New hope for early childhood education?

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9 November 2015

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s cabinet reshuffle means there's a new minister, Simon Birmingham, responsible for the sector. And, there's hope that Birmingham will reconsider the way the sector is funded to provide some certainty to educators, parents and children.

This comes after the sector was revolutionised, following the decision to provide a minimum 15 hours per week, delivered by a university-qualified early childhood teacher, to all children in the year before primary school.

But it’s never been permanently funded. The federal government has been handing out funds for 12 months or two years at a time. Then there’s an anxious time while the sector waits for state and territory governments to sign agreements each time to receive the funding.

The sector is calling on the new minister to permanently secure the funding to allay fears that the federal government wants to pull out of funding early childhood education.

If the states and territories were left to foot the bill alone, the 15 hours would definitely be at risk says Howard Spreadbury, vice president with early childhood responsibilities at the AEU’s South Australian branch.

“It’s likely the states couldn’t afford to pay the Commonwealth’s share,” says Spreadbury. "It'd be poor social policy by the Commonwealth to remove a level of support that's been in place for years.

The flow-on effects of dismantling the 15 hours would be widespread, says Shayne Quinn, vice president (early childhood) of AEU’s Victorian branch.

“Centres have already gone through a massive and challenging change process to implement universal access,” says Quinn. Taking it away would create as much disruption but with detrimental consequences, she adds.

“The effect on staff of all the change, including the inevitable loss of jobs, would be devastating. It’s also possible that jobs in the sector would become less attractive because of the reduced hours,” she says.

“It’s alarming that we’re having these conversations when everyone knows the importance of early childhood education. The research makes it abundantly clear that it’s an investment that we can’t afford to ignore."

For Kerry Strugnell, preschool director at Kurralta Park Community Kindergarten, removing the funding for the 15 hours would be “a huge step back”.

“The 15 hours has just been fantastic professionally, pedagogically and for the community. In fact, the community has really embraced it,” she says.

At Howard Springs Primary School in the Northern Territory, preschool teacher Helen Dickson says a return to 12 hours would mean a major restructure.

She says there’s pressure on preschool places and it’s likely that class ratios, which are due to reduce next year, would remain high to accommodate more children.

Playing catch up

Universal access was one of a number of reforms that brought big changes to the sector, including a new national system of regulations — the Early Years Learning Framework and the National Quality framework.

The reforms are an indication that Australia needs to catch up to high-performing countries.

For example, OECD countries that perform best are investing much more in early childhood education and care than Australia, says Susan Krieg, Flinders University’s co-ordinator of early childhood programs.

“The countries that see childcare as a public, shared and important responsibility demonstrate the relationship between consistent ongoing investment in early childhood education and long-term educational outcomes,” says Krieg.

A body of research supports that notion. For example, a major longitudinal study in the United Kingdom has confirmed that preschool enhances a child’s development.

The Effective Provision of Preschool Education Project, carried out by London University’s Institute of Education, studied 3,000 children, their parents, their home environments and their preschools.

The researchers found that the amount of time spent at preschool was important and that disadvantaged children in particular benefited significantly if they attended a good quality preschool.

It’s valuable research, says Krieg. “What’s particularly powerful about the work is that it’s so big and it’s longitudinal. And it differentiates between the quality of the programs offered.”

Krieg is keen to see major Australian research looking at the effects of the 15 hours. She recently published the results from her own latest research, Access, quality and equity in early childhood education and care: A South Australian study.

One of the key findings underlines the importance of quality. The research confirmed the relationship found in other studies between the quality of the centre and the changes in a child’s cognitive development.”

More time brings more benefits

At Bunyip Kindergarten in central Victoria the extra time provided by the 15 hours universal access has helped to build better quality relationships with children and their parents.

Teacher and educational leader Freida Davidson says the extra five hours provided by the federal funding made a big difference.

“We’re able to achieve a lot more in the program. And there’s also more time to identify children with developmental issues. It just gives us more time to observe and then take action,” says Davidson.

Parent Raelene McLean agrees. “The extra hours help the children be more socially ready for school and have more skills and knowledge.”

That means, she says, that there’s less burden on the school and avoids the need to have extra support for the students that aren’t coping.

McLean also sees a difference in the children. “They have more of a sense of belonging or of ownership. It’s their place.”

There’s also more time to get out into the community and practise their skills, says Davidson. “We can fit in more visits to the primary schools, to help with their transition, and to the supermarket with a list and the retirement village for a singalong.”

The lack of certainty about the funding is disappointing, says Davidson. “There’s a lot of balancing to do: timetables, staffing arrangements, the availability of space, and the needs of families and communities. So much hinges on whether we have the 15 hours or not.”