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Pollies face off in election forum on early childhood

It has been branded the ‘neverending’ election campaign, yet the end – July 2 – is now in sight. This means inter-party policy forums are in full swing (or squabble, if you will).

Early learning finally had its turn to be debated, as Early Childhood Australia (ECA) hosted an event in Adelaide. Liberal Senator Sean Edwards – representing Education Minister Simon Birmingham, shadow education and early childhood minister Kate Ellis, and Greens early childhood spokesperson Sarah Hanson-Young made up the panel. ECA president Sam Page moderated.

Perhaps to the despair of Australian Human Rights Commission national children’s commissioner Megan Mitchell, all parties largely framed their opening remarks on early-childhood education in terms of women’s workforce participation. Yet, once the eternal childcare costs discussion was concluded, audience members (including viewers of the live stream on Facebook) posed questions to the panellists, which provoked lengthy, sometimes frictional responses.

The universal, 3-year-old itch

Universal access to preschool for 3-year-olds was one topic. By now, we have evidence that everyone benefits from children receiving quality early education. Yet the 66 per cent preschool participation rate of Australian 3-year-olds is woeful compared with our OECD counterparts, such as New Zealand (96 per cent), the UK (97 per cent) and Japan (81 per cent).

Whilst Edwards and Ellis acknowledged raising our 3-year-old participation rate would be ideal, they also said they couldn’t; well, not just yet. “I know you would love me to say right now, ‘We’re going to extend universal access to 3-year-olds, [but] we also need to be realistic about some of the capacity constraints we have in the system,’ ” Ellis said. “Even when we put in universal access for 4-year-olds, we had complaints about 3-year-olds being pushed out because there weren’t enough places.”

Hanson-Young was unsympathetic towards the major parties for their reluctance to put their money where their mouths are: “We’ve had $50 billion worth of tax cuts, another $50 billion worth of building 12 submarines on the table, yet we can’t have another commitment for the forward estimates of funding preschool … To me, it’s about priorities.”

Languishing child and family centres

An audience member piped up: “Since early childhood has moved into the education portfolio, it seems there’s been a move away from a lot of the investment into child and family centres …A recent OECD report showed family centres are the preferred model of providing support for vulnerable families … Where do they lie in [each party’s] agenda?…”

Edwards remained silent as Ellis explained that the Coalition had de-funded all 38 Labor government-established child and family centres, but that Labor, if elected, would re-fund them. Hanson-Young, too, appeared to support the notion. Wraparound centres are important, particularly for Indigenous children…” she said.

Greens, Labor pay pals

The atmosphere intensified as Ellis and Edwards verbally sparred over early-childhood educator wages. Edwards contended, “The issue of how much people get paid is a matter for a tribunal” and that “the issue of low rates has largely been overcome”. In response, Ellis used the ‘gender pay gap’ argument to bolster her call for government intervention in raising educators’ salaries: “We know this is and remains an incredibly feminised sector, and we know that has traditionally had implications for the rates of pay,” she asserted. “As a government, we would provide support for the [Fair Work Commission wages] case going forward.” Ellis also noted that quality educators were the most important early-childhood policy point, and that industry churn is a major issue.

Hanson-Young echoed Ellis’ view. “We need to see a system where educators are paid fairly for what they do …The government is going to have to stump up and work out how we bridge that [pay] gap.”

Professionally develop yourself: Coalition

“The sector is mature enough to conduct its own professional development,” Edwards pronounced, much to the chagrin of Ellis and Hanson-Young. He based his opinion on a concordant Productivity Commission report recommendation.

Government funding for the professional development of early-childhood educators expires on July 1. Ros Cornish, president of the ECA board, suggested self-funded professional development would cost remote early-childhood education providers “an arm and a leg, if they can get it at all”. Ellis and Hanson-Young, unlike Edwards, assured her their parties would fund this service. Hanson-Young also mentioned the Greens would waive university HELP fees for early-childhood education graduates.

Fair family daycare

Finally, family daycare had its moment. An operator “of 34 years” asked if family daycare would ever be recognised “as the professional quality service that it is”. She also questioned the fairness of family daycare’s funding and regulatory environment.

All panellists indicated their funding and compliance commitments in this area. This harmony is absent when it comes to childcare costs – where the Greens hold the middle ground between Labor and Liberal. Yet, with respect to more fringe early-childhood education issues, this forum showed it’s a case of Labor and Greens versus Liberal.

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