How we can change the discussion on early learning in Australia

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.

Chris Steel'
Chris Steel BA, LLB (ANU) is Policy and Research Manager at Early Childhood Australia. Before coming to ECA, Chris worked as a policy adviser on early childhood and youth to the Australian Government and ACT Government covering the implementation of the National Quality Agenda and Government Child Care Assistance. Chris is currently a Director on the Board of YMCA Canberra.

5 thoughts on “How we can change the discussion on early learning in Australia”

    Gael Nash says:

    Thanks Chris – some other important issues need to be addressed:
    1. improved wages and conditions for teachers and educators
    2. stricter legislation in the private sector to ensure profits are used within the centre for children and not lining the pockets of the owners.

    3. Stop referring to the sector as Childcare.

    4. Overhaul the private VET system. Increased checks to ensure students are getting quality Cert 111 and Diploma training.

    Chris Steel says:

    Language is really important. There’s probably a future blog post to be written on the language of child care/early childhood education and care. Constantly implying the first five years requires baby sitting to the exclusion of learning is not helpful.

    On the wages issue – as well as any policy that requires substantial investment, it’s a bit of chicken and egg. Which comes first? public investment in quality ECEC or public support for investment in ECEC? Both are important. Perhaps the answer here is a bit of both at the same time.

    Lisa Bryant says:

    Great article Chris! And I love the line (and may plagiarise it)”Birth to five years is not simply a waiting room for later life.” But even with these tools, how hard is it to get the communication right? I am partially guided when I write by an adage from public education advocate Jane Caro who says explaining something never changes anyone’s mind – the only things that do are fear and hope. We need to tap into Australian’s hope for the future and fear of what will happen if our children do not have access to affordable high quality education and care to change the mind of the community and politicians understanding of the importance of it.

    Chris Steel says:

    Happy for you to use it. Crisis is one of the things our sector is good at talking about – but its negativity rarely shifts the ground in the way we want it to. I would prefer to talk about the benefits – and as you say, why it is important for us all.

    Fantastic article Chris. We need to be a lot smarter and more strategic with our advocacy. We seem to be assuming that because the evidence and data is out there the argument will win itself.

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