Childcare and the ecology of childhood: Aligning policies for greater impact
Traditionally, the early childhood and care industry has received little attention by policy-makers. Transformations in post-modern expressions of family life (traditional, blended, single family), gender equality in the workplace as well as a greater understanding and recognition of the importance of early development for a positive life trajectory for children are seeing the sector grow exponentially. The revitalization and reform of early education and care requires generative policy-making encompassing a three-fold approach:
1. Policies must ensure all children procure the best start in life.
First, policies must follow a life-course approach. Herein we note the importance of holistic policy formulation through inter-sector collaboration integrating the various industries such as health, social affairs, education and labour for advancing human capital development. Secondly, policies must be nestled within empirical research and be evidence-based (i.e. meta-analysis, with full consideration of bias, sampling size, exogenous variables, methodology, validity and generalizability). Current neuroscience research suggests the first 1000 days are critical to the development of language, cognitive and socio-emotional capacities that are predictive of labour market outcomes in adult life. Early learning and care can mitigate inequalities of opportunity and enhance school attainment for children, particularly those of low social economic status. Children in OECD countries who attended preschool score on average 12 points higher in the PISA reading assessment (OECD and Statistics Canada 2011). The potential long term economic effects of early learning and care- benefit to cost ratio ranges from 6.4 to 17.6 (Brookings Institute). Thirdly, policies must promote an understanding of the socio-ecological system wherein the child is located and the diverse influences that impact children’s life trajectory. See diagram below.
2. Policies must power the early education and care industry as a whole
First, there must be public recognition of the valuable contribution to society the early education and care industry makes. Early childhood education does not only support child development, it also mitigates early learning risks for children as a result of trauma or adverse effects (i.e. immigration, war, violence, abuse) and thus promotes equality of opportunity for children at an early age. It also powers women's career advancement in the labour market through greater opportunities for access. Secondly, the professionalization of the early childhood sector merits review. Empowering and advancing the childcare workforce with standards of practice, a professional framework for specialized knowledge, skills and competencies, better compensation packages, and greater recognition of the profession as an essential service to the community will serve children and families well. Thirdly, the establishment and enactment into law of early learning frameworks focused on cultural capital development, coupled with environment and quality rating scales and best practices should be standard.
3. Policies that secure “choice” and a market-based system
First, whether family expressions are traditional, blended or single, more and more families are choosing childcare and early learning for their children. Moreover, as noted prior, the childcare industry is expected to grow as more and more women are joining the labour force, for factors other than financial ones. Establishing a strong sector that provides various options for care such as part-time, full-time, evening and weekends will support families’ values and employment needs, as well as promote greater gender equality in the workforce. Secondly, parental choice must be protected. Childcare must find its expression in a market-based framework where free choice is honoured rather than a government subsidized daycare system that seeks the institutionalization of children and a one-size-fits-all approach. Thirdly, incentivizing families and small businesses with tax structures and initiatives that favour parental choice of care, investment in early learning and care programming for children's optimum development, as well as childrearing (i.e. strong mat. leaves policies etc) is paramount.
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