The future of Australia rests on early education. Early Childhood Australia’s (ECA) National President, Christine Legg talks about children’s early development and why Australia needs to invest in and support a high-quality early childhood education system.
If you imagine a child’s brain as a five-drawer filing cabinet, research indicates that the majority of those drawers are already filled by the time the child turns five. ECA National President, Christine Legg, says this analogy is a powerful illustration of the importance of quality early childhood education.
‘The early years of a child’s life is the optimal time to lay the foundations for learning,’ Legg says. ‘The first five years are crucial at setting them on the path towards lifelong success as an adult. And success isn’t only measured by occupation or income—it’s also about individuals contributing to society as a whole person.’
‘The early years of a child’s life is the optimal time to lay the foundations for learning.’
It is this that made the introduction of the National Quality Framework (NQF) in 2012, one of the most significant reforms for the early education sector across Australia for many decades, so important. The introduction of a national curriculum framework and a single set of national standards based on research and early childhood best practice marked the recognition of the value of quality early education services.
An important component of the NQF is the National Quality Standard (NQS), upon which every early childhood education service in Australia is assessed and ranked, which is designed to ensure positive outcomes for all children.
The NQS was first introduced in 2012 before being revised in February of 2018 and covers seven quality areas including the educational program, the physical environment, children’s health and safety, staffing and governance.
Legg says the sector has benefited enormously.
‘Consider that schools have always had a set curriculum, which means teachers have had a clear understanding of what they need to teach and why, and an idea of expectations from children as a result,’ Legg says. ‘This was the first national standard guiding early childhood educators in all settings.’
It has provided guidance that is matched with the development, interests and ages of the children, and ultimately helps ensure children’s transition to school is smooth.
The NQS and rating system has improved the quality of the teaching experience for the educators and the outcomes for children and their families.
The change has been significant but Legg says outside the sector its significance is not widely understood.
‘It’s frustrating because we do have a really high standard of early education programs in Australia but the amount we invest in childcare compared to other comparative countries is small,’ she says. ‘It’s well documented that Australia has a poor record of investment in early education.’
Despite the plethora of research linking childrens’ brain development, health and wellbeing to quality early childhood education and society as a whole, when the subject of childcare comes up, Legg says the emphasis still tends to sit on workforce participation more than the benefits for children.
‘Workforce participation is obviously important but a good solid early education program really does benefit children,’ Legg says. ‘It is an investment in social capital: in our future.’
‘Workforce participation is obviously important but a good solid early education program really does benefit children.’
The greatest capital any society has lies with its individuals, the people making decisions, and the children who are new generations.
‘We are in a world that is changing very rapidly. The children we have in centres today will go on to have careers that haven’t yet been invented,’ Legg says. ‘Complex thinking skills, having the courage and resilience to think differently, being geared towards solving problems and having the skills to communicate and resolve conflicts will matter.’
Early childhood education helps children master these skills from a young age, while also developing a strong social conscience and an awareness of the environment, their peers and the world around them. The NQF is up for review next year and Legg is adamant that it’s not just the future of educators themselves on the line; the future of the next generation and our society is dependent upon it being continued.
‘There is overwhelming support in the sector for it to continue. To not renew or improve on it would put us back.
Christine Legg became ECA’s National President in September 2018 and is CEO of KU Children Services.