Following the government’s recent emergency early learning funding announcement, The Front Project CEO, Jane Hunt, and Research Manager, Dr Stacey Fox, explain how the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the importance of early childhood education to the economy and exposed systemic problems with Australia’s policy approach.
The rapid social and economic transformations occurring in response to the COVID-19 pandemic are highlighting the vital role that traditionally undervalued sectors and workers play in driving our economy and ensuring the wellbeing of our families and communities. These sectors are what the Prime Minister described today as critical to the economy, even if they are not the immediately obvious ones.
When announcing the latest rounds of government initiatives to support industries during the current pandemic, the Prime Minister reiterated the importance of early childhood education, noting that it is, and always will be, critical to our economy.
Early childhood professionals have long argued, and research has proven, that investments in early learning deliver a double dividend – driving prosperity by enabling workforce participation now, while simultaneously educating and equipping the workforce of the future.
Investing in quality early childhood education is one of the smartest investments government can make. Not only is early learning critical for children’s development, it has been shown to deliver two dollars back to the Australian economy for every dollar invested.
Yet it is striking that up to now, early childhood education has not traditionally been considered a national priority. In a 2018 study from the Australian Institute of Company Directors, fewer than one per cent of company directors identified childcare as a national priority. Despite delivering education to over 850,000 children each year, early childhood education and care has not been given the same value as schools or universities, and its teachers and educators are not paid a commensurate salary.
This crisis is highlighting just how essential a strong early childhood education system is – for children’s learning and relationships, for families who need to work, and for our economy. Many businesses are rapidly adopting new ways of working to keep their staff employed and operations continuing. As organisations pivot to operate from their employees’ homes, children are making their presence felt on Zoom and video calls. Suddenly the critical link between early learning and business output is more visible.
Many parents are struggling to balance work and parenting and are needing to shift to part-time hours or work at non-standard times, and companies are rethinking business continuity plans in response. Employers are learning in real-time how critical early childhood education is for the availability and productivity of their workforce.
When we emerge from isolation and return to the office, we will need the early childhood education system to be ready. Yet there has been significant uncertainty as to whether those vital services will be there in a few months’ time. If they are not, it will take some time to re-establish facilities and workforces that meet the high standards and regulations that ensure high quality education and care.
Last year, over a million families relied on early childhood education or out-of-school-hours care. These families rely on this for children’s education and care and for parents to work and contribute to their communities. Yet because we haven’t traditionally valued or funded early learning in the same way as schools or universities, their survival has not been guaranteed during this crisis. Many early learning services have desperately been trying to cobble together enough money from different subsidies as their funding from attendance dramatically drops.
Unlike schools and other essential services like public transport, the funding model for early learning services only provides funding to centres when children are attending. Right now, many families who are facing job losses or income uncertainty are taking children out of their usual centres to save money.
Over the last few weeks, with no base funding to cover core costs such as rent, more than 15,000 local centres with 150,000 teachers and educators have been worrying about their livelihood in a way that school teachers have not.
Providers have been fighting to ensure that their centre will still be there after hibernation in a way that school principals have not had to. Many parents are attempting to continue to pay fees to keep their place, but are scared their centre won’t be there when they need it.
This crisis is exacerbating known problems – a funding model that does not provide stable or adequate funding for a critical part of the education system and a key enabler of economic activity, and a lack of support for early childhood teachers and educators who are themselves essential workers. The Federal Government has also realised that the current funding structure has not served children and the community in this crisis. They have announced that it will be temporarily suspended next week, and families will be able to access stable, free education and care for their children during this time of heightened instability.
As parents across the country are trying to juggle working from home with caring for, educating and supporting young children, employers are seeing evidence that their businesses can only operate at their best if a quality early childhood education and care system continues to support them.
While this change will be time-limited to reflect the impact of COVID-19, it is important we learn this lesson from the crisis and work to ensure long term stable funding to early childhood education in the future.
This article was originally published on ceda.com.au. Read the original article.
The industries that all Australians are relying on during the COVID-19 pandemic can only operate at their best with support from early childhood education services.
The early childhood education sector is a lifeline for employers, communities, and families in every part of Australia. In this time of uncertainty, this sector must continue to provide the stability and care that families need to flourish.
All Australians will be impacted by this pandemic. Some will adopt new ways of operating day-to-day, some will face job insecurity and financial strain, and some will be expected to work harder than usual to ensure we have continued access to essential services.
Providing quality early learning is providing families with assurance that their children are receiving the care and nurture they need to thrive during and after a destabilising experience. It is giving certainty during a time full of uncertainty, to the most important people in our lives.
The early childhood education system must remain equipped to help families return to work once the threat of COVID-19 has passed
Australia needs a strong early learning sector to underpin the workforce that will revitalise our economy. Parents and carers will play a crucial role in steering our nation back to prosperity, and they will rely on the early learning sector to support them.
The early childhood education system will take much longer to recover than many industries if allowed to fracture or temporarily fall away. This is due to having some of the highest regulatory and compliance requirements out of any Australian service industry.
Now is the time to steady the foundations of the early childhood education system, so it can effectively contribute to the rebuilding of all industries, all across Australia.
Child stability and support is most important in times of uncertainty in their homes and communities.
The early childhood education sector plays a vital role in providing safe and supportive environments to children and families in times of disruption and potential distress.
Early learning providers have long played dual roles of providing important education and development for children, as well as ensuring their well-being and safety.
For children experiencing disadvantage, early learning centres could be the only place where they receive basic essentials like nutritious meals, hygiene education and caring interactions with adults and other children.
Early childhood education providers are well-equipped to provide safe, hygienic spaces for children to learn and grow. Alternative carers without steady means to provide safe and hygienic spaces could face risks to their health if relied upon to care for children.
Grandparents and elderly carers face added risks if they need to take children outside of isolated environments, as they are most likely to experience heightened health issues from COVID-19.
To continue operating, the early childhood education sector needs a boost.
Early learning providers rely on an uncertain funding model to deliver their services. Parents pay for children to attend centres, then receive a subsidy from the government to alleviate costs. This is unlike schools, which receive allocated government funds to continue operations regardless of whether or not students attend.
Many families who are facing employment uncertainty or being required to stay at home are limiting or withdrawing children from early learning services. There is a recent trend showing attendance numbers have fallen by up to 30% for some providers since January. This means services are missing out on the funding they need to remain in operation.
If centres are forced to close, there will be no support for the families who are relying on the services that they provide to get through this period of global instability. This will also risk weakening our system, leaving us unprepared to support families to return to work and reignite the economy once this period of instability is over.
While many industries are in the midst of workforce restructures, others are ramping up efforts to deliver essential services that our entire society is depending on during this unprecedented crisis. We owe the families in these industries sustained support.
Jane Hunt is CEO and Lisa Chung is Chair of The Front Project, an independent national enterprise working to create positive change in Australia’s early childhood education system. thefrontproject.org.au
This article was originally published on The Mandarin. Read the original article.
Families, business and government all benefit.
One of the most anticipated education reports this year is being considered by ministers in Alice Springs today. The draft review of the National Partnership on Universal Access to Early Childhood Education offers governments an opportunity to make a real impact on their constituents’ lives.
The Nous Group analysis of preschool has turned out an overarching finding for governments: “that to sustain and further build on progress, funding should continue at a minimum of current levels”.
This opens a door of opportunity to governments. They have an independent green light to deliver the secure funding environment that will see higher quality early education delivered across more of Australia.
The review finds that “funding uncertainty’’ around the federal government’s contribution to preschools is a ‘‘real and important’’ issue. It says governments should commit to supporting universal access to preschool and future funding arrangements should ‘‘guarantee funding for a minimum of four or five years’’.
The current funding agreement between the Commonwealth and the States has been renewed annually or biannually for the past seven years. A stronger and longer partnership could improve governments’ ability work together, regardless of election outcomes, to ensure all Australian children have access to early education programs that deliver the biggest returns on investment.
The first ever Australian study into the economic benefits of early education, released this year by The Front Project and PwC, provides a marker on the tangible benefits to children, families, business and government – a 2:1 return.
Not only does investing in early education provide immediate and direct support for children and their families, it makes economic sense. For every dollar invested into universal early education in the year before school, the community receives $2 back – it is an investment opportunity like no other.
Educators, community services and families with children all intimately understand the benefits of early childhood education. Businesses struggling to employ workers with skills to innovate and expand their operations are also throwing support behind initiatives to improve access to early childhood education, noting the long-term benefits in developing creativity, collaboration and problem-solving skills.
Peter Coleman, CEO of one of Australia’s largest energy companies, Woodside, has stated that the early years are crucial for building a happy, healthy and productive future workforce. PwC Chief Economist, Jeremy Thorpe, says early learning has a substantial impact on children’s development and benefits increase throughout their lives.
Some things governments can consider to transform children’s outcomes and see the greatest returns on their bottom lines include:
Any fragmenting of responsibilities could mean individual states and territories having to independently navigate the critical and complex early learning system, risking growing inequality across suburbs and state lines.
If we truly want our children and our nation to be more and have more than we had, then ministers should seize the opportunity on their table today, and make this possible.
This article was originally published on The Mandarin. Read the original article.
Early education builds the skills that support national prosperity.
In January I had the opportunity to present at the World Economic Forum where I was part of an education panel with business leaders.
The theme at Davos this year was the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ with a focus on skills of the future. Amongst the many big ideas discussed and the enormous economic and environmental challenges we face, I was heartened to see a spotlight on the early years as a place to mine solutions.
This new age will be influenced by physical, digital and bio technologies that we are yet to fully understand. Therefore, particularly in Australia, it is unlikely we will have a workforce with the skills required to excel in this new era.
21st Century workplaces are already changing rapidly. According to the World Economic Forum it is predicted that in 2030, workers will spend twice as much time solving problems, 77% more time using science and maths skills and 17% more time using verbal communication and interpersonal skills.
For the jobs of tomorrow today’s children will need to be adaptable problem solvers who are great with people. The foundations of these skills are laid in the early years when children’s brains are primed to learn the early fundamentals of critical thinking, problem-solving and good communication. Quality early learning programs actually accelerate the development of these skills and research shows that two years of high quality early education sets children up to thrive.
Most OECD countries offer at least two years of preschool education and have very high participation rates. Australia’s education performance in key areas is lagging behind these countries that have two years of preschool. Currently in Australia we know 1 in 5 children start school developmentally behind their peers, and that gap continues throughout their schooling life and into the workforce.
Our early education sector offers a solution to this problem that can deliver immediate and significant long-term benefits to children, families and the future prosperity of Australia.
For Australian businesses to remain competitive in the global marketplace they will need access to a pool of talent who have the skills to match tomorrow’s jobs, and the resilience to adapt to several careers in a complex and changing environment.