The recent cabinet reshuffle provides ECEC educators and services, children and families with opportunities for holistic development and the advancement of the sector.
I understand why so many early childhood educators are dismayed and disappointed to hear that responsibility for Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) has been transferred from the Education portfolio to the Social Services portfolio. It was nearly three decades after the passage of the Child Care Act 1972 that early childhood education was transferred from the welfare portfolio to the education portfolio. This shift was seen as an important recognition of education being the primary function of ECEC services, and an acknowledgement of early childhood educators as professionals taking their place alongside teachers working in the school systems.
Those working in the ECEC sector have come to expect that everyone will eventually understand the importance of quality early learning programs to young children’s development. The language of ‘education’ is firmly embedded in the professional discourse. There have been debates about whether the term ‘care’ should continue to be used at all but generally it has been retained because young children need both care and education, nurture and rich learning, freedom to play and intentional teaching. This is where early childhood education is different to primary school teaching—there is a role for educators to form relationships with children and families, providing support for holistic development.
Transferring responsibility for ECEC into the social services portfolio, which will be led by Cabinet Minister Morrison, might feel like a retrograde step for many advocates and educators but we should pause and consider the opportunities.
Early childhood development encompasses more than education. We know that parents have the biggest impact on a young child’s wellbeing and long-term development, including education outcomes. We also know that it is critical that parents form a strong attachment with their children very early and get the support they need to provide a stable and loving home. When this occurs children are much more likely to participate in early childhood education and derive benefits from that participation. Indeed, if we can engage with both children and families in these critical early years everyone will benefit—the children, the parents, the broader family network, employers of parents, our society and our economy.
The Prime Minister has explained that early childhood education and care is to be considered as part of a holistic package of support to families—encompassing Paid Parental Leave (PPL) and presumably the child and family payments managed by the Department of Social Services. The Productivity Commission Inquiry provides a unique opportunity to reframe early childhood education and address the current problems with the way it is financed—a complex mesh of subsidies mostly paid to families, some paid to services. There is scope to put children’s outcomes at the centre of reforms and integrate parental leave with early childhood services and the family support program which all have something to contribute to the wellbeing of young children.
I am not suggesting that there should be any reduction in the emphasis on early education and we should tenaciously protect the professional gains that have been made in early childhood education qualifications, quality standards and recognition. One of the difficulties of reforming the subsidy system has always stemmed from disconnect between the policy side in Education and the service delivery arm in Social Services (previously Human Services). In aligning the arms of government responsible for the policy side of subsidies and the service delivery arm, there are some potential opportunities here—this alignment may provide a better chance to deliver improvements to the current subsidy system and to be part of the broader discourse on the needs of children and families, particularly vulnerable children and to be seen as the platform from which a diversity of services and supports can be delivered.
Let’s continue to advocate the importance of quality education programs delivered by qualified educators. Let’s continue to fight for quality standards to be maintained and enhanced over time. Let’s work for professional recognition and decent wages for early childhood educators. We can still do all of this within the Social Services portfolio and we have a new Cabinet Minister who can champion these causes in a new way. Perhaps this is an opportunity not to be missed.