Parent choice of early childhood education and care services (free full-text available)

Karen Noble
University of Southern Queensland

This paper reports on a study designed to enhance knowledge and understanding of parent choice in relation to early childhood education and care (ECEC) services. It investigates the ways parents make their choices of early childhood services and examines and interprets the meanings they ascribe to those choices. An orthodox grounded theory analysis of interviews with parents was conducted to elicit the knowledge bases parents draw on as they make judgements about the early childhood services they access for their children. This investigation informs ECEC professionals about the variations in the ways parents make choices for their young children. Specifically, there is a strong sense of the influence of social context and existing beliefs and understandings. However, equally importantly, parent choice is also strongly influenced by more pragmatic concerns. Therefore, choice of ECEC service is both complex and pragmatic.


Young children benefit from experiences and environments that build on their life-world. Different types of children's services provide different types of experiences (Brannen & Moss, 2002; Dahlberg, Moss & Pence, 2002; Fleer, 2000; Moss, 2003; Rodd, 1996; Smith, 1994; Stonehouse, 1994; Vincent, Ball, Kemp & Radcliffe, 2002). When choosing an ECEC service, parents make decisions about, and select from, a range of such services. While parents may not be able to choose their 'ideal' or perceived most 'effective' ECEC service, their decisions are based on a number of factors. An understanding of these factors should inform future policy reform. Therefore this study investigates the variation in ways that parents choose ECEC services.

Presently in Australia, at both state and national levels of government, it has been proposed that flexible and integrated service models will better meet the changing needs of the family (Commonwealth Department of Family and Community Services, 1999; Commonwealth Government, 2004; Queensland Government, 1997, 2000, 2002; Walker, 2004). As a result, the nature of public services for young children is receiving much attention (Council of Australian Governments, 1995; Queensland Government, 2000). In 2002, the Queensland Government released a policy document, Queensland the smart state: Education and training reforms for the future (Queensland Government, 2002), which emphasised the need to pay closer attention to consumer needs and expectations in education and training. Individual parents were considered to have the capacity to select the 'best' service(s) for their child and family. This notion of 'parents-as-consumers' originated during the quasi-marketisation of ECEC during the 1990s (Brennan, 1999). In the international arena, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) (2001), for example, has advocated for the engagement of parents in policy and service development. In the international arena, the co-location of a variety of integrated, flexible services for children has gained momentum (OECD, 2001). These recent policy initiatives have not addressed the ways parents of young children choose ECEC services, nor the reasons for their choices. Thus it is possible that the needs and interests of parents and their children may be marginalised within such a system. It has been argued that 'how we understand children and make public provision for them involves [both] political and ethical choices' (Moss & Petrie, 2002, p. 2). To date, however, decisions have been made at a political level without reference to how parents understand and choose ECEC services.

A more collective discourse is necessary, one of 'taking part' (Marginson, 1995; Rizvi, 1995), where parents are not viewed as mere consumers but as participants in policy and service development, thus emphasising a vision of community where collective decision-making and participatory citizenship are valued (Marginson, 1995). Specifically in the ECEC arena, such a vision may allow for a range of different services to be made available to young children and their families. However, policy-makers and parents would work together to ensure that engagement occurred. This collaboration would redress some of the assumptions about parent understandings and expectations.

Although these two discourses of 'parent as consumer of services' and 'parent as participant in services' may appear to be contradictory in nature, both currently exist within the Australian ECEC context (Marginson, 1995). However, little is known about how parents understand ECEC services and how they make the choice of service(s) for their young children.

The main aim of this study was, therefore, to investigate the different ways parents conceptualised the ECEC services they chose for their children. Specifically, the study focused on how parents' understandings of such services influenced their choice. Although the findings of this particular study may be specific to a location, sample and time, it is anticipated that they will stimulate further investigations into parental choice and expectations across the wider ECEC professional field.

The central research questions of this study were:

  1. What are parent conceptions of early childhood services?
  2. How do parents choose ECEC services?
This paper reports the findings associated with the second of these questions.

Demographic location of the study

The community that was the focus of the study is located approximately 550 kilometres north of Brisbane and is at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef. The nearest major regional centre has a population of 30,000 and is 25 kilometres away. The community has a population of approximately 3500 (Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS], 2002a); the majority of the residents are employed as smelter workers or in supply industries (92.9%) (ABS, 2002a). The median weekly family income is between $1000–1199 and the mean household size is 2.9 persons (ABS, 2002a). It can be seen that there is a low unemployment rate, with a relatively high level of family income.

Within the shire, 54.2 per cent of families and households consist of couples with children, 34.4 per cent of families are couples without children, 10.9 per cent of households are one-parent families and 0.5 per cent comprises the category of other families (ABS, 2002b). There are four ECEC services: two licensed long day care centres (one catering for children from six weeks of age, the other for children from age 12 months) as well as two state preschool centres.


Single, semi-structured interviews were conducted with 23 parents from a regional area of central Queensland, exploring their experiences of choosing ECEC services. The sample comprised mothers only, although mothers and fathers were invited initially to participate. Parents were drawn from four local ECEC services operating in the area. Nine mothers had used only one service, whereas 14 had accessed more than one. Interviews were recorded and transcribed verbatim.

Two qualitative research approaches were used: phenomenography and grounded theory. The phenomenographic stage of the study identified what parents understood ECEC services to be, while the orthodox grounded theory stage of the study described how parents went about choosing a service for their child and, as previously stated, is the focus of this paper. The use of mixed methods in this study allowed for understanding the parents' perspectives through different lenses—'a strategy that adds rigor, breadth, complexity, richness and depth to [the] inquiry' (Denzin & Lincoln, 2000, p. 5).

Orthodox grounded theory is used to analyse the interview data and investigates the 'socially significant practices of individuals' (Chaiklin, 1993, p. 384). It is an inductive research methodology capable of theory building and is suited to research that explores the symbolic negotiations among actors within a defined field (Glaser, 1978, 1998, 2001). In other words, grounded theory explores how people define reality and how their beliefs are related to their actions. In this case, symbolic negotiations are understood as being representative of the interactions between the person and the context. The context is ECEC services, the actors are parents and the focus of analysis is their choice of service.


The orthodox grounded theory analysis indicated that parent choice of ECEC services is complex. While parents are influenced by their social context and their existing beliefs and understandings, they are also influenced by more pragmatic concerns. The complexity of life in regional communities at this particular time and place necessitates decision-making based on pragmatic considerations as well as more idealistic notions. For example, as Jenks (1996) argues, the speed of social change, coupled with a sense of insecurity, discontinuity, uncertainty and the shrinking of the global village, characterises this era. As such, the symptoms of change tend to favour pragmatism over idealism. The social context in the community in this study may well be complex, and the choices parents make echo that complexity as well as the pragmatics of their situation.

The theory developed to describe this process of choosing an ECEC service, within this location is: Parents make complex and pragmatic choices within social contexts. The analysis of the data developed new theoretical understandings of the pragmatic choices that emphasise demographic convenience, availability and hearsay. For example, no parent indicated that they would choose an ECEC service on the basis of suitability for each individual child in their family. Rather, parents were more likely to make pragmatic decisions that did not add to the complexities they were already facing in their lives.

Core category

Parents of young children made their decision about their choice of ECEC services within their social contexts. They considered the local context, opinions of others, and availability and suitability of services in order to reach their final decision. Utilising the category criteria developed by Glaser (1978), the core category of contextual understandings and influences on choice of ECEC service is evidenced by the recurrence of themes throughout the interview transcripts.

Contextual understandings and influences relate to the conceptual understandings of the meaning of choice of ECEC services expressed by parents. This core category describes the phenomenon of parent choice within this Queensland context. While the work of Rogoff (1990, 2003) is framed by a Vygotskian perspective, the approach of this study concurs with her work in relation to her notion of the impact of one's cultural context, and is a useful means of highlighting the ways social context impacts upon choice-making. Therefore it is reasonable to argue that contextual understandings and influences work to produce the choices parents make within particular cultural and social contexts. The themes representing the meanings of choice of ECEC services are described in terms of sub categories and are discussed in the following section.


Each of the four subcategories describes different ways in which parents discuss the choices they have made in relation to choosing ECEC services. The four subcategories are labelled:

  1. parent relationship with the child
  2. influence of significant others
  3. parent understandings of childhood
  4. maximising the child's potential.

These categories generate an understanding of the social processes parents engaged in when they made decisions about ECEC services.

1. Parent choice is influenced by their relationship with the child

Indicators: Assessing needs of their child and family Responding to reaction of the child

This category describes the ways parent choice was influenced by the parents' assessment of the needs of the child and the family and how the child's reactions impacted on that choice. Parents considered many different factors, including their child's needs, interests and abilities at the time; how the service catered and responded to the needs of the family; and how the child responded to the particular ECEC service. Thus, the relationship between family needs and the child's needs was a significant factor. McKim (2000), whose Canadian research examined the demand, use and satisfaction with childcare services by parents, highlights this understanding when postulating 'psychological and social characteristics of families play a significant role in childcare choice' (p. 147). Additionally, McKim argues that parents choose an ECEC service that supports the unique needs of the children within families.

Parents were of the view that it was important for the ECEC service to be able to respond to the child in an individualised manner; how the staff in the centre interacted with the child was highlighted. Parents observed that the child's individual needs were recognised, and therefore felt confident in leaving the child in that environment. The parent was also aware of, and comfortable with, the teacher's ability to cope with the challenge of responding to individual needs. According to Elliott (2003), parents identify pedagogic approaches they think will facilitate the education and care of their child. Furthermore, one parent described the importance of the ECEC service being able to cater to the specific age group in a particular way. Parents are seeking an ECEC service that caters to the individual child in an individualised and age-appropriate manner.

Parents expressed the idea that the needs of the child changed with age and that it was necessary for the ECEC service to recognise and cater for them. This notion of changing needs according to age is consistent with Bennett (2001) in light of observations of infant-toddler and preschool centres in Reggio Emilia, Italy, where it is seen to be extremely important that children's changing needs, interests and abilities are recognised and catered for. Some parents chose the ECEC service based on their perceptions of how that environment was able to cater to all aspects of their child's development, including the needs of the child at different ages. Such understandings of the child are influenced by both psychological and sociological rhetoric that works to produce particular understandings of childhood and the needs of children at particular ages (Dahlberg, Moss & Pence, 2002; Moss, 2003; Prout, 2003).

Parents' choice of service was also influenced by the way the ECEC service was seen to be able to cater to their family needs. They perceived that it was important for the family, as a whole, to be welcomed and accepted. This finding is consistent with the National Childcare Accreditation Council (2002) Quality Improvement and Accreditation System Handbook, where the establishment of a relationship between parents and professionals, based on mutual respect, remains fundamental to the notion of quality in child care. Parents believed that being welcome as a family in the ECEC service was extremely important to the development of such a relationship.

Parents also looked to choose an ECEC service that was both understanding and accepting of different family structures. The way the family is perceived and, therefore, the way the ECEC service accepts and accommodates the family, have a profound influence on how the family participates in that service (McKim, 2000). Parents recognised that the centre staff developed a respectful relationship with the family, one that enveloped difference and diversity. This was an important influence on their choice.

The needs of each member of the family are important. Parents sometimes considered their own needs when choosing the ECEC service, as well as those of their children. In this instance, the choice of ECEC service met the socialisation needs of the parent as well as the child. The service may not be chosen in the first place with the parent's own needs in mind; rather, the parents' increased social opportunity may be an unanticipated outcome. As stated, parents also described choice of ECEC service more pragmatically, in terms of how the service best suited their familial needs, not necessarily their child's needs.

Some parents expressed their choice as being influenced by convenience of location or proximity to home or workplace. Parents also looked for an ECEC service that was able to offer a transport service.

Another pragmatic influence on parent choice of ECEC services was one of availability—being able to place the child on the days that best suited the parent. McKim's (2000) research supports this notion, when she demonstrates that:

What goes on inside childcare settings is less influential to parental decision making than are external variables such as family demographics, and social and cultural issues … internal family dynamics also play a major role in the demand, use of, and satisfaction with childcare services. (p. 7)

Parents described the existing relationships in their particular family as being an important influence upon their choice of ECEC service. Parents took account of the child's affective behaviour, in terms of their child's acceptance and willingness to attend a particular ECEC service chosen for them. They not only considered the child's non-verbal responses to the ECEC services, but also the child's positive reaction to their attendance at the service. Moss and Petrie (2002) support the idea of children participating actively in their world of essential relationships and activities, with the notion that children have rights as part of their social group.

Within this subcategory, parents highlighted the ways in which their choice of ECEC service was mediated by how the service was perceived to meet the needs of their child as well as those of their family. They were looking for a service that was able to treat the child as an individual while at the same time accepting and catering to the needs of their family. In making their decision regarding which service best met these needs, parents were guided by how the child reacted to attending the service.

2. Parent choice is influenced by significant others outside the family

Indicators: Balancing options Expression of previous experiences Maximising opportunities

Data analysis revealed that parent choice was influenced by the opinion of others within the social context. In this instance, parents gathered information about the attributes of different ECEC services and how other parents have experienced those services. They sought opinions of other parents rather than gaining information from a direct source. Their choice of service was guided by hearsay, rather than making a choice independently according to market information available.

Gaining the opinions of others who had utilised the ECEC service was important to parents. Parents commented on how their initial impressions influenced their choice, after they had gathered information from other parents in the community. However, their own positive emotional response to the service further supported their decisions.

Having sufficient information from indirect sources was also seen to be important in drawing comparisons between different ECEC services. The hearsay present in the community was a powerful tool employed by parents; in this case mothers. This notion is supported by both Brennan (1998) and Ruddick (1997), who found that the wellbeing of children constitutes a classic sphere of activity for cooperative and creative action.

Parents also commented on how their choice of ECEC service was not only influenced by the verbal comments of others in the community but also by the actions of other parents. This is indicative of how important hearsay was to parents in making such a critical choice.

The opinions and perceptions of other parents in relation to how they had understood their own child's development and learning were also important considerations. In this category, parent choice of ECEC services was guided by input from others about the best options available.

3. Parent choice is influenced by their understandings of childhood

Indicators: Expression of personal values

The parents were influenced by what they wished childhood to be like for their children. They then sought to choose an ECEC service that appeared to hold similar perspectives. This view concurs with a study conducted by Elliott (2003) in the western area of Sydney, where the interconnectedness between centre and home was seen to be an important criterion for parents assessing the quality of services for young children.

Parents viewed ECEC services as providing opportunities for their children to feel secure, comfortable and stimulated, while at the same time making connections between the home and centre environments. One value identified by parents as important was the opportunity for their child to actively engage in the environment. There was evidence that they chose the ECEC service with this in mind.

Parents also suggested that it was important for staff to share their values about childhood and ensure that their child was comfortable in the environment of the centre. The need for the development of a positive, supportive relationship between the ECEC staff and the family has been emphasised by Honig (1998), who states 'rapport and good will through specific attention to close positive communication between staff and parents in ECEC services is essential' (p. 18). Parents expressed the view that it is important for the staff to have a particular disposition to their child and to their work with young children. The way the staff communicated with the children, as well as with the family, was another important consideration.

Moreover, formal qualifications were an important factor in parent choice of ECEC services. It was perceived that qualified staff had a better understanding of children and an ability to work more effectively in the service. Ball (2003) attests to this perception, stating that 'teachers are subject to judgements, measurements, comparisons and targets… there is a sense of being constantly judged in different ways, by different means, according to different criteria through different agents and agencies' (p. 220). In Ball's terms, parents (and other individuals and groups) judge, measure and compare the teacher according to the criteria of training and qualifications.

In this category, parent choice of ECEC service is influenced by the way that service attends to how parents wish their child to experience the environment. The staff and the environment are deemed important elements, ensuring that the ECEC service in fact mirrors the personal values of parents.

4. Parent choice is influenced by their perceived maximising of the child's potential

Indicators: Assessing and maximising potential

The parents' choice of service was based on what that particular service appeared to be able to provide in order that their child reach the outcomes the parents expected. Parents may view the role of ECEC services as spaces for promoting development, ensuring readiness to learn and readiness for school, and enhancing school performance (Moss, 2003). Therefore the choice of ECEC service can be influenced by the perceived ability of that service to focus on such aspects.

It is evident that parents also value the way the ECEC service emphasises the autonomy of the child, as well as the importance of play to maximise learning. Parents also focused on the need for the child to be viewed and treated as an individual, and they expressed the idea that the physical environment, and the resources provided within that environment, needed to allow children to develop independence in order to maximise their potential.

Parents felt that the child's individuality, as well as their ability to act as part of a social group, were important aspects to consider when choosing a service. Studies have shown that children in some ECEC services generally are not only high achievers but that they also have a positive self-image and high self-esteem (McKim, 1993; Powell, 1998). Therefore, in choosing an ECEC service, parents are looking for a service that assists the child's development in these areas.

Parents acted as agents in the home environment. That is, expectations and experiences from the ECEC service were reinforced in the home. According to Kienig (1999), this reinforcement is considered an important way of preparing children for the transition from home to the institution; in this instance the ECEC service. Parents appeared to acknowledge that transition from one environment to another is significant and that children need effective support during these times.

This subcategory highlights the way parent choice of ECEC service was influenced by how that service was able to assess and maximise their child's potential. Factors deemed important in achieving potential were the flexibility of the curriculum, particularly in relation to the age of the children; the physical environment; and how the parent was able to make links with the home environment.


The accounts of the parents interviewed about their choice of ECEC service, and the subsequent orthodox grounded theory analysis of the data, demonstrated that the social context of the community impacted on the choice process. A significant issue that came to light was that marketing did not appear to inform choice of ECEC service, contrary to what is suggested in the literature (Fleer, 2000; Vincent et al., 2002). Rather, local knowledge had a significant influence on the choice process. The impact of significant others outside the family was a recurrent theme throughout the interviews.

Parents also highlighted the fact that, at times, their choice of ECEC service was mediated by pragmatic concerns. They chose services that met the practical needs of their family in terms of co-location of children, affordability and demographic convenience. Therefore, while parents may hold an idealistic perspective of what they wish for in an ECEC service, they may not find it in their local community, and thus make their choice based on availability instead. Some parents make their choice based on pragmatic considerations alone, as meeting the needs of the family is deemed to be most important. What is evident is that, because of the limited number and range of ECEC services in particular locations, the ECEC market can rely heavily on the opinions and perceptions of other parents already using, or who have previously experienced, the service. In some locations, parents are left to choose a service that 'best fits' their expectations, rather than one flexible enough to meet their changing agendas. Therefore one can assume that in some instances ECEC services are less responsive to forces of marketisation, leaving parents instead to employ different strategies to assist them in choosing a service.


Parents in this study demonstrated multiple ways of constructing and interpreting meaning in local ECEC services. Their understandings of ECEC services varied; so did the way they chose such services for their young children. At a macro level, one may argue that such individualised decision-making is mythical, given that we, as individuals, operate within a society influenced by external social forces (Dahlberg, et al, 2002; Moss, 2003; Moss & Petrie, 2002; Prout, 2003). That is to say, the way parents understood and chose ECEC services was framed by social constraints of local service provision.

Rinaldi makes a similar point, in an interview with Gandini, when examining the construction of childhood in Reggio Emilia, Italy, when she says 'childhood does not exist, we create it as a society, as a public subject. It is a social, political and historical construction' (Gandini, 1998, p. 115). In this way, the purposes of ECEC services are not necessarily self-evident. Instead, such purposes can be understood as being inextricably linked to how we understand childhood and to the image of the child at any given time. ECEC services can be viewed as social constructions embodying thoughts, conceptions and ethics that prevail at a given moment in a given society (Dahlberg, et al., 2002). Therefore, each parent's understandings and choice of ECEC services are constructed within a wider social context in which public provision of such services is made and must be accounted for in developing and reforming future ECEC policy and provision.


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Australian Journal of Early Childhood Volume 32 No 2 June 2007, pp. 51-57.

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