The Debate Surrounding Early Childhood Education: Why It’s an Election Focus
With elections approaching, Australian early childhood education has become a focus. Research shows us that the early years are critical to the learning and development of young children, and having universal access to early childhood education could help pick up Australia’s lagging results as shown in recent NAPLAN testing when compared to other countries. So what does that really mean for our kids?
What are they promising?
In each of the major parties election campaigns, promises have been made about early education.
The main discussion is around the election promise made by the labor party, who recently announced a pledge of an additional AU$1.75 billion in ongoing funding for early education, which would be the biggest investment ever made towards pre primary school learning. This money would largely go towards providing free preschool and kindergarten for all Australian children.
This would have significant positive impacts on our children, who would therefore all have two years of quality play based learning, interacting with other children leading to improved social skills, and potentially better levels of health and wellbeing, as pressure would be taken off parents to pay for childcare all the time.
Meanwhile, the Liberal party has promised to “focus on preschool for four-year-olds”, and will try to get more children from low income, indigenous and rural areas to attend preschool more regularly. THey also claim that labor’s plan is “ill thought through and rushed”, and will “lead to higher taxes”.
Only 15% of Australian children currently participate in pre primary education compared with the OECD average of more than 65%
Why is Early Childhood Education so important?
Children having access to learning environments before going to primary school gives children a real advantage. Play based preschool programs can help children with learning and development as they are taught both subject based skills (maths, science, english etc) as well as social skills like problem solving, confidence, self regulation and conversation skills.
An independent report recently given to education ministers suggested that increasing access for Australian families to preschool would be one of the most impactful decisions they could make. That same report found that “high quality preschool continues to influence outcomes throughout schooling”. In other words, preschool education is important for Australian children for their entire education, not just the first few years of primary school.
It’s also found to significantly reduce the occurrence of special education placements – before attending pre school one in three children were at risk of developing learning difficulties, but after pre school that number dropped to one in five.
22% of children are starting school are considered to be “developmentally vulnerable”
What is the effect of proposed funding?
If labor does get into parliament and get’s the legislation through, disadvantaged children would be one of the groups who would most benefit. With 15 hours of preschool a week paid for, not only will it take pressure off parents to find cheap childcare, but will also improve their results in later schooling. Government funding would also help us rank better internationally. Currently, we rank in the bottom third for participation in early education.
It also benefits us economically, as it’s cheaper to invest in an early learning program and childcare subsidies than to try and fix problems later with young people.
Issues with the Scheme
The first and biggest problem is that currently, we do not have enough qualified early childhood teachers available to meet 15 hours of childcare a week for every Australian child. Early childhood educators have to go through training, and a certificate or diploma is not enough to make them qualified, so while the recent introduction of a number of free TAFE and VET courses is welcome, it won’t do much in terms of actually alleviating pressure on kindergartens and preschools that need high quality, trained teachers.
It’s also a different degree than that which primary teachers undertake, so while there is some room for movement across age groups, realistically the Australian government would need to find a way to get a huge number of adults to register in the degree quickly.
The second problem is what the Coalition are saying – essentially that this is a scheme that hasn’t been actually planned out in terms of logistics and finances. If this is true, then even if labor did get into parliament they may not be able to roll out the scheme to the extent that they’ve promised.
The simple fact is that everyone benefits from additional early childhood education. High quality early learning mean better outcomes for children, more consistently, and offers disadvantaged children opportunities that they may not be able to access otherwise.
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