Comment: Election promises highlight need for child care and early learning reform

Child care and early education are shaping up as election issues, with both major parties announcing offers. Source: AAP

Early childhood policy has emerged as a centrepiece of this election campaign, but there’s more work to do to ensure it delivers for Australia’s future prosperity, writes Ros Cornish.

Last week a Galaxy Poll found that parents with children are the most likely to vote for a candidate who supports affordable child care and early learning (43 per cent).

This weekend Labor announced a suite of new early childhood policies in a $3billion pitch to address affordability for families.

Labor has committed to increase the Child Care Benefit by 15 per cent for all families and raising the cap on the Child Care Rebate to $10,000, starting from 1 January 2017.

This Government is relying on its $3billion Jobs for Families Child Care Package, which would introduce a new single Child Care Subsidy, but delayed implementation until July 2018 (in the May Budget).

Both parties should not lose sight of the long-term reform task. We have a system of child care subsidies that is not adequately meeting the needs of families, services or children. This was underscored by the 'Productivity Commission’s Inquiry into Child Care and Early Learning' which was informed by years of consultation.

The Government needs to address the impact of its tighter Activity Test and ensure that vulnerable children aren’t denied access to early learning. Labor will need to provide more detail on how it would proceed with reform if they win government.

For many parents, the central issue they want fixed is finding affordable quality care for their children when they need to return to work. In our biggest cities this is a huge problem, but out in the suburbs and country areas many services struggle to fill places. 

But the reason we should all care about fixing the early childhood system is that by investing early, while children are at vital stages of development, we improve children’s life and education outcomes and avoid future costs.

That’s why Early Childhood Australia wants to see the major parties commit to improving the system so that every Australian child has access to at least two days per week of quality early learning that boosts their development.

 

Labor’s promise to increase funding for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and remote early childhood services by 15 per cent is very welcome and necessary. We have a situation in Australia were two out of five Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are developmentally vulnerable when they start school. Early Childhood services make a huge difference to improving the chances of success for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

The Coalition’s Package also has a Community Child Care Fund to support services including remote and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander services with viability support, though many of these services will have to transition to mainstream funding arrangements.

Whichever party forms government after July 2 will need to finalise longer term reforms to build a better system for Australian children and families, and this includes preschool funding.

There has been a quiet revolution in Australia since the introduction of national funding to ensure ‘Universal Access’ of all children to early learning in the year before school. That’s why we now have more than 90 per cent of four-year-olds attending early learning. But this funding is not guaranteed to continue by either major party.  The Budget only commits to this funding to the end of next year.

To stop Australia going backward on participation in early learning, the major parties must provide enduring preschool funding arrangements and take steps to improve the participation of three-year-olds in a high quality early learning program. The longer children experience quality early learning, the better their education outcomes in the school system.

Both parties also need to recognise the role that early childhood educators and teachers play in providing quality early learning for children. The quality of the relationship between an educator and child during this sensitive period of development is so important - it’s the greatest factor in improving child outcomes.

The  national regulations, which are critical for driving quality, include requirements for centre-based services with over 25 places to engage two degree-qualified teachers by 2020 for at least 6 hours per day if the service operates for more than 50 hours per week. Meeting these requirements will be a huge challenge. Labor acknowledges the need by committing $150 million to support the development the early childhood education workforce. We look forward to hearing how the Coalition proposes to address these workforce issues.

With just under a month to go to the election, there is still plenty of time for more early childhood policies to be announced before the end of this campaign. We stand ready to work with both parties on long-term reform to ensure that children can participate in the high quality early learning experiences that boost their development.

Ros Cornish is National President of Early Childhood Australia, the advocacy organisation for children under 8, their families and early childhood professionals. Ros has more than 30 years experience in the education and care sector and is a member of several government consultative groups.

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