A more sustainable Australia: closing gaps in childhood inequity

Why don’t we have universal access to early childhood education? Flickr/Phyllis Buchanan

**A more sustainable Australia* As the 2013 election campaign continues, we’ve asked academics to look at some of the long-term issues affecting Australia – the issues that will shape our future.*

Looking after children during their early childhood yields a huge return on investment. It’s not just good for the economy, but for the health and well-being of our children too. The cliche is worth repeating: our children are our future.

But that future is suffering from poor policy. Australia’s system of early childhood education and care has been rated as inequitable, unsustainable and one of the worst in the world.

Fortunately there have been some significant improvements in the last couple of years. But before we look at the system, let’s start with the most important part: children.

2012: a snapshot

In 2012 most Australian children were on track and doing well in five developmental areas: physical, emotional, cognitive, social and academic skills. That’s broadly acceptable, but it isn’t equal across the board.

The 2012 Australian Early Developmental Index (AEDI) reported one in ten children were developmentally vulnerable in two or more areas. And in very remote areas, one-third of children were identified as developmentally vulnerable.

Why are some children better off than others? While it may be tempting to blame family or community, international studies have shown that the quality of childcare also matters to children’s development and school readiness. More importantly, early childhood education and care is an area over which the government has direct leverage.

Compared to other nations, Australia has an abysmal child care and preschool record. Our expenditures as a percentage of GDP are the lowest in the OECD. We spend 0.1% of our GDP, compared to the OECD average of 0.5%. Brazil’s proportion, for example, is four times higher, while Denmark’s is tenfold.

And we have a low rate of early childhood participation. In 2012, the OECD ranked us 34th in preschool attendance. Only half of all Australian four-year-olds were enrolled in preschool.

To be fair, these number only include kindergarten enrolments. As a general rule in Australia, there is a strong public perception that kindergartens have higher standards of educational quality.

Until recently, fewer quality demands have been placed on long day care centres, teachers are paid less, and often there is no requirement for a certified teacher to be present. In short, the programs that disadvantaged preschoolers can access (often under-funded long day-care programs) are not of the same quality.

And that’s assuming that they even have access. The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children showed that children who did not attend any formal early childhood programs were more likely to be growing up in single-parent, Indigenous, and/or non–English speaking families from economically disadvantaged areas.

Luckily, Australian governments have realised that this inequity is not sustainable. In 2008, COAG made a commitment that by 2013:

All children in the year before formal schooling will have access to high quality early childhood education programs delivered by degree-qualified early childhood teachers, for 15 hours per week, 40 weeks of the year, in public, private and community-based preschools and child care.

Meanwhile, the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority has been creating a National Quality Framework. In June 2012, the National Quality Standards were implemented. Every early childhood centre — kindergartens and long day care — is now being assessed by these standards.

Good for the economy

For every dollar invested in early childhood care, up to A$17 can be returned. The average return is A$2.36.

How does this work? Well, savings are made in money not spent on education interventions, crime rates and health care.

No study has found any disadvantage. But there are disagreements over the most sustainable course. Economists argue that small inexpensive policies may well be worthwhile, whereas big effects from expensive interventions may not be.

Unfortunately, we know precious little about the economic costs of providing different levels of childcare quality.

A sustainable future?

All told, it appears that Australia has realised that it is off-track. But will the national standard and universal access be enough to fix things up?

The latest data show 89% of children were enrolled, but only 56% for the COAG goal of 600 hours a year.

A Snapshot of Preschool Participation in Australia: increasing, but a long way to go… DEEWR, using ABS data

On a national level, the National Quality Standards, while promising, are too new to evaluate (none of the children in the 2012 AEDI would have experienced child care under these standards).

Other policy options, such as a child care subsidy, do not guarantee equality. In Quebec, where such a policy is in place, the quality of the early childhood programs is worse for children in the lowest socioeconomic quartile. These observations suggest that, ironically, the more privileged Quebec families are benefiting most from the government’s policy.

We need to be spending at least five times the amount on early childhood to compete with our closest OECD neighbours. We need all centres to be held accountable to the new National Quality Standards — poorly performing or unsafe centres need to be shut immediately. Wages for educators need to be subsidised in order to attract well-trained professionals into long day care settings. Funding needs to target those with the greatest need — and be directed towards improving quality, not increasing bureaucracy.

Some early childhood educators are heartened by the 2012 AEDI data. Louise Cooke, an early childhood educator and researcher with the Northern Territory Families as First Teachers program said, “there is still a long way to go to ‘close the gap’, but services on the ground that work with families are seeing some tangible gains for young children”.

The key for her has been access: namely, offering these disadvantaged families many of the opportunities — such as playgroups — that are afforded families elsewhere in Australia.

But she is worried that decisions made by staff in Canberra often leads to waste and duplication of services. Her solution for sustainability? Better consultation with community, and better coordination.

Regardless of the approach, early childhood education and care is one of the most sustainable pathways towards reducing the economic and social disparities between the rich and the poor.

Thanks to the Sustainable Australia Report 2013 for inspiring this series.