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I had been in Ireland on research leave for just under a month when a news story caught my attention. A prime-time television investigation of a Dublin-based childcare chain was due to air, ominously titled ‘Creches, Behind Closed Doors’. The story cast a critical lens not only on the service in question, but on all aspects of the regulation, funding and development of the sector. In the week leading up to the documentary, my family members and neighbours debated whether or not they would watch it at all. For many the prospect was too emotionally confronting, confirming their worst suspicions about care conditions in a fast-developing sector. At the same time social media feeds were humming with the voices of childcare workers pleading with parents to not assume this case was reflective of the entire sector. “Don’t tar us all with the same brush – We love the children as our own”, was the message. Emotions were running high. In the midst of writing the book, it was a sharp reminder that commodified childcare is a high stakes endeavour. Childcare is an emotionally charged domain, as are all spheres which concern the care of the most vulnerable in society. However, childcare is also now big business, bringing into sharp relief the long-standing tensions between profit making and care giving (Folbre and Nelson, 2000; Tronto, 2013). The significant growth in demand for childcare across the OECD over the past 20 years (OECD, 2016b) has given rise to more providers operating at larger economies of scale than ever before.

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The previous chapter opened out the analysis of childcare markets to the work of property investment practices as a means of illustrating the infrastructural role they now play. Continuing to develop the conceptual argument of childcare markets as shaped by the rationales and logics of other kinds of economic actors, who are relatively invisible in the existing work on childcare, this chapter turns attention to software companies. Over the duration of the research I have been afforded the opportunity to document the changing face of some key aspects of childcare technology in New Zealand (Gallagher, 2018a). One of these frontiers has been the childcare management software sector, which has experienced an expeditious uptake within childcare centres in particular. Like other topics addressed in this book, this trend is not particular to the New Zealand childcare market. Indeed, the growth of childcare management software companies is a notable development within most advanced childcare markets over the past 15 years. An industry report from the US has projected the continuous expansion of their domestic market for the software, anticipated to be worth US$293 million by 2027 (Reportlinker, 2019), in large part due to the integration of artificial intelligence into these platforms. A brief internet search for childcare management software reveals pages of international tech companies all pertaining to offer the latest, most integrated software package for providers. Although expeditious in its uptake, the development of the childcare management software market in New Zealand is not a Silicon Valley style rise to prominence.

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In the introductory chapter I outlined my working definition of state-led marketization, as one way to apprehend how states are involved in the active construction of markets to solve social problems. Moving forward, this chapter will develop a framework through which to explore state-led marketization in action, drawing on the conceptual language of a broader social science literature called the Social Studies of Marketization (SSM) (Callon, 2007a; Muniesa et al, 2007; Berndt and Boeckler, 2012). This work, largely housed in the domains of cultural economy, economic sociology and economic geography, seeks to take markets as an object of study, paying analytical attention to the everyday, mundane practices and objects which are involved in their construction. While care markets have not tended to be a focus of research in this field, with commodity and financial markets dominating analyses, I suggest that SSM offers a conceptually sophisticated language to open the black box of childcare, and other care markets, to more engaged scrutiny. Bringing the literature on childcare markets into conversation with the insights of SSM, this chapter will lay out an alternative approach which seeks to better account for the dynamic and often unseen work involved in their creation. In doing so I will move from a critique of markets as an ideology or ‘handmaiden’ of neoliberalism as outlined in Chapter 1, to markets as an object of study in their own right.

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In the previous chapters I explored what state-led marketization looks like at its core. This work detailed the active strategies of the state in the formation of key calculative agencies (parent consumers, workers and providers), the related attempts to pacify childcare as a commodity purchased in the emergent market and the financial strategies of for-profit providers in response to state-led marketization. The significant increase of government spending on childcare, particularly through demand side funding mechanisms, has been argued to incite the interest of for-profit providers, to the detriment of the quality of care in the market. However, as more watchful commentators of neoliberal childcare markets have noted (Mitchell, 2013; Penn, 2013; Moss, 2014), private providers are not the only set of for-profit interests now involved. At the margins of these commentaries, it is possible to find property speculators and investors among others. The presence of these seemingly peripheral actors is an additional signal of the burgeoning desire to find new ways of extracting revenue from what has become a government funded sector. In this, and the final empirical chapter, I will consider in more detail the engagement of what are seemingly tangential actors to the marketization of childcare. As the first of those two chapters, the focus here will be on the work of childcare property sales experts and investors in the wake of the 20 hours payment.

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The Marketization of Care

In the absence of public provision, many governments rely on the market to meet childcare demand. But who are the actors shaping this market? What work do they do to marketize care? And what does it mean for how childcare is provided?

Based on an innovative theoretical framework and an in-depth study of the New Zealand childcare market, Gallagher examines the problematic growth of private, for-profit childcare. Opening the ‘black box’ of childcare markets to closer scrutiny, this book brings to light the complex political, social and economic dynamics behind childcare provisioning.

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In March 2018, the incoming Minister for Education sent ripples through the New Zealand childcare sector by announcing that the forthcoming Strategic Plan (2019–2029) would ‘turn the tide’ away from the growing presence of private providers, to favour the community-based non-profit sector (Gerritson, 2018b). History tells us he was not the first Minister for Education to state this intention. Similar comments were made two decades earlier in response to the first Strategic Plan and the 20 hours payment, which sought from the outset to buoy the non-profit sector in the face of an increasingly competitive childcare market. Yet by the time of writing in 2021, relatively little has been done to meet this ambition, indicating the extent of the political lock-in to the current market. This book has sought to address some of the perplexing tensions inherent in neoliberal childcare markets: that they are tasked with achieving considerable social and economic outcomes, yet are organized through highly inequitable market-based systems; they receive considerable public funding, yet are privately delivered. Media coverage and academic literature drawn on in earlier chapters home in on the problems that manifest from these tensions for those who use and work in childcare. As the proportion of for-profit services grows, these markets have been highlighted as having low(er) quality care and education for young children, suppressing pay and working conditions for staff in the sector, and resulting in the transferral of considerable amounts of public funding to an increasing variety of private entities.

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At the time of writing in early 2021, New Zealand had remained relatively unscathed, both social and economically, from the COVID-19 pandemic. Swift action to close the borders to non-residents, mandatory isolation coupled with an early lockdown of ten weeks from 25 March 2020 positioned the country as having instigated one of the best public health responses to the virus in the world (Robert, 2020). However, like other parts of the world the childcare industry in New Zealand has been significantly affected during this time. Childcare services across the country closed from 25 March until 14 May 2020, with full health restrictions only lifted by 8 June. Although childcare is a relatively volatile business in normal conditions, the rapidly changing levels of parental demand for childcare in response to the pandemic has turned any sense of certainty on its head. The significant drop in both the length of hours and the number of children participating in the system has heightened increased reliance on the state to uphold the childcare infrastructure in the face of a crisis. While the uniqueness of the COVID-19 situation cannot be overstated, in the New Zealand context the severity of some of the problems beleaguering the sector can be linked back to state-led marketization of the sector. Although attendance in childcare services stopped during periods of lockdown, concern was raised by sector advocates that fewer children would return to services after restrictions were lifted.

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In this chapter I will consider the other set of calculative agencies in the childcare market: the providers. A major concern in recent literature has been the privatization of childcare services, particularly notable in markets with a demand side funding system. The outcome has been both a proliferation and diversification of for-profit childcare providers, ranging in scale from single owner-operators to large scale shareholder driven corporates. For critics of childcare markets, this diversification has posed a conceptual problem, as while they all in theory operate under a profit-making rationale, there is a considerable range of business models within what is referred to as the ‘private sector’. Reflective of an increasing desire to produce a more nuanced understanding of for-profit provision, rather than assume it is all morally moribund a priori, there have been calls to explore what different parts of the for-profit childcare sector actually looks like (Press and Woodrow, 2005). Speaking to this gap in knowledge, in this chapter I examine for-profit providers as calculative agents who deploy different financial strategies to operate in the emergent market. Focusing on two types of provider that have proliferated in Aotearoa New Zealand, namely the individual owner-operator and the consolidated childcare chain, I explore the strategies and economic calculations these actors have made in relation to the work of childcare since 2002.

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This chapter traces the creation of a childcare market in New Zealand between 1989 and 2019. As a highly active political front for neoliberal politics, childcare has been shaped by quite differing understandings of what it is and how it should be organized over this period. However, despite different political parties in power, the fact that childcare is provided through a market-based system has remained constant, indicating the resilience and malleability of the market ideal. The research period in question details two key moments in the formation of the market; the Before Five reforms in 1989 and the Strategic Plan in 2002. The initial phase of marketization in 1989 led to the first major funding intervention into the sector: bulk funding. The second intervention 12 years later sought to remedy the issues of the first market framing and reflected a more active involvement by government in keeping with a social investment approach. In detailing the work of market making in this chapter, I will focus on the important differences between both phases of market creation. In doing so I will emphasize how the figure of the parent consumer has been understood within state-led marketization, as one of the key calculating actors charged with both regulating and governing the market. While I recount the emergence of the childcare market in New Zealand, in telling this story I also want to consider the highly experimental work of state-led marketization, as childcare policy making becomes an exercise in market organization (Frankel et al, 2019).

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Attachment parenting is an increasingly popular style of childrearing that emphasises natural activities such as extended breastfeeding, bedsharing and babywearing. Such parenting activities are framed as the key to addressing a variety of social ills. Parents choices are thus made deeply significant with the potential to guarantee the well-being of future societies. Examining black mothers’ engagements with attachment parenting, the book shows the limitations of this neoliberal approach. Unique in its intersectional analysis of contemporary mothering ideologies, the book fills a gap in the literature on parenting culture studies, drawing on black feminist theorizing to analyse intensive mothering practices and policies.

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