Early childhood learning and the Free Kindergarten Union

And so we have entered the age of kindergarten and childcare after the boom and bust of Eddy Grove’s ABC Learning Centres, a company that reported a record after-tax profit of $81.1 million in 2006. The stock market-listed childcare that operated 2300 facilities across four countries collapsed in 2008 owing owing creditors more than $2.7 billion.

We’ve known since the 1970s that adequate childcare is at the heart of women’s liberation. As the Australian feminist philosopher Jean Curthoys wrote in 1976: ‘Only if the pattern of child care is completely changed can the mass of women be free.’

But providing kindergartens and childcare centers isn’t only about women’s liberation. Oh no. And sandpits, play-dough and see-saws do not just provide massive benefits to chubby fingered-toddlers in terms of childhood development.

No. It’s about the economy. Yes, seriously, really.

Quality, affordable, guilt-free childcare is of crucial importance to the Australian economy. And that should make some people in suits sit up and pay attention.

A study commissioned by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2012 found that ‘narrowing the gap between male and female employment rates will boost the GDP in Australia by 11%’ and that ‘minimizing the gender productivity gap, for example, by increasing the number of women in leadership positions, will boost the level of economic activity in Australia by 20%.’

And when considering that Australia’s GDP is approximately $1.372 trillion as of January 2013, it seems astronomically short-sighted and economically inefficient not to pay closer attention to mechanisms allowing women to rejoin the workforce after childbirth.

We have long known that quality, affordable, guilt-free childcare is at the heart of women’s participation in the workplace – but we now also know it’s also of crucial importance to the economy.

And yet, far too many people who attempt to find suitable childcare have horror stories of huge waiting lists, understaffed and low-quality centers, and high fees.

Yet it wasn’t always like this.

Once upon a time, many kindergartens in Victoria operated not just six hours a week but all day long, five days a week. Hot meals were distributed at lunchtime by the staff. And unlike today, the kindergartens were free.

From the Age on 1 November 1938:

The archives show the Free Kindergarten Union (FKU) operated approximately 32 kindergartens in the 1930s. It began by setting up kindergartens in the areas of Victoria  polite society considered to be the most socio-economically disadvantaged.

Whereas Eddie Grove’s early learning centers leeched funds from parents – and then drove itself into the ground with greed ­– the FKU of the 1930’s saw itself less as an industry, but rather a means to an end to allow parents to work and a space to provide social development for children. Furthermore, the FKU wasn’t slugging parents with huge charges either.

The FKU was revolutionary, both by the standards of 1908 when it launched – and compared to the kindergartens of today. The volunteers with the FKU placed pressure on government and powerful members of society to demand clean and caring environments for early childhood education. Additionally, the FKU trained teachers and ensured medical and dental care for pre-school aged children.

During the Second World War, the FKU enabled women to support the war effort. Even during the war, hot meals were provided to malnourished children, as well as the children of working women. Free milk was provided to the rest of the class. The FKU provided adequate childcare to allow women to fill war-time labor shortages.

After the end of the war, a waiting list developed. Since the FKU had primarily targeted areas with socio-economic disadvantage when setting up their first kindergartens, these centers were overstretched by an influx of war refugees. Socialite soirees and afternoon bridge game fundraisers simply couldn’t cover the needs of many families wanting access to childcare without additional government support.

In recent years government funding has again inadequately covered the expanding needs of the population, and many parents struggle to find places for children on over-crowded waiting lists.

Today, public kindergarten spaces in Victoria are available for less than half amount of  hours that FKU’s centers were open in the 1930s.

Yet the Victorian Department of Education considers it a success that they plan to offer early learning centers fifteen hours a week of additional funding for kindergarten aimed at four-year old children.

Similarly in the US, there was a recent round of applause after the Obama administration proposed ‘that the federal government work with states to provide preschool for every 4-year-old from low- and moderate-income families.’

Frankly, it feels meagre. Parents could demand so much more.

In 1971 the United States Congress passed Senator Mondale’s Comprehensive Child Development Bill with a Senate vote of 63 to 17.

The Bill would have made ‘quality preschool education available to every family in the United States that wanted it. Everybody. The federal government would set standards and provide backup services like meals and medical and dental checkups.’

The 1971 Bill, with its broad bi-partisan support would have ensured a multi-billion dollar national day care system, allowing single parents to work and provide care for children simultaneously, alleviating strain on the welfare system.

President Richard Nixon vetoed the bill in 1972, for fear such a program would be deemed ‘Communistic’.

This short-sightedness robbed the U.S. not only of adequate early childhood education, but of the economic benefits of ensuring mothers have the necessary childcare available to  allow them to rejoin the workforce.

The squawking moral conservatives and dour-lipped politickers who refuse to consider better government funding and development of childcare would also do well to examine the recent research by Dr Noni Harris and Beth Tinning into childcare and women’s participation in the workplace.

Seventy in-depth, qualitative interviews with Australian families found the current ‘economic rationalist imperative both supports women’s labour force participation (as low paid workers) and the for-profit child care industry, and conflicts with underlying conservative moral narratives about women as mothers. The result has been directionless and contradictory child care policies and services that women negotiate at considerable cost to themselves and their families.’

Put simply, the research showed Australian women are expected to work for peanuts, pay high prices for childcare and feel guilty about going back to work – while commentators wonder why there isn’t greater participation of women in the workforce.

Women’s liberation and the rights of toddlers to early childhood education may not be everyone’s cup of tea – but even the most dour economists need to seriously consider  the economic imperatives of early childhood education reform in terms of gender-based work-place participation and the impact on the GDP.

The waiting lists, the shoddy service provision, the sheer number of parent-run sausage sizzles to ensure survival of public kindergartens and the expansion of pricey private childcare providers signals an community sector in  continuing crisis.

Eddy Grove’s ABC Early Learning Centres bust-up should have provided the Australian government with a huge wake-up call. Sadly, the lack of sage policy development and  lack of serious funding for the sector signals otherwise.

I’d like to say ‘our children deserve more’ or but I suspect far too many bureaucrats simply do not give damn. So instead I’ll appeal to those whose bottom line is the economic imperative.

Lack of appropriate childcare is the single greatest barrier to women’s participation in the workplace ­– and narrowing the gap between male and female employment rates will boost the  Australian GDP by 11 percent.

If we’re really serious about making the workplace open to everyone, we need childcare that is accessible to all who need it.

It’s time to cease shunting responsibility for childcare between public fundraisers and private providers. It’s time to make quality childcare and early childhood education accessible, affordable and guilt-free.

Simply put, we can’t afford not to do so.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Journalist, information-activist, and commentator, Asher Wolf has been described as a 'twitter journalist' by the Sydney Morning Herald, and 'one of the key activists across the world in coordinating news and information relating to breaking the old information hegemony', by Swedish Pirate Party founder Rick Falkvinge. A prolific user of Twitter, Asher is a contributor to New Matilda and a member of the Australian MEAA journalist’s union. She’s also the founder of the CryptoParty movement, with events promoting personal privacy and cryptography in over 60 locations around the world. Boho feral, feminist and fascinated by the implications of all things machine and geek, Asher Wolf is tinkering at the crossroads of government transparency, personal privacy, journalism, social media, technology and activism.

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  1. Surely it’s up to corporations and private workplaces, in partnership with federal and/or state governments, to provide for and make quality childcare and early childhood education accessible (and monetarily free as well as guilt-free), rather than simply affordable. Particularly if, as also stated in the piece, such a move would be a push toward an equalisation of male / female employment rates as well as provide a significant GDP boost.

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