Under the microscope


09 November 2023

The number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children enrolled in preschool has risen to 99.2 per cent, this year’s Closing the Gap report to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) reveals.

This exceeds the target of 95 per cent by 2025, but only 34.3 per cent of this cohort is reported to be on track developmentally when it starts school. And, with ongoing teacher shortages, that puts pressure on already stretched teachers to provide additional time and resources to avert early disadvantage, say educators and childcare reform advocates.

Catherine Liddle, CEO of the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC), says the enrolment rise is a “fantastic thing”, but problems remain with accessibility, funding models and service delivery.

“The services so critically needed by our children don’t necessarily exist, particularly in regional and remote areas where we have childcare deserts," she says.

Liddle says there is significant evidence to show that children who start school with a developmental delay can expect that gap in life outcomes and educational outcomes to become larger at every stage of their learning journey.

AEU federal president Correna Haythorpe agrees and says children who come to school without the foundational skills for learning “are on a pathway to inequality of educational access”.

“This adds to the professional responsibility of teachers who must immediately undertake assessments and develop intervention strategies so these children can engage fully in the school curriculum,” she says.

Big-picture reform

Inequality and disadvantage are among the myriad big-picture problems acknowledged across early childhood education by experts, policymakers and educators.

Steps towards reform include the federal Department of Education Early Years Strategy and its national vision for early childhood education and care; the Productivity Commission’s review into early childhood education and care; the ACCC’s 2023 childcare inquiry into education and care pricing; the national strategy for the care and support economy; the national children’s education and care workforce strategy; and the national strategy to achieve gender equality.

Dr Stacey Fox, a policy fellow at the Mitchell Institute at Victoria University, told the AEU’s federal conference in February, that reforms in NSW and Victoria, which amount to a $25 billion commitment to early childhood education over the next 10 years, offer a once-in-a-generation opportunity for children and families, and will strengthen the foundations and impact of the early childhood education and care sector.

At an AEU webinar in June, 'Early learning matters for children, and it matters for AEU members', Haythorpe said opportunities for the sector were strong and unprecedented: “I can’t remember a time in recent years where early childhood education and care and delivery of the provision of two years of public preschool for all children, and access to quality early childhood services for our members, has taken such a priority on the national stage.”

Haythorpe also shared some initial results of the AEU’s State of our Schools caring responsibilities survey, conducted between April and May, which revealed affordability and accessibility to early learning and care remained one of the biggest career challenges for members and their families.

A tale of two states

The webinar also heard from Kim Streitberger, principal of Mount Pleasant Road Primary School in Victoria, a state where the government has committed to two years of funded kindergarten and that new school builds will include a preschool.

The school, in Melbourne’s east, has a co-located kindergarten and its students are thriving, says Streitberger: “I think the power of having the kinder and the school together is really important. It minimises the change for families and students as they move through each of the learning centres.”

In NSW, 30 hours of free pre-kindergarten is promised from 2030.

Hope is high that South Australia will follow suit when the state’s Royal Commission into Early Childhood Education and Care hands down its findings, AEU SA branch vice president Jan Murphy told the webinar.

Murphy says just 60 per cent of children in the state are accessing three-year-old kindergarten, and the figures largely exclude children from the most disadvantaged families.

She says the branch conducted statewide member consultations earlier this year and the biggest
concerns were equity for all children regardless of geography, the need for fit-for-purpose facilities, capacity in existing preschools and the pressure additional childcare places would put on a workforce already under strain.

Support for educators

The AEU’s federal early childhood committee chair and Victorian branch vice president, early childhood, Cara Nightingale, says teachers and educators need to be well supported and resourced to deliver high-quality educational outcomes for children, and that includes planning, programming, assessment and community engagement.

“When teachers go into kindergarten services they need access to mentors, who have time to actually mentor and coach and teach and further develop their skills, knowledge and expertise,” she says.

“And the workforce crisis is obviously exacerbated in remote, rural and regional areas so incentives are required to get teachers to consider working in these childcare deserts and in regional kindergartens.”

Nightingale says teachers who choose to work in kindergartens in remote, rural or regional areas often find they immediately become educational leader, nominated supervisor and mentor, with inadequate support structures.

“The accessibility is a lot harder for them, particularly if they have their own children, because there are limited childcare and kindergarten options, and it’s harder to assimilate into the community and feel that they belong, so retention becomes an issue, too,” she says.

Next steps

Work for the AEU continues with the Preschool Funding Now campaign, which calls on the federal government to commit to a high-quality, permanently funded preschool sector. The AEU launched an open letter campaign in June, calling on the Prime Minister to provide two years of free public preschool for every child in Australia. To add your name to the letter, visit tinyurl.com/ycxmsu2b

“We plan to spend the next month or two collecting signatures. We don’t want the issue of two years of three-year-old preschool to get lost in the broader debate around childcare and early learning. We know how to win, we won for four year olds, and now it’s time to make sure we can turn the national attention to three year olds,” says Correna Haythorpe, AEU federal president.

The union, with Youth Development Australia, will also host the Bridging the Divide Summit in Melbourne on 30 and 31 October. The summit aims to highlight equity and equality in education and is open to educators from early childhood, primary, secondary and TAFE sectors.


By Leanne Tolra

This article was originally published in the Australian Educator, Spring 2023