What’s the future for early learning?


4 September 2019

Early childhood education benefits the child and, ultimately, the economy. Yet the federal government refuses to provide adequate funding.

The evidence is well established to support the provision of two years of quality early childhood education. We know that children have better learning outcomes and develop their skills in other areas such as social, behaviour and language acquisition, and this is backed up by a raft of local and international studies.

Studies that investigate the economic benefits of early childhood education show better returns for the country. A recent report, A Smart Investment for a Smarter Australia, commissioned by The Front Project, estimates a two-for-one return on investment in quality early childhood education. The result would be higher tax revenues, higher wages and productivity, and lower spending on welfare and criminal justice.

Even federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg acknowledges “a quality preschool education is essential for laying the foundations for successful learning, including transition to full-time school and future school success”. But his actions don’t back up his words.

When the treasurer handed down this year’s Federal Budget, he again announced funding for just 12 months of early childhood education, and then only for four-year-olds. This means preschools and kindergartens only have funding until the end of next year.

Educators and parents furious

Early childhood educators and parents are furious and frustrated.

Director at Box Hill North Primary School Kindergarten in Melbourne Danielle Cogley says the continued short-term funding allocations are a big problem. “It’s really frustrating not be able to plan for the long term and not having the security of funding,” she says.

“I don’t know what I can offer families in a year or two years’ time. I don’t know what hours I can offer my staff, or what I’ll be working.

“We’ve campaigned for years trying to get just that little bit more and these band-aids of one more year of funding are really just appalling,” Cogley says.

Mitchell Institute researcher Jen Jackson can point to one of the effects of the insecure funding on the sector. She says that National Workforce Census data shows the proportion of educators leaving preschools due to short-term contracts is nearly four times the proportion in long day-care centres.

“That’s really saying that there’s something going on with preschool that’s affecting stability,” she says.

AEU federal president Correna Haythorpe agrees, saying that ongoing, permanent employment is a top priority for educators.

“But when you’ve got a sector that has its funding at risk every single year, it’s very difficult to attract and retain preschool teachers and support staff into the profession,” says Haythorpe.

Jackson says that affects the children, too.

“We know that stable continuous relationships are the foundation of quality practice in early childhood.” In other words, she says, high staff turnover affects quality.

“Quality relationships aren’t just about warm, fuzzy care, they’re actually fundamental to what children need for learning,” she says.

Long-term benefits easy to see

Cogley’s 10 years at Box Hill North have shown her the benefits of early childhood education as her students go onto primary school.

She notices their willingness to learn and explore, their resilience and their self-confidence.

“We see a big difference in the children we’ve had here for two years, who’ve done three-year old and four-year old kinder, and how well they do as they move through the system. Their teachers comment on it, too,” she says.

On Cogley’s wishlist is 15 hours of preschool for both three- and four-year-olds.

“The amount of foundational learning that those children would be able to do in those two years would be absolutely phenomenal and set them up to absolutely thrive throughout their schooling — socially, emotionally, in all facets of their education,” she says.

Jackson says the ideal is removing cost as a barrier to families accessing quality early childhood education.

“We’ve got increasing participation but we’ve also got increasing equity gaps in the quality of what those children are receiving. And we actually need the highest quality services for the children and families that need them the most,” says Jackson.

Not only is the federal government’s education agenda a fail for both students and educators, it puts us out of step internationally. Most of the 36 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries provide preschool for three-year-olds.

Australia keeps company on the list of 11 that don’t. These include Algeria, Angola, Bermuda, Gibraltar, Iran, Ireland, Nigeria, the Philippines, South Africa and Sri Lanka.

The article was originally published in the Australian Educator Spring 2019.