The Prime Minister’s Parent and Child Centres proposal drew immediate support yesterday from key groups like the Community Child Care Association, Playgroup Australia and the child care industry peak body. However, today it drew fire from the Centre for Independent Studies in The Australian. Brown and Saunders criticised the proposal on somewhat esoteric, CISsy type grounds such as the impact on social capital, the weakening of the non-government sector and the further centralisation of power in the Commonwealth.

But there are more practical grounds for wondering how the Centres would actually operate, and what their benefits would be.

The point of the proposal, the one-stop-shop aspect, is that educational, care and health services for under-fives would be co-located. This sort of co-location approach is similar to the logic of Labor’s commitment to GP super clinics, which, by bringing together a range of specialist services in one centre, would enable greater coordination of care, reduced overheads, more convenience for patients and greater throughput.

That works fine in relation to the grouping of similar services. But education and child care are very different to health services, and the maths isn’t complementary. According to the ABS there are about 266,000 births a year. Over a year, and across the existing 5000+ child care centres, that’s very few maternal and infant health checks to be undertaken at each Centre. Even if Centres were centralised into mega-facilities, that would still mean nurses would be shuttling around Centres – each of which would need to have the appropriate medical infrastructure put in place – every day. The existing community health centres, where you can take your baby to be checked and weighed, and be assured that you’re not the most clueless parent ever, will still need to be retained for parents not using the Centres.

And just how much convenience comes from being able to have your baby checked and immunised in the same place as your child care? Some, perhaps, but given the cost, is it worth it?

There’s also the problem of exposing babies, particularly those being immunised, to the wondrous opportunities for infection provided in even the best child care environments. Not to mention that many parents tend to use several types and locations of child care as their kids grow up and their own employment changes; the flexibility of more dispersed childcare services is likely to be lost if big, department-store style Parent and Child Centres proliferate.

In supporting the proposal, Childcare Associations Australia emphasised the need for greater coordination of child services policy across the different sectors and service types that provide them. Greater coordination – which sounds bureaucratic and non-visionary – might be a more effective approach than trying to weld two entirely different types of services together into a single location.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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