Family Values V The Stalinist Straightjacket


What began as a short, strange and fairly callous Catallaxy Files post by Judith Sloan on childcare workers, who she called “dim-witted” educators from “second-rate universities”, has reached national attention thanks to her appearance on Q and A.

It hardly seems worth going into Sloan’s lack of evidence (not to mention lack of an apology). But it’s worth taking a slightly more serious look at her published thoughts, as they showcase the fairly common conservative perspective on early childhood education.

Sloan’s use of the term “Stalinist straightjacket” is telling. The notion of universal access early childhood education (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 day).

Anything outside of that, particularly when it is run or funded by government, is a form of social engineering, designed to produce little leftists. The “second-rate universities” Sloan casually slights are also often accused of being socialist factories.

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

On the other hand, proponents of universal access to ECE argue that it provides a level playing field for all children, regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds. When we argue for universal access to highly qualified teachers and educators, we get hit with the same arguments time and again:

“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.

I never attended childcare when I was a young child. I still did well in school, have a degree (admittedly not from one that would meet with 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.

Not every child has these opportunities. Some children will grow up in 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 start. Such a system would mean that any child may even have the opportunity to attend a first-rate, 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. It almost makes me wonder whether Sloan bothered to check it out all.

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 is rightly coming under increased scrutiny.

Considering that we have a similar low-paid, overworked and 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 I will continue to advocate for the work do.

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