Early childhood education is not just about families

The Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and Shadow Minister for Childcare and Early Childhood Learning Sussan Ley this weekannounced the terms of reference for a Productivity Commission inquiry into Australia’s early education and care sector.

As expected, the focus is entirely on affordability, flexibility and workforce participation. In the two-page document, there is one reference to early learning outcomes for the 992,520 identified children in an early education and care centre.

I’m not exactly sure why the Shadow Minister bothers to have “Early Childhood Learning” in her title, as it is clearly of little or no interest to her or the Coalition.

The Coalition is barking up the same tree that governments (including the current Labor Government) have continued to bark up for the entire history of the sector.

“What is the impact on families? What is the impact on the economy? What is the impact on workforce participation?”

With nearly one million children accessing early education and care, we should ask a seemingly obvious question: what is the impact on children?

The Labor Government has at least put forward a National Quality Agenda to provide a focus of educational outcomes for children. But without addressing the structural problems of the sector, these will struggle to be anything more than token gestures.

Both sides of politics have failed to reach for an early education vision beyond fees, waiting lists and productivity.

The Coalition would roll back regulations at the first opportunity, creating the environment for more disturbing incidents in services, such as a case of alleged torturein Queensland.

The Labor Government failed to take the opportunity presented by the collapse of ABCLearning in 2008 to fundamentally repudiate the for-profit model of providing education and care to young children and take overall responsibility for the sector.

Research from around the world has repeatedly proven the importance of giving children access to quality, play-based learning and educational experiences in the first five years of their life — and not just 15 to 20 hours of preschool a week. Over 90 per cent of a child’s brain is developed in the first five years, before they even set foot in a school. If the Prime Minister is serious in her challenge of placing Australia’s education system being in the world’s top five, early education cannot continue to be ignored.

The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children has also revealed the exponential benefits of early learning in educational and social outcomes in later life. The investment we make in early intervention and equity for all children right at their start of their lives can be repaid many, many times over in their futures.

And yet as a community, we cannot make up our minds about what we want the sector to be.

Early learning advocates have a vision for the sector as a free-to-access, universal model that can be accessed by all children in our community. The possibilities of lifting children out of inequality and vulnerability are limitless.

The other side is those entirely see the sector as just “care”, essentially organised babysitting. This view is one of individualism, that the education and care of children is the responsibility of the child’s parents. In this model, centres can be all-but-unregulated, no qualifications are required and private operators can make as much money as they want.

This is the choice that Australia, as a community, needs to make. It cannot work both ways, but the Labor Government is currently attempting to do both.

Labor speaks of educational outcomes and quality environments for children, but will not undertake the sweeping structural reforms necessary to actually achieve that. Simply adding new requirements on to already strained, underpaid and undervalued early childhood teachers and educators simply will not work.

With the released terms of reference for their planned inquiry, the Coalition is clearly signaling that they have no interest in early education and are purely focused on the short-term economic and political goals.

So much for the nearly one million children in an early education and care service today.

The early childhood education and care sector in Australia is being pulled in two vastly different directions right now, and it cannot continue. A simple choice needs to be made.

Remove all educational requirements from the sector, and just be basic “childcare”. No qualifications required, limited regulation, minimum-wage for the workers and available only to those who can afford the fees.

Or, reform the entire sector so that educational, learning and social outcomes can be effectively set and met. This would require a large investment, but the benefits are far beyond that initial investment. The Government is already committing large amounts of money to the sector, but indirectly (through rebates to families) in a way that gives them no control over where the sector is heading.

Individuals will always complain about their taxes going to things they don’t like, but the community as whole benefits when we support individuals to achieve their potential.

Both sides of politics need to lay their cards on the table. Trying to do both will not work.

But it must address the question that no-one wants to answer in these inquiries. What is in the best interests of the nearly one million children that this will affect?

This article was originally published on the New Matilda website.

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