We are only six weeks into 2021 and it is already clear that this year is going to be a significant one – another significant one – for early childhood education and care (ECEC).
Since being thrust into the focus of politicians and the general public as a “critical” and “essential” sector that would support the country through (what we hope was) our worst wave of COVID-19, ECEC has remained in the spotlight – and looks set to stay there.
However there seems to be a shift in the way ECEC is being talked about this year.
In 2020 we saw a surge of praise for the sector as more parents began working from home, businesses wrestled with new ways of operating and policymakers right up to our Prime Minister experienced first-hand the evidence that they had previously only read about – ECEC underpins the success and wellbeing of children, families and our entire economy.
It is most intriguing then, that just weeks into 2021 we are seeing a stark shift in sentiment from some loud voices who are calling our ECEC system broken, eroded and failing families.
These overly simplistic characterisations do not acknowledge the long and sophisticated history that has seen our ECEC system evolve to the robust, resilient and, frankly, impressive system that we have today.
Our early childhood education system has steered Australia through challenges and towards growth for 130 years, since the first kindergarten union set up preschools to educate children experiencing poverty in the depression of the 1890s.
You could say that the system really came into its own when the Australian Child Care Act was introduced in 1972 – this policy aimed to get more mothers into the workforce and has been instrumental in lifting the number of working women in Australia from less than 30 per cent in the 1950s to almost 70 per cent today.
Then in the nineties we saw federal government funding reforms help more children from lower income families access early learning; and a National Childcare Accreditation system see Australia become the first place in the world to have ECEC funding linked to quality.
Since then, our Universal Access National Partnership Agreement, Early Years Learning Framework, National Quality Framework and Child Care Subsidy have all contributed to seeing more Australian children having access to quality education and care.
Our ECEC system is highly-adaptive and responsive to changing needs. It is not broken.
It has proven time and time again that it can and will bend and flex to deliver what families need most at any given time.
This is not to say the system is perfect – there are many things that government can do to ensure that ECEC provides more efficient and higher quality support to more families.
We have listed what we believe are the best opportunities we have right now to build on our early learning system in The Front Project’s Pre-Budget Submission. These include building on the Child Care Subsidy, investigating a system of price controls and guaranteeing that benefits stay with families.
Then there are further opportunities to deliver better outcomes for children such as lifting quality, ensuring ongoing affordability and funding at least two years early education before school.
We understand that meaningful and lasting change can be complicated and challenging; and requires support from all sides of politics to be effective.
We must rise to this challenge because continuing to improve ECEC will only grow in importance as we move through the next waves of crisis recovery.
Thank you for your continued support and I wish you a safe and energising start to 2021.