In today’s world we seem to want to put a price tag on everything. Free markets have always been accompanied by the notion that it will provide the consumer with options. When it comes to early childhood education and care, the story has ultimately been the same. Free Kindergatens even though desirable would never be able to sustain a model of operation that would cater to all modern families. Most parents and caregivers are now working, and with that they need variety, they need options.
So the question then becomes, how are we going to make sure there is enough room in early childhood centres to allow for the rise in parents needing care for their children? Free market education, that’s how!
Policy is then designed and implemented that provides enough incentive for investors and entrepreneurs to enter the market knowing they will be able to gain a big enough profit from their ventures. Other incentives are then offered to encourage competition, saturate targeted areas with services (typically low socio-economic areas) and to stimulate sector growth.
The result is an influx of new early childhood centres. Each offering a different and unique curriculum, each providing the ‘best quality around’, and all of them looking to make as much profit as they can to meet the expectations of their investors, or whatever financial targets they may have set for themselves.
This is where supply and demand enters the equation. Consumers (parents) are given more choice with their local areas becoming saturated with new, brightly coloured, branded early childhood services. This choice although seemingly great for parents wanting to find the best for their children when they have to go to work has unintended (or intended depending on the side of the fence you are generally sitting on) consequences….
The impact of free market early childhood education, a saturated early childhood market and policy that makes it easy for anyone to get a ‘piece of the pie’ without any kind of history, experience or qualifications in ECEC is that early childhood education is treated just like any other product in any other market. ECEC effectively becomes an industry, and our main commodity becomes children.
There then becomes a supply and demand issue with too many early childhood services, each bigger than the next, and the abundance of choices for parents means that not enough centres become full, whatever incentives there were for entrepreneurs and investors begin to get smaller and less ideal and they either have to cut costs or expand in order to extract more profit from their business. Some even choose to expand AND cut costs.
The issue is supply and demand for both centres and children drives competition between big, money rich companies and smaller less commercially driven owners, state services and not-for-profit organisations. This often results in the use of promotions and deals to undercut competition and to get children and their parents through the door. Much like other private entities such as telecommunication companies, energy companies etc. This is a tactic or ploy not only to lift their occupancy (and ultimately their profit) but also to make operating as a smaller operator under the same kind of deals impossible and the smaller entities are driven out of the local market.
The impact on children when used as a commodity, an economic unit can be varied and significant. Again neoliberal policy dictates much of these consequences such as adult to child ratios being higher than they should be with different age groups, larger group sizes, and less of a qualified work force. All of these are favourable to those who are looking to cut costs as a means of deriving more of a profit from their service.
Staffing costs are generally the highest cost incurred in early childhood education so with a higher ratio of adults to children, this helps ease the financial burden on employers, so too does having a less qualified staff especially where there is a reliance on relief or substitute staff. Often employers choose to hire casual staff over permanently employing qualified teachers due to the uncertain nature of occupancy in early childhood services. If the number of children enrolled suddenly descends, there is less of a need for extra staff which makes it easy if employing casual staff. Both of these have a significant impact on quality for children. Higher adult to child ratios means there is less opportunity for teachers to spend uninterrupted time with children, forming connections, building relationships and trust between each other (especially for children aged 0 – 3). Hiring temporary staff means there is inconsistency in care for children, offering a lack of permanence, fragmented relationships and uncertainty.
Larger group sizes mean that children often have to share smaller spaces for a large portion of their day. They are often competing for the attention of adults in the area, the noise generated by large groups of children interrupts opportunity for play, often minimal resources mean less opportunity for children to explore their interests and can lead to higher rates of accidents and injuries.
Another significant impact is the packaging of curriculum as a product which caters to the idea that all early childhood education and care is is a platform for preparing children for REAL school. This is often used as an advertising tool and disregards child-led, play-based learning in favour of a more commercially attractive product – academic readiness and achievement.
The result of all of this is that quality under a free market ECEC system will always be determined by the price and not what is best for ALL children. Children, parents and caregivers in lower socio-economic areas often lack access and information in what is supposed to be a choice-driven system. Those who are privileged enough to be able to afford to have choice and options are at times misinformed and led by attractively packaged ready for school programmes. Children are often moved from service to service in pursuit of whichever comes cheapest instead of spending their early childhood journey somewhere consistent and familiar, where they can establish and build quality relationships in a quality environment supported by quality people.
Reform, Reform, Reform
There is only one direction to go from here and that’s to reform early childhood education and care policy. Take the motivation away from investors and entrepreneurs to squeeze whatever profit they can get from their service and instead focus on driving research in areas of leadership, pedagogy and practice and truly move toward a future where children are not thought of as a commodity that are a source of revenue, where instead they are considered as partners in a centre’s vision, cherished for who they are and uplifted through respectful, responsive, and reciprocal care relationships.