OPINION: Where access to early education conflicts with conservative values

Regular commentator against the need for investment in early childhood education Judith Sloan has once again questioned the need for Governments to invest in this area.

Sloan, who once famously described educators who work in the sector as “dim-witted”, articulates views that are not uncommon in those who hold deeply conservative values.

Sloan once used the term “Stalinist straight jacket” when describing the regulation of early education centres. This is very telling. The notion of universal access to ECE for all children is a direct attack on conservative “family values”.

The conservative argument is essentially that the best place for a child, any child, is in a stable home with Mum and Dad (certainly not two Dads, or two Mums, but we’ll save that for another entry).

Anything outside of that, particularly when it is run or funded by Government, is a left-wing form of social engineering, designed to produce Little Leftists.

Now the view that children are better off with a loving Mother and Father (by which they really mean the Mother) is a deceptively simple one, and any arguments for and against are usually run with high emotions on both sides.

Proponents of universal access to ECE argue that it provides a level playing field for all children, regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds. These two viewpoints represent the nerve that Sloan hit on (with no regard to subtlety).

Those who argue, like myself, for universal access to high-quality ECE programs with highly qualified teachers and educators are usually hit back with the same arguments.

“So you’re saying that you can only be a good parent if you have a degree?” “So you’re saying if I don’t send my child to childcare I’m making them stupid?”.

To be clear, as I so often have to be, I am certainly not saying either of those things. Do I believe that high-quality ECE can be of benefit in the long-term to children? Yes.

But I never attended childcare when I was a young child. I still did well in school, have a University degree (admittedly not from one that would meet with Judith Sloan’s approval) and have a great job in a sector I love.

My parents had no degrees in early childhood education, but helped set my brother and I up to work hard in our studies (primary, secondary and tertiary) and in our work.

However, I was extremely fortunate to have two well-educated, stable and loving parents with no mental health issues or disabilities. I was given every chance to be successful.

But we are part of a society where not every child has those same opportunities. Some children will grow up in challenging and disruptive environments, where their parents are suffering immense challenges of their own.

Advocating for universal access to ECE is about ensuring that any child, no matter the circumstances of their home life, can be given the same head start I was given.

Such a system would mean that any child could even have the opportunity to attend a first-rate, Judith Sloan-approved University!

Individually-focused learning through fun and play, targeted work on social skills and developing a love of learning can be of immeasurable benefit to young children. These are the focuses of the “Stalinist” National Quality Framework (NQF) for Early Childhood Education and Care.

The main document we use to support children’s learning, the Early Years Learning Framework, actually encourages children’s learning to be unique, individual and contextual to each child and their community. It asks educators to consider diverse perspectives when supporting children’s learning.

About as far away you can get from teaching every child to think and act the same.

The NQF is also there to ensure children’s health and safety – surely a reasonable ask when you consider that the latest figures show that over a million children are now in some form of ECE program.

Ireland’s loose system of regulation and minimal oversight has resulted in terrible outcomes for children, and has come under increased scrutiny.

Considering that we have a similar system of lowly-paid, overworked and as evidenced so clearly by Sloan also a disrespected workforce of educators and teachers, tight regulatory controls are an absolute necessity to ensure children are safe.

ECE is not about replacing parents. It’s about recognising that supporting young children to reach their potential can have significant benefits to society as a whole, including lifting families out of generational disadvantage.

These arguments will never convince conservatives like Sloan, who instinctually see any Government work with children as the worst form of socialism.

But for people like myself, dim-witted or not, our work with children is vitally important. All children deserve the best possible start in life, and we must continue to advocate for the work do.

This article is an updated version of an article originally published in 2013 by New Matilda.

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