Kindergarten cop-out: early childhood reforms must continue

We can’t go backwards on early childhood education, it’s just important. Early childhood education image from www.shutterstock.com

The Labor government is not often celebrated for its policy achievements, but there has been one area where it deserves some recognition – early childhood education.

It started reforms to the sector in 2007, and has made gains towards a better quality, more accessible, affordable and integrated early childhood education system.

But given recent polls, it looks as though we could be heading for a change of government in September. With this prospective change, it seems uncertain where the reforms – far from complete – are headed.

After all, it’s a difficult policy area that needs energy and commitment, and if the political will diminishes the momentum could be lost.

In starting a conversation about this, the first point to make is that early childhood education does not stand alone; it is vitally connected with our social and economic fabric.

As US President Barack Obama said in his recent State of the Union address, quality early childhood education can help to boost graduation rates, reduce teen pregnancy and even reduce violent crime.

“In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children… studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form more stable families of their own,” he said.

Neuroscience, too, has provided strong research to show that what happens in the early years sets the trajectories for later educational success.

The government in Australia then has a clear interest in providing high quality early childhood. But this is no easy task and there’s plenty of work to do.

Politically speaking, it could easily be put in the too hard basket, especially given the agenda for the reforms so far has been complex and demanding, requiring change at the national, state, and local levels of provision and practice.

So far we’ve seen the development of a National Quality Framework (NQF) which provides expectations across seven quality areas including such things as staff ratios, as well as the implementation of a national framework to guide curriculum decision making known as the Early Years Learning Framework.

We’ve also seen the establishment of a national body – the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA). This body has the responsibility for ensuring accountability in all jurisdictions across Australia.

So there has been progress but the reforms are far from complete. Australia needs to do more if it is to lift its provision of equitable, high quality and affordable early childhood care and education to an international best standard.

A recent report in The Economist revealed that Australia is ranked 28 in a group of 45 countries in terms of its early childhood provision and that whilst there are many Australian early childhood centres that would be ranked as “world class”, there are big issues that remain (particularly unequal access and quality).

But at the moment, the education debate is a crowded issue and governments are focused on school funding, teacher performance, testing and rankings.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard describes the improvements needed in education as a “moral crusade”. But what does the prime minister mean here – who are the “crusaders” and what are they fighting for?

Educators working at all levels and contexts (early childhood, primary, secondary, tertiary) deserve more than slogans. Now is the time for major parties to move past slogans and show us their policies.

Never mind winning education races or fighting a crusade, both sides of politics need to focus on early childhood education to deliver a better society and economy for Australia.