For too long, early years education policy has focused on the money, pigeonholed into a debate about “child care” and “mums getting back to work”, rather than a long-term investment in children’s development.
Labor’s latest early childhood policy, which includes, among others things, boosting the Child Care Rebate cap to A$10,000, tries to marry both sides of the debate.
It focuses on the need for high-quality, affordable early education and care to support children’s development and to allow families to engage in the workforce.
Under this policy, current payments and rebates remain in place, but will be more generous, in the hope of making child care more affordable for families.
A new direction
The most exciting and different thing about Labor’s policy was the positive shift in direction signalled by the policy’s name – “Investing in Early Education and Care” – and the focus on “making quality early education and care more affordable”.
With this policy, Labor has put quality and the benefits of early education front and centre.
This recognises that:
Investment in quality early education is one of the best investments governments can make to enhance learning and life outcomes, and to reduce inequality.
Quality is central – poor-quality early education and care can be harmful, but high quality leads to strong returns on investment.
Early childhood education is a vital part of the education system – leaving learning interventions for schools can sometimes be too late.
This emphasis on quality and education is well supported by the evidence, and directly responds to findings that the most difficult National Quality Standard (NQS) for services to meet was “education program and practice”.
Emphasis on quality
Labor’s policy includes a A$150 million “Educator Professional Development Program” to be designed in consultation with early childhood development experts, educators and the sector, to build educator capacity and support implementation of best-practice early learning programs.
This has the potential to reduce the stark variation in quality among services.
Two key factors influencing quality are:
location – poorer areas have fewer services meeting or exceeding the NQS – and
service type – private providers of long day care and family daycare providers tend to score lower in quality assessments.
Family day care has come in for extra attention in Labor’s policy given that almost half of family day care services assessed do not meet the NQS.
Being able to attract and retain skilled teachers is central to providing high-quality service, yet it is also the greatest challenge for providers.
Labor has said it will urgently develop an Early Years Workforce Strategy, in consultation with experts, to support increased professionalisation and esteem. It will also support higher wages through the Fair Work Commission.
Labor’s policy maintains direct funding for services that will not be viable under the mainstream funding models. These services, mainly focused on Indigenous children, are vital for improving outcomes but need to be supported to meet the NQS.
Policy does not sufficiently address the quality of services
Labor’s policy unfortunately does nothing to address the slow pace of NQS assessments.
A quarter of services are yet to be assessed. At current rates, it will be around two more years before all services are assessed.
Only a fraction of services have been rated more than once in the four years since this process began.
The pace and frequency of quality assessments should increase – while maintaining rigour in the process.
Further reform is mooted, and needed
Early years policy in Australia can and should go much further.
Under Labor’s policy, the current system will remain in place while consulting with experts and the sector on the next stage of reform.
Disappointingly, Labor’s policy is silent on the National Partnership Agreement on Universal Access to Early Childhood Education. This is the agreement between the Commonwealth and states and territories that provides for universal access to preschool in the year before school.
The National Partnership Agreement aims to ensure all four-year-olds receive the recommended 15 hours per week of quality early education.
Short-term agreements (like the recent 2016-17 extension), rather than permanent commitment and sustained funding, create significant challenges for preschool providers and state and territory governments.
Despite its great rhetoric about the importance of early education for all children, Labor’s policy fails to commit to ongoing funding for the National Partnership Agreement.
Neither party addresses this issue.
Labor’s policy is a good start, and the focus on quality and early education is welcome. However, further reform is needed to ensure all children have access to high-quality early learning and receive the best start in life.