When a government calls upon its people for ideas about how to fix a pressing policy problem, it is inevitable that the call will be answered by a variety of people, with a variety of opinions.
This was certainly the case for the Productivity’s Commission Childcare Inquiry, which closed for public submissions on Monday. Hundreds of submissions have been made to the Inquiry ranging from the learned (economic benefits of making childcare tax deductible) to the idealistic (free childcare for all with take home family dinners as part of the deal).
And then there are the truly mad ones. Like the one that suggests Australia should solve its childcare problem by importing Indonesian guest workers and paying them $1 an hour to mind our children. After all, it reasons, this would be better than “having a network of exorbitantly expensive childcare centres” that have the aim of “assimilating Protestant children into Catholic culture”. Of course this submission’s main objection to childcare centres is that “young women, who in previous generations would have raised children at home as unpaid housewives, [now] do the same thing and get paid for it.”
Given that this submission came from a political party called, somewhat optimistically, the Mainstream Party that requires members to be 100% heterosexual and wholly supportive of the White Australia Policy, it seems unlikely that these suggestions will be incorporated in the national childcare policy.
Despite many differences there is something that the majority of the submissions agree upon: that Australia does in fact have a childcare ‘problem’. Most define the problem around two key issues: there is not enough childcare (or early education and care as it is now more rightly called) and what exists is too expensive.
One country that seems to have fixed this problem quite neatly also happens to be that country with one of the best regarded school educational systems in the world: Finland.
Finland views childcare through a different lens than Australia does. To begin with, since 1996 each Finnish child has had the absolute right to a childcare place from eight months of age until they start school at age seven. This right is guaranteed by law and it exists regardless of whether their parents are in employment or not.
Why have the Finnish people chosen to make access to childcare so central to their citizens’ rights? Mostly, because childcare is not seen as a place to keep a child safe while its parents go off to work. Rather, it is viewed as a place where a child goes to learn (albeit through play) and to make friends with their peers.
What is even more amazing to Australian parents struggling to meet childcare bills is that Finnish childcare is price controlled. Most families pay no more than about 15% of their incomes and it is absolutely free for those on low incomes. All food and healthcare costs are included in this 15% cap.
Surely in a country where childcare costs families so little and each child is guaranteed a place, Finland must have a massive problem in meeting childcare demand?
Well, actually, no. The way childcare provision is organised is that it is the responsibility of each municipal (local) government to ensure there are enough places for the children of that municipality. They do this either by operating childcare centres or organising a sort of family day care system where qualified carers mind children in their own home, paid for by the local government. Of course each municipal government must meet national quality standards such as staff qualifications and ratios of educators to children as well as requirements ensuring parents’ rights to participate in the program.
Occasionally there will be, in some municipalities, occasions where demand outstrips supply. Some municipal governments chose to meet this by ‘buying’ places in private centres. This enables the local government to control the quality and the cost of care in those centres while still ensuring sufficient places for all children. The proportion of care provided by the private sector is thus very small. Most children attend centre based early education and care centres operated by their local government.
It is of no surprise then, that in 2007, Finland had the lowest employment gender gap of the EU with just less than 4% difference in employment rates for women and men. Australia’s by contrast sits at around 14%.
If Australia is serious about lifting the participation rates of women in this country and, even more importantly about making sure our children receive a word class education at the time they learn the most, we must fix our early education and care problem. Perhaps Finland is the place to look for ideas as to how.