Children under five deserve a legal right to access early childhood services

In many countries children under five have a legal right to access early childhood education and care services and Australia needs to do the same, and SA Premier Jay Weatherill’s proposal is worth considering, writes Samantha Page, CEO of Early Childhood Australia.

This week a range of service providers discussed the idea of a ‘service guarantee’ across housing, health and education at an ACOSS forum ‘Policy Pulse 2015’.

This is not a new idea in early childhood education, at least overseas.

Eighteen OECD countries encourage access through a legal right to early learning for all or certain groups of children.

As the OECD states – ‘legal entitlements and free provision fosters participation’.  Chapter 4 of the Starting Strong framework recommends ‘universal provision’, in effect a legal entitlement to early learning.

Australia does not provide an entitlement or free access– except in certain jurisdictions like the ACT which provides one year of free preschool.

Without this level of support, it’s no wonder that Australia lags behind the rest of the developed world on children’s participation in early childhood education.

3 year olds

New figures from the Education at a Glance 2015 Report released this week confirm that only around 62% of Australian three year olds access early childhood education across both preschool and child care settings.

Australia’s poor participation levels mean that we miss out on the considerable benefits of two years of early learning which we know amplifies students’ educational outcomes.

As a result, South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill and other State Premiers and Education Ministers are now seriously looking at extending access to early childhood education.

Premier Weatherill is proposing national reform at COAG to extend preschool to disadvantaged three year olds only.

As reported in The Australian: “South Australia’s plan involves three key elements: an ongoing preschool funding deal with the federal government where all children will be entitled to the same level of funding; a change to the subsidy rules and removal of  barriers that prevent preschools from offering care outside preschool hours; and the ability for states and territories to reinvest any savings into early childhood services for the disadvantaged.”

Extending early childhood services to three year olds benefits  children. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare recently concluded in a literature review that there is ‘general agreement regarding positive developmental outcomes for all children from around 3 years taking part in ECEC programs, provided the ECEC service is of sufficiently high quality.’

But these benefits carry over to families and to the whole community as fewer children face learning problems and achieve better results in school and in life.

Australian studies show that  children who attend a high quality early childhood program in the year before school are up to 40% ahead of their peers by the time they reach year three in school.

The question is not whether we should provide guaranteed access to early childhood services, but how can extended access be delivered. What is the ‘reform pathway’?

Most children access early childhood education in long day care centres, not stand alone preschools or kindergartens.

Perhaps ACOSS’ idea of service guarantees is the way forward.

Children could, for example, be guaranteed two days of early learning. Territory and Commonwealth Governments could be held accountable in delivering this entitlement.

As long as the quality elements of a ‘preschool program’ were established – the two days could be delivered across a range of settings.

The reform pathway must give sufficient consideration to the interface with Australian Government financing instruments, specifically the Child Care Subsidy.

Any additional support for hours beyond the two days guarantee could be supported through the subsidy system (which supports workforce participation objectives).

The States and the Commonwealth can cooperate to make this outcome a reality. It is now a matter of political will, and so far states like South Australia are leading the way.

Two days of early learning will not only guarantee that Australia’s investment in quality early learning will amplify all children’s development, particularly at school, but boost Australia’s long term prosperity, from which everyone stands to benefit.

 

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Sam Page

Samantha Page is the CEO of Early Childhood Australia (ECA), the national peak advocacy organisation for children under eight, their families and professionals in the field of early childhood development and education. ECA was established in 1938 and works with Government, early childhood professionals, parents, other carers of young children, and various lobby groups to advocate to ensure quality, social justice and equity in all issues relating to the education and care of children from birth to eight years. ECA is a not-for-profit membership based organisation. It also has a successful retail and publishing arm, producing a number of very well regarded subscription based publications including the Australian Journal of Early Childhood. Samantha holds a Master’s Degree in (Community) Management from the University of Technology, Sydney and she is a Graduate of the Company Directors course offered by the Australian Institute of Company Directors. Her passion is for social equality and she has worked in the non-government sector for 20 years across roles encompassing service delivery, executive management, consulting, social policy analysis and advocacy. She has extensive experience in the development and implementation of social policy and sector development projects.

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