In Australia everyone has an expectation that children go to school. The benefits of school education are undisputed (except on the fringes) for children, society and the economy.
Not many people would suggest that more, and less expensive, school places should be made available by freeing up restrictions on who can run schools, or teach in them, and relaxing regulations on the quality of the education that schools offer. Instead the reverse is true.
In school education there is a strong discourse among policy makers, parents and the general public on how best to increase quality: school quality, teacher quality, and funding to improve student outcomes, particularly for disadvantaged children.
Why isn’t this the case for early learning in Australia?
In early learning private matters dominate the discussion.
The affordability, availability and flexibility for families often seems to overshadow all else. While these are not small issues, if children’s education above the age of five years was seen to be simply a private choice about family capacity and willingness to opt in, where would school education be?
Quality is rarely a focus in media discussion, except insofar as it affects child care fees.
It’s no wonder that Australia has low participation rates of children in early childhood education and care compared with other OECD countries, and there is little understanding or appreciation of quality, particularly early childhood teacher and educator quality, and how it affects children’s outcomes.
There is also a low appreciation in the general public of the importance of quality early childhood education and care.
Communicating effectively with the community on the importance of quality in early childhood learning is vital to improving public debate and finding support for further investment in this critical area by government.
The Norwegian experience shows that it is possible to have an early childhood education and care system where there is an expectation (and legal right) that all children have access to quality early learning. Professionals that work with children are valued.Parents also still pay (income linked) fees as they do in Australia. Not surprisingly the system is also well funded by government.
So how can we change the discussion in Australia?
Communication, as well as policy, is a major part of the solution.
As a policy analyst I am as guilty as others in our sector in not communicating effectively on early childhood development in the work that we do.
This was brought home to me last week when the Frameworks Institute presented findings from its social research project, which Early Childhood Australia has co-funded over the past year.
These responses from interviews with the general public are something we all hear whenever we communicate about early childhood development.
The answer is less about changing people’s views about children or early childhood development, and more about moving the discussion into a more productive space.
The early childhood sector must start to use evidence based communication tools that appeal to similar values of school education.
We have to make early childhood education and care a public and collective priority, not just about individual issues— as important for the individuals as these may be.
It is about Australia’s future prosperity.
It is not enough to just present the evidence, or more of it.
We have to tell the story about how quality early learning for all children amplifies their development and how that benefits Australia’s future prosperity.
Australia can have similar expectations about participation in early learning, as we do for school education.
The Universal Access program has started to shift parent expectations that children attend preschool in the year before school. As a result the program has also been highly successful in improving the preschool participation rates of children.
Unfortunately, in selling the program, policy makers have also had to link the program to the well recognised virtue of schools—by using language that focuses on school readiness or transition to school to explain why it is important for children.
Children are fully human at all ages. Birth to five years is not simply a waiting room for later life. The early childhood education and care of young children is a virtue in itself, despite the link to school education.
Let’s get the communication right and explain clearly why early learning benefits everyone.
Further information about communicating on early childhood development can be found here.