The federal government is under increasing pressure to introduce universal access to two years of preschool as a basic right, LOUISE SWINN reports.
Access to high-quality, affordable early years education has come to be recognised as a fundamental human right for children across the world. It is now firmly established that quality early childhood education delivered by a qualified teacher is linked to better outcomes for our youngest learners, particularly in literacy and numeracy, and that these advantages continue into school and beyond. There are also wide-ranging benefits for society overall.
As shown in the Lifting Our Game report – a major review into the effects of early childhood interventions, released in 2018 – children who attend preschool are more likely to finish secondary schooling, and less likely to repeat grades or require additional learning support. Beyond school, early childhood education is linked to higher levels of employment, income and financial security, improved health outcomes, and a much lower risk of involvement in crime.
Currently, Australia’s preschool fees are among the most expensive in the world – and, predictably, those states with the highest fees have the lowest attendance rates. Children who don’t access, or don’t access enough, preschool education are developmentally vulnerable when starting primary school, with OECD analysis showing that by Grade 5 they are around one-and-a-half years behind their peers.
Disadvantaged children, especially, are more likely to start school behind their peers and, in most instances, do not catch up. With these children less likely to finish school and more likely to become unemployed, a lack of early intervention is placing a significant proportion (almost 22%, according to a 2018 AEDC report) of Australian children on a dangerous trajectory.
Despite extensive evidence confirming the benefits of two years of preschool education, federal government funding in this area has been piecemeal, and allocated on a short-term basis. While some states and territories attempt to compensate for the lack of federal investment, the absence of permanent funding has led to insecurity and instability across the sector.
The Thrive by Five campaign – backed by almost all major organisations working in this space, including the AEU – has been pushing for universal access to early learning as the most significant economic, social and educational reform of our era.
Thrive by Five wants to see a high-quality, universally accessible early childhood education system attached to our public education system.
Central to this is the need for decision-makers to recognise the value of play-based learning delivered by a qualified workforce. Thrive by Five wants to see a high-quality, universally accessible early childhood education attached to our public education system, so that every child can benefit.
The campaign is also calling for politicians to stop treating our early learning and childcare system as a child-minding service for parents returning to work. Providing education in the early years is not merely a ‘women’s issue’ – preschool is a right, and all families should expect access for their children. Enabling mothers to return to work can be a positive by-product, but children remain central to this conversation – as early childhood teachers and educators innately understand.
The AEU has been campaigning for decades to see the work of early childhood members properly respected and valued. In Victoria, we have recently achieved pay parity for EC teachers with their colleagues in schools at every level throughout the life of the sector’s two benchmark agreements, the VECTEA and EEEA.
Victoria is also leading the way with the provision of 15 hours of kinder a week for all three- and four-year-olds – to be expanded to 30 hours for four-year-olds, as well as becoming free for all families, in the coming decade. It’s time to see this commitment reflected across the nation.
Currently, the Australian government commits just half a percent of GDP to early years education; Norway and Sweden, by contrast, spend nearly 2%. This is a huge gap. We are hopeful that the new federal Minister for Early Childhood Education, Anne Aly – who has declared “early childhood education and childcare central to the Albanese government’s long-term vision for economic growth and stability for generations to come” – will help turn this around. Providing universal access to early childhood education is a legacy investment, not just for today’s children but for Australia’s future.
Support the Thrive by Five campaign at thrivebyfive.org.au.