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Banning giveaways won't stop early learning centres putting business first

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McNicholas, Liam
Publication Date: 
25 Sep 2018


Free iPads. Cut-price holidays. Mortgage payment contributions. Free petrol.

These are some of the "giveaways" that childcare centres are using to spruik their services: you could be forgiven for thinking enrolment drives have little to do with children's learning and a lot to do with luring parents through the door.

After a Brisbane centre advertised a $1,000 cash giveaway on Gumtree, federal Labor education spokeswoman Amanda Rishworth yesterday announced Labor would ban these "alarming" practices if elected, saying "Labor does not believe this in an appropriate use of taxpayer funds."

The taxpayer funds she's referring to is the almost $8 billion which will be paid to service providers by the Federal Government this financial year, designed to be passed on to parents as fee reductions (the new Child Care Subsidy).

We know that in previous years $1 billion of early education subsidies were ending up as profits for shareholders and landlords.

Should early education be a business?

Freebies and giveaways are nothing new — they've been common practice in the for-profit sector for years. And really, they're inevitable: turning early childhood education over to the market means that market practices will be used.

If you find these practices appalling, then it bears asking — if you don't think providers should use market-based practices to promote their business, should early education be a market-based business at all?

Giveaways are a symptom, not the underlying problem.

The "crackdown" proposed is a band-aid, not the radical surgery required to address the issue.
The Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety will be underway soon and we already know some of what it will reveal: services to vulnerable people were farmed out to the market to be more "efficient" and providers made lots of money at the expense of the people meant to benefit from these services.

We already know this story on early childhood education. As we learnt with the ABC Learning collapse, the desire to expand, increase enrolments and make money for shareholders put children's interests a distant second. When the chain, which had more than 1,100 centres at its height, finally fell over, taxpayers were left holding the multibillion-dollar bill.

More radical change needed

Today 47 per cent of early education providers are private for-profit. Providing subsidies to businesses in a market-based system, then getting annoyed when they obey market forces and try to sell services to people, is problematic at best.

These inducement practices should be addressed. But banning this specific practice is only a small part of the job. The next step is for politicians to be courageous and ask whether we can continue to allow such an important service, provided to members of our community who are — just like our elderly — at higher risk of vulnerability, to be left to the market.

If we're not OK with business running early education like a business, then we need to say so.
Then, we need to do something about it.

Liam McNicholas is an early childhood teacher who oversees professional leadership and practice for Northside Community Service, a not-for-profit that operates four early childhood centres.

Entered Date: 
25 Sep 2018
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