, with massive government spending leading to the point that it is estimated that the federal Government now provides more than half of the cost of child care for most families.
This would increase further under a Labor government, according to an announcement by Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd last weekend.
Numerous reports on child care have been produced in Australia during the past decade by almost every government-funded agency undertaking social or applied economic research. They overwhelmingly make strong claims about immediate and ongoing positive effects of formal child care for all children, most often citing the results of American studies such as the High Scope Perry Preschool Project, a longitudinal study that has followed its subjects from early childhood into their 40s.
The Perry Preschool Project is responsible for the oft-repeated claim of a seven-fold return on investment in early childhood care programs (that is, centre-based child care with highly trained staff), and dramatically reduced risk of unemployment, criminality and teenage pregnancy. The problem is that the project was a targeted program designed for children aged three and four from severely disadvantaged families, who had been identified as being at risk of developmental delays. The project involved part-day preschool attendance and home visits by childcare professionals. This means that although the results are striking and significant, they do not necessarily apply to younger children and babies, or to children with a wider range of backgrounds and abilities. They also do not apply to long day care.
Other American studies regularly cited to support the argument that child care is widely beneficial include the Abecedarian Project, Project CARE, Head Start and Early Head Start. Each of these studies involved children from low income or disadvantaged families. Each of these studies involved a combination of centre-based child care and home visits and, in some cases, health and parenting services.
Again, the results achieved cannot be expected to be replicated with the general population.
There are only a few studies offering comparative evidence on infants in child care and infants in parental care, and they offer mixed results. Swedish research has found some cognitive benefits of child care, but the effect dissipated over time. Another large US study, conducted by the National Institute of Child Health and Development, found that child care in infancy was associated with later behavioural problems, and the relationship became stronger over time.
These conflicting results characterise international and Australian research and make drawing conclusions difficult, if not dangerous.
Despite this, many Australian experts on child care seem to have no hesitation endorsing child care for all children.
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