For a generation of Australians, Gough Whitlam’s decision to abolish tuition fees for students at universities and technical colleges was life changing. It unleased the potential of a group of Australians who, for too long, had been shut out of tertiary opportunities.
As the Andrews Government commences its third term and seeks to cement its own legacy in Victoria, its decision to roll out two years of universal kindergarten will be similarly ground-breaking and arguably have longer lasting and broader benefits than Whitlam’s changes.
I say this because the kindergarten reforms in Victoria will not only drive immediate economic and social benefits by boosting workforce participation, particularly for women, and delivering flexibility for families, but even more significantly, it will support the development of future generations to give them a much better chance of finishing formal education and taking advantage of the opportunities tertiary education will give them.
The developmental benefits are captured by a Murdoch Children’s Research Institute study which showed that children who attended preschool were 20 to 30 per cent less likely to be assessed as being vulnerable (in the bottom 10 per cent of children) on four of the five domains on the Australian Early Development Census.
In addition, that study produced a substantive review exploring the benefits of ECEC across a range of areas which addressed the impact for different groups of children. Their findings include showing that two or more years of early childhood education and care provided cognitive, language and academic benefits to attending children.
Victoria is the first Australian state to commit to providing two years of universal kindergarten to three and four-year-old children. This commitment includes around $5 billion in state government funding to roll out universal three-year-old kindergarten across Victoria over ten years, from 2020.
Currently, the Australian Government provides funds to state and territory governments to provide only 15 of these hours of preschool programs per week in the one year before school for all children.
From 2029, all Victorian three-year-old children will have access to 15 hours of a kindergarten program per week and all four-year-old children able to access 30 hours, doubling what is currently funded. All of these hours will be delivered by a bachelor trained early childhood teacher - this is an incredible start – but there is more to do.
And while there is a sound body of evidence highlighting the developmental benefits of early education, there is still limited national evidence on how we can achieve an equitable and impactful system right across the country.
With the recent 50th anniversary of Whitlam’s election victory, the legacy of that Government’s changes to university fees can be seen in the Victorian Government’s Early Childhood reforms but University is no longer free but this time, we are taking steps to ensure reform has longevity.
The Front Project and the University of Melbourne have commenced an independent evaluation of the roll-out of three-year-old kinder, the EDGE study, in Victoria to measure the effectiveness of this reform over its five-year rollout period. This study is designed to ensure that we imbed sustainability and quality, impacting the life trajectories of future generations.
Whitlam’s tertiary reforms opened opportunities across the nation and for that we should be eternally grateful, however, ultimately the concept of ‘free’ tertiary education didn’t last. We need to ensure the proposed reforms in the early childhood space do.
To do that, we need to learn from the past, we need rigorous evaluation of current settings and close examination of any proposed changes across the diverse early childhood landscape.
That’s what the EDGE evaluation will do through a multi-disciplinary assessment that will deliver thorough data on the impact on children, insights for policymakers, and practical information for early childhood teachers, centre leaders and providers.
This will focus on the Victorian experience, but it will inform the conversation right across the country, from the cities to the bush, in First Nations communities and cultural and linguistically diverse areas.
It will help us bridge the unfair gap that exists between areas and deliver a more equitable arrangement that lifts all children and all communities up.
As governments around Australia consider further reform in the ECEC sector, and in other human-service sectors, this study will provide invaluable insights into the role of evidence, the end user, in this case children and families as the cornerstone of policy design.
Getting these reforms right will set Australia up for the future and has the potential to get us a nation ahead of our neighbours across a range of indicators.
It would be a brave person to argue there is anything more important than ensuring we get universal access to high quality early education and care policy right and that the legacy of these reforms is preserved for future generations.