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Can we afford quality childcare?

By Daniel Donahoo - posted Wednesday, 30 March 2005

The quality of childcare our children deserve is a luxury we can’t afford. A continued push for better quality childcare will eventually render it an economic impossibility.

I’d love to drop my boys off at a purpose built childcare centre. Tertiary educated staff would support their development with the latest resources and professional knowledge, and serve food from menus prepared by specialist dieticians. There would be daily excursions to the shops or into the community that would help to stimulate their understanding of the place in which they live.

For the privilege of this dream scenario, I’d have to pay more than parents do at even the wealthiest private schools. And so I should. The first six years of my child’s development are crucial. They are learning more than they ever will. What they learn will shape who they become more profoundly than their primary or secondary years. When it comes to childcare we continue to settle for less because we can’t afford more.


Neither can the government. With a rebate of only 30 per cent capped at $4,000 and claims held back until tax time 2006, the Howard Government demonstrates an unwillingness to part with money to support the development of our children. Subsequently, the standard of care many of our children receive is little more than institutionalised baby-sitting.

There are many reasons for childcare. The most significant from a government perspective is productivity. Childcare frees up adult workers to contribute to building the national economy by earning a wage.

Therefore, childcare must remain cheap enough to be economically viable for parents. And affordable care is poor quality care.

Quality childcare costs. Resources are expensive. Staff, the greatest resource, are still poorly paid for what they do. We should be demanding tertiary qualifications for all childcare staff. Qualified staff and ongoing professional development will serve our children better than any capital works program or new toys. But this scenario would make childcare unaffordable without major government reform.

Men and women are already walking away from childcare as the prices rise. They are finding new ways to balance their joint careers and the care of their children. Many families now ensure one parent is always at home to care for their children, or look to traditional informal care from neighbours or grandparents. The benefits of more time with the children and a balanced home, work and community life will likely see more families pursue the same.

Child Psychiatrist, Peter Cook has argued in the Medical Journal of Australia that our policy approach to childcare needs a rethink. He says “Perhaps ‘How can we provide quality childcare for everybody?’ asks the wrong question”. Instead Cook suggests we ask, “How can we best help and support those parents who wish to do a mutually satisfying job of mothering and fathering their infants and young children without jeopardising their own futures?”


It isn’t a bad idea. We are all so focused on work that our children are coming second in a second-rate childcare system. If we shift the focus back to being parents, rather than employees, we will most likely argue for better quality childcare and work out ways to get it.

Many parents are not satisfied with the current system. One colleague of mine took her child to check out a centre where they had set up train tracks for him - but had no trains. Another friend is disturbed that her centre is cutting costs by cutting the food budget and children are going hungry.

We are not demanding the quality of care that our children deserve because in the long run it will cost us. If this is the case, maybe we have to actually question whether childcare is actually in our society’s best interest.

By passing the responsibility for the development of our children to childcare workers we are asking a lot of them. They deserve their pay rises. Even more, their workforce as a whole deserves to develop the skills and attitudes needed to provide the quality care our children need. But when they do, we probably won’t be able to afford to pay them.

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About the Author

Journalist and columist with The Age, Sushi Das says he is ‘one of today’s young rebels’. Author and ethicist Leslie Cannold has referred to him as one of her ‘gorgeous men’.

Daniel Donahoo is fellow with OzProspect, a non-partisan, public policy think tank. He writes regularly for Australia's daily papers and consults on child and family issues. A father to two boys. Daniel's first book is called Idolising Children and explores our society’s obsession with childhood and youth. Updates on Daniel's work can be found at

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