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Opinion: Is early learning at a crossroads?

Early Childhood Australia (ECA) was pleased to hear Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull give an assurance that his government is making early childhood education and care a priority this year. In his address to the National Press Club on Wednesday 1 February 2017, he said that they are working to “provide a strong safety net to deliver more affordable, flexible childcare”.

Childcare subsidies remain sticky

If the Jobs for Families Childcare Package Bill, which contains the government’s long awaited childcare subsidy reforms, is passed, this promise could come true.

But at the same time, the Prime Minister announced that the government will merge the legislation with another bill to cut Family Tax Benefit (FTB) payments to families. The government argued that the savings from the latter bill are required to fund the increased investment in early learning. This will potentially jeopardise support for the childcare subsidy reforms because there is strong opposition to the proposed payment cuts.

ECA argues that more than $3 billion dollars in savings have already been realised from cuts to FTB payments in a bill passed by the senate last October, so further FTB cuts are not necessary to fund the childcare subsidy reforms.

Many in the sector have raised concerns about the proposed subsidy reforms, particularly the impact of the activity test which is more onerous than current tests. The new activity test requires both parents to be working or actively engaged in seeking employment or in skill development activities. There is a safety net of just 12 hours per week for families earning less than $65,710 in annual income. Many, including ECA, have argued that this is too low.

We are concerned that children in families experiencing unemployment, or those who have precarious work, fluctuating hours or short term contracts, will miss out on stable access to early childhood education and care.

Ideally, ECA would like the system to provide all children with two days per week of subsidised access to early learning, with an activity test applicable to additional days. This would give children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, a basic entitlement. It would also provide stability for families and simplicity in communicating how the system works.

Together with leaders of more than 20 early childhood organisations, ECA has worked to identify a set of amendments to the Jobs for Families Childcare Package Bill that can be delivered within the overall budget allocation and consistent with the government’s overarching policies. We are hoping that these amendments will be taken into account when the senate considers the bill.

Access to early learning timing out

The other important issue this year is the fate of the National Partnership Agreement on Universal Access to Early Childhood Education. This is an agreement between the federal government and each of the state and territory governments to ensure that all children have access to a quality preschool program for at least 15 hours per week, in the year before they start school. The agreement is currently valid to December 2017. Since 2009 it has allocated nearly $3 billion to the states and territories.

This has been the key factor in lifting Australia’s participation of 4-year-olds in early learning: from 67 per cent 5 years ago to nearly 100 per cent today.

It’s important to retain this investment and to ensure it is applied more equitably across all the states and territories. And, if we want to reduce the proportion of Australian children who begin school developmentally vulnerable, we should even extend the agreement to 3-year-olds. Currently, one in five children start school developmentally vulnerable. This proportion increases to two in five amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

Image: The Australian Early Development Census (2015)

Image: The Australian Early Development Census (2015)

So, this year, it is vital to engage with state education and early childhood ministers and premiers, and urge them to keep the agreement alive and strong.

Quality is critical

Another national agreement that ECA members identified as a top issue for the sector last year is the National Quality Framework. Our members felt that the government needs to continue supporting the national approach to quality regulation. This is important because, when young children attend quality early learning, they and Australian society benefit.

Quality is improving. The Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA)’s annual report has shown this. Of nearly 1000 reassessments by ACECQA, 66 per cent of services increased their rating, 32 per cent showed no change and only 2 per cent were downgraded.

ECA members who completed our survey were also concerned about gaining fairer wages, and feel the need for better recognition of the value of early learning by government and the public. This is our challenge.

Parents and decision-makers often misunderstand play-based approaches, thinking they are just self-directed by children. On the other hand, when we talk about children benefiting from more time in preschool, the public often thinks we want to put them into school too early and make them sit at desks. It is a complex message: qualified early learning educators scaffold learning through play, through which children learn important skills. Teaching young children this way requires skill.

This year has already proved to be a crucial year for early childhood funding. All the gains we have made in the last five years hang in the balance. There’s never been a more important time for the early childhood sector and the wider community to work together. I invite you to join in our national collaborative campaign, Early Learning: Everyone Benefits. Together, we can convince our political leaders that truly, everyone benefits when we invest in early learning.

Samantha Page is the chief executive of Early Childhood Australia.

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