There has been a spate of recent media reports concerning appalling conduct by workers in United States early education settings. Many of these reports have been picked up and shared by media outlets in Australia.
The headlines are shocking. “Childcare worker hailed after drugging kids”. “Mothers claim daycare waxed their toddlers’ eyebrows”. They have rightly prompted shock and outrage, both in the US and here in Australia. You’ve probably seen them being shared on social media, particularly on Facebook.
These incidents didn’t happen in Australian services. The United States system for early education, which is still very much seen as just “childcare” in that country, has a very limited and state-specific approach to regulation – even when it concerns children’s health and safety. The New Republic published a long article looking at the state of the system four years ago, and called it simply “The Hell of American Day Care“.
It’s not that much of an exaggeration.
So when these articles are re-published here by reputable news outlets like ABC News and the Sydney Morning Herald, does this have an impact on the Australian early childhood sector?
The headlines (in all but one case I could find) do not refer to the fact that these incidents did not happen in Australia. We know that social media habits tend to focus on just absorbing the headline and the most shocking facts – not getting all the detail from the article. There may be many families, or even educators, out there who believe that those incidents did happen somewhere in Australia.
We also know that despite being in operation for over 6 years, the National Quality Framework hasn’t had much of an impact on family attitudes to early education. Headlines and articles like this certainly don’t help, and may do actual damage. What are the community more likely to read? The new Lifting Our Game report on how important access to early education is, or a quick story about children being drugged that’s popped into their feed? Is that likely to improve their view of the sector?
The other disappointing thing about these local versions of the articles is that they fail in any way to highlight how different Australia is from the United States in how we regulate services, and work to ensure children’s safety. The NQF is viewed around the world as one of the best regulatory systems for children’s services. Yes, incidents will still happen in Australian services, but nowhere near the extent to which stories like this are regular occurrences in the United States.
Where incidents that affect children’s health and safety occur here, they are dealt with under a regulatory system that ensures organisations and services improve their overall approach. Given the numbers of children attending children’s services in Australia – around 1.4 million – the numbers of children harmed in services are incredibly low.
The Australian media have a responsibility to not just report things that happen, but provide context and additional information for the community. The benefit of telling those stories would be in highlighting how much better our regulatory system is.
Without providing that crucial information, all these stories do is make it harder for us to let the community know how important early education is.