Desperately seeking big policy ideas for our smallest youngest people

16 MAY 2022

Desperately seeking big policy ideas for our smallest youngest people

A Charles Sturt University early childhood education expert asks where in the 2022 election campaign is the commitment to big investment and to big policy ideas that ensure free and accessible early childhood education for the long-term?

By Dr Leanne Gibbs (pictured, inset), Senior Lecturer in the Charles Sturt School of Education.

A non-negotiable activity of early childhood education (ECE) professionals is advocacy.

From the first step as an undergraduate, ECE professionals bear responsibility for standing up for children’s rights.

But with the upcoming 2022 federal election, these professionals could feel like the teacher in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) as they desperately search for a commitment from major parties (and independents) to a robust ECE policy agenda that upholds children’s rights ─ “Anyone? … Anyone?”.

The disappointing absence of policy and debate on early childhood development and education belies the gravity of the issue.

In the continuum of education ECE punches well above its weight. Investment in ECE yields a significant return on investment, and the uplift in children’s developmental trajectories means the favourable impact on the economic, social, and civil outcomes is far-reaching.

Political voices must commit to a solid agenda for children’s education before the primary years, but those voices seem very quiet in this election.

Governments tell us they make a significant investment in early childhood education and care, but it’s not enough.

Australia spends around 0.6 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) on early childhood education and government spending is lower than average for OECD countries.

Private spending (meaning contributions from families) is at a high level. In Australia, 36 per cent of early childhood education investment is privately funded compared to 18 per cent on average across OECD countries.

Recently, Canada formed bilateral agreements with provinces and territories to ensure ECE was not just available and good quality but also free. That’s the kind of thinking we need in Australia.

Universal access to ECE has been on the domestic policy agenda since 2012. While access to education has improved, the funding system is piecemeal and leaves many early childhood settings on tenterhooks.

Every few years pre-schools wait to see if they can employ staff and provide education for children in the year before school.

Universal access to pre-school is only part of the complex Australian ECE landscape. Early childhood education is also delivered in the form of ‘childcare’ (for children birth to five) and operates as a market.

Like any market, the principles of competition, supply and demand, freedom of choice, and unconstrained profit dictate how it is delivered.

Early childhood education is the only part of the education continuum that operates as an unbridled (yet regulated) marketplace.

Labor has made a promising statement on transparency and reporting on profit  and the Greens want to commit to phasing out for profit services completely.

This is a good start to the debate on private profit in ECE. It is, however, the workforce that needs the most policy attention.

ECE teacher and educator preparation, remuneration and professional development should be top of every party’s list.

In 2016 research reported 1 in 5 teachers were planning to leave the ECE profession within twelve months and recent sector surveys indicated the situation has worsened in the pandemic.

The pay is too low, as is the professional recognition, with a role in the school system considered a higher status option.

Regional and remote ECE settings are struggling to attract teachers and there are waivers in place so that settings can comply with regulations.

Is this saying that our youngest citizens in regional and remote areas don’t deserve the same education and care their city peers receive?

Australia needs significant policy action around ECE workforce, not the minor measures announced on apprenticeship programs by the Liberals and broad statements on workforce strategy by Labor.

There has been no mention of a commitment to the National Children’s Education and Care Workforce Strategy released last year that aims to relieve the ECE sector workforce crisis.

We are, however, fortunate to have a system of quality measures that are embedded in regulations and law. These measures keep children safe and are put to work to deliver high quality education and care.

In this election, parties should promise to attend to operational elements of this system by providing long-term funding and support to states.

High-quality early childhood education makes a big difference, and it has been too many years since Australia has had a robust, coherent, and coordinated early childhood education agenda that seamlessly integrates education and workforce needs.

So, where is the commitment to big investment and to big policy that ensures free and accessible ECE for the long-term?

Where are the plans for a robust and high performing sector that upholds the rights of all children in this big country?

Where is the strategy for a bigger, qualified, well-paid workforce?

Where are those big ideas for Australia’s littlest people?

Anyone? Anyone?


Media Note:

To arrange interviews with Dr Leanne Gibbs contact Bruce Andrews at Charles Sturt Media on mobile 0418 669 362 or news@csu.edu.au

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